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Activists say citizen oversight needed at LA Sheriff’s Department

Various problems at the LA County Jails have resulted in a call for a citizen's commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department.
Various problems at the LA County Jails have resulted in a call for a citizen's commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in LA Jails has proposed creating a nine-member citizens oversight body to watchdog the troubled Sheriff’s Department, similar to the civilian police commission that oversees the LAPD.

“We must have comprehensive oversight,” said coalition executive director Patrisse Cullors at a Monday press conference. “We’ve seen decades of abuse.”

A federal grand jury has indicted 20 deputies in a wide-ranging corruption and civil rights probe. In 2012, the ad hoc Citizens Commission on Jail Violence found a “persistent pattern of unreasonable force” by sheriff’s deputies against inmates.  The report said the problem “dates back many years” and blamed former Sheriff Lee Baca and his former undersheriff Paul Tanaka. 

But that panel stopped short of recommending the creation of a permanent citizens commission, saying such a decision should be left to the Board of Supervisors. However, two prominent members of the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence joined Monday's press conference to add their support. 

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina have proposed creating such an oversight panel. But their colleagues Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky appear reluctant to go along. They have said they first want to see how the newly-created office of  inspector general works out and they worry a new panel would have little authority.

The county sheriff is an elected post so the person in that position is ultimately only responsible to voters. The supervisors have no authority to hire or fire the sheriff and neither would an oversight commission.

As part of their recommendation, the coalition is urging the board of supervisors to give a new citizen’s panel subpoena powers.  Its unclear if the board has the authority to do that. The group’s proposal would also require the sheriff to respond publicly and in writing to the panel, which would oversee the inspector general. The inspector general now reports to the board of supervisors.

It’s unclear whether a newly constituted board would support such a panel after this year’s elections. Molina and Yaroslavsky are termed out of office in December.

An independent citizen’s commission would ensure a “bright spotlight remains on the Sheriff’s Department,” said Miriam Krinsky, who served as executive director of the jail violence board. She said progress had been made in reducing the use of force against inmates, but deeper cultural change in the department has not taken hold.

A “lingering dark cloud” remains over the department and many in L.A.’s ethnic communities still don’t trust the agency, she said. The Rev. Cecil Murray, who chaired the citizen's commission, joined Krinsky at the news conference to support the plan.

Students from the UCLA School of Law International Human Rights Clinic prepared a report in support of the creation of a citizen’s commission. The report states that the board of supervisors is not up to the task of overseeing the massive Sheriff’s Department.

The reports says the supervisors “have acknowledged, given their vast array of duties and inherently political nature of their members and function, they are not the appropriate body” to oversee the department.

Under the proposal, each of the five members of the board would appoint one commission member. “Local justice systems” – presumably the courts – would appoint two members.  The final two members would be selected by the other panelists from a list of five names submitted by agreement of local community advocacy groups.