SoCal cities debate the pros and cons of police oversight models

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A number of Southern California communities are weighing the effectiveness of different oversight models for law enforcement.

In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors is debating how much power a new citizens oversight board should have as a watchdog for the Sheriff’s Department.

In Pasadena, the city council has decided to study which model of oversight it should adopt in the wake of the 2012 fatal police shooting of Kendrec McDade.

Orange County's Board of Supervisors is trying to determine whether to stick with its citizen oversight of the Sheriff's Department or opt for a different approach.

These discussions are increasingly common as one controversial police killing after another makes national headlines.

"I personally believe that the public has absolutely come to expect that there will be independent and transparent oversight of law enforcement in the United States of America today,” Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at a meeting last month on which model of sheriff's department oversight the county should adopt

Local governments tend to agree to some form of oversight after controversial incidents like fatal police shootings or corruptions scandals,  said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The Los Angeles Inspector General, part of the civilian L.A. Police Commission that oversees the LAPD, was a byproduct of the Christopher Commission investigation into the police beating of Rodney King.

In Fullerton, the outrage over the 2011 death of Kelly Thomas following a police beating led the city to contract with an outside police auditor.

More than 200 models

There are more than 200 models of police oversight to choose from; experts group them roughly into three categories: citizen review boards, police monitors and inspectors general.

After fatal police shootings in Anaheim sparked protests, riots and calls for oversight, the city council responded by creating the Anaheim Public Safety Board, a citizen review board.

"It was born out of this kind of vague idea that we wanted people to have a voice but not with a lot of specifics so it's been left to our board to ... kind of develop an agenda of our own," said Public Safety Board chairman Thomas Dunn.

The Public Safety Board reviews the police department’s budget and policies on such things as the use of force and in-custody deaths. It receives briefings on critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings, and it has been briefed on how Anaheim police are using body cameras. It provides similar oversight for the Anaheim Fire Department.

Although Dunn is optimistic about the board’s potential to trigger reform, he admits it's only an advisory board.

"We really aren’t exercising oversight," said Dunn. "If we find something wrong, we as a board have no power to fix it or to order anybody to do anything."

This lack of power is the main issue cited by critics of the citizens review board model. Another is that citizens appointed to these boards may not have legal or technical training in law enforcement or civil rights.

A "preconceived agenda?"

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said through his executive officer that he is concerned members of a new citizens oversight board would have a "preconceived agenda."

It’s a view shared by Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has expressed concern that people appointed to a board by elected officials might feel obligated to pursue specific agendas or policies.  

"They can feel compelled to politically support that particular ideology as opposed to being fair and impartial in terms of looking at the policing," she said.

Setting up oversight of sheriffs in California is tricky, since they are independently elected officials who are not accountable to county boards of supervisors (except via the county budget) or citizen review boards, even ones that would have subpoena powers.

In addition, California law protects personnel records of law enforcement officers from most public disclosure and blocks access to investigative records, so experts say it's critical to persuade sheriffs and other law enforcement leaders to cooperate with oversight boards. 

"Great oversight happens when you have a cooperative relationship," said O.C. Sheriff Hutchens. "You certainly have to have a sheriff that’s listening."

The monitor: favored by chiefs and sheriffs

The body overseeing the O.C. Sheriff’s Department, the Office of Independent Review, is an example of the police monitor model, an approach favored by many police chiefs and sheriffs.

The Office of Independent Review oversees investigations and advises Hutchens on whether and how deputies should be disciplined.

Police monitors or auditors, though separate from law enforcement, often get access to personnel records and internal documents because they agree to keep them confidential. 

Fullerton, Westminster, Burbank and Anaheim have each hired attorney Michael Gennaco to be the monitor of their departments. Before it was eliminated, he headed the L.A. County Office of Independent Review, which monitored the sheriff's department. 

Cities contract with Gennaco to conduct systemic reviews, such as evaluating a year’s worth of internal police investigations, and to offer suggestions on how a police department can improve. 

"The work that we do varies," he said. "Sometimes it’s real time oversight but I think most of the time it’s historical, after the fact."

That has frustrated Orange County supervisors, who have questioned how a police monitor like the Office of Independent Review could be both independent of the sheriff’s department and a confidential advisor to the sheriff.

"Give me a catchy name"

During a budget meeting on whether to defund the Office, O.C. Supervisor Shawn Nelson warned against being swayed by surface appearances. "Give me a catchy name and I'll just feel better," he said.

The inspector general, the third model of oversight for law enforcement, typically has more power. 

Also separate from law enforcement, it can conduct its own investigations and often has subpoena powers, although not always. The L.A. County Inspector General does not.

Police experts say inspectors general need large staffs, budgets and political support to conduct effective investigations. 

Buchner of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement said hybrid police oversight models are trending now, especially combinations of police monitors or inspectors general with citizens review boards.

Anaheim is an example of this: In addition to its citizen review panel, the Public Safety Board, the city contracts with Gennaco to audit and oversee internal investigations as a monitor. The Los Angeles Police Department is overseen by the civilian L.A. Police Commission and an inspector general’s office.

Buchner said there’s no consensus among police oversight experts about what is the perfect model or combination. More research is needed, he said.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has recommended that the federal justice department fund more research on civilian police oversight models.

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