Sheriff’s oversight panel ponders what needs fixing

Amid a national debate over policing, a new civilian oversight commission is asking what are the most pressing issues at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department – the nation’s largest sheriff’s agency.

The creation of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission in January prompted high hopes for reform at the department. But the nine-member panel so far has bounced around a wide range of issues, lacking focus, said chairman Robert Bonner.

"We want to make sure that we know what we’re talking about when we issue a report and we make recommendations," Bonner told KPCC.

Any recommendations should be "serious, thoughtful and sober," he said.

Without credible reports, the panel flirts with irrelevance because it has no formal authority over the elected sheriff – only the bully pulpit.

At its monthly meeting Thursday, the commission considered meeting more often. Commissioners also began discussing which issues are most important to address at the sheriff’s department.

Among them:

  • Is the department complying with its own policies restricting interaction with federal immigration authorities as President Trump seeks to deport more people?
  • How well is the department dealing with use of force – is the training sufficient? Are investigations into deputy-involved shootings adequate? How can the agency reduce the number of shootings? This issue is of particular importance to Bonner, a former federal judge who once ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He believes it’s a big reason the commission was created and that the panel could influence use of force by deputies "in ways that have the potentiality for reducing and maybe even dramatically reducing the unnecessary and excessive use of force."
  • How should the department deal with the legalization of recreational marijuana in California?
  • When does the sheriff’s department plan to issues body cameras to deputies, and what will the policies be regarding when to turn them on and when to provide body cam videos to the public?
  • How well is the sheriff’s complaint process working? The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Youth Justice Coalition and Dignity and Power Now last month told the commission that deputies at some stations and inside the jails discourage complaints.
  • How often are inmates sexually assaulted inside the jails and what is the department doing about it?
  • How can sheriff's deputies more humanely interact with people with mental illness - inside the jails and on the streets?
  • Should the department fly unmanned drones, and if so, under what restrictions?
  • Does the department adequately staff its internal affairs bureau, which investigates allegations of misconduct by deputies?
  • How long are new deputies assigned as guards inside L.A. County jails? Lengthy jail assignments of two and more years in the past have prompted concerns deputies may be more inclined to use force in the field because they’ve spent so much time interacting with people convicted and accused of crimes.
  • Are patrol deputies sufficiently practicing courtesy and professionalism with residents?
  • Should the commission weigh in on proposals to change L.A. County’s bail system so that poor people who are not a flight risk or threat to the community don’t have to post bail?
  • Should the commission lobby for subpoena power for itself?

The commission came to no conclusions on these questions Thursday. It will resume its discussion at its July meeting.

"I don't think we've gone through the process of finding out what people want us to focus on," said Commission Hernan Vera. He suggested the panel wait on deciding priorities until it completes a series of town halls later this year.

The commission’s executive director, Brian Williams, suggested the group also look at collaborating with other agencies, such as the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections, which explores how to improve conditions for incarcerated juveniles, men and women in L.A. County.

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