LA County supervisors disagree over how to hold sheriff's department more accountable

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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L.A. County supervisors Tuesday quarreled over a proposal to establish a civilian commission to oversee the embattled L.A. County Sheriff's Department. 

"The sheriff's department is too important to leave unattended," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who cosponsored the proposal.

The sheriff's department has been plagued by accusations of excessive force by deputies in the county jails. A blue ribbon panel tasked with investigating the allegations found that high level officials in the department failed to correct deputy behavior and tolerated a culture of violence in the jails. The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice both have open investigations into the agency.

Ridley-Thomas said the board of supervisors lacks the time to effectively take the sheriff to task on such allegations – something a civilian commission devoted to the department could more easily do.

But Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who opposes the plan, said any commission would be too weak to accomplish anything real. Unlike police chiefs in L.A. County, the sheriff is an elected official, constitutionally accountable to the voters, but not other elected or appointed officials.

A civilian commission, Yaroslavsky said, would be nothing more than a "soap box." 

"Ultimately, it's the board of supervisor's job to hold the sheriff accountable," Yaroslavsky said. "Even we have trouble."

The board is also in the process of hiring an inspector general to monitor the sheriff's department and issue reports to the board – a task some supervisors believe should be completed before launching an additional oversight mechanism.

But Supervisor Gloria Molina, who also sponsored the call for civilian oversight, said the transparency afforded by a devoted oversight body would benefit the public.

She said the public is less aware than it should be of the details of misconduct by deputies, most of which, by state law, is kept confidential. She said the liability numbers from the first half of the past fiscal year are telling.

"We paid out $25 million in six months," for legal settlements involving the sheriff's department Molina said. "And we do it behind closed doors, because we have to."

A chart compiled by her office shows $12.6 million was paid out between July 2012 to December 2012 for excessive force cases, though the vast majority ($10.5 million) were cases involving deputies on patrol assignments rather than in the jails.

Sheriff Lee Baca, who attended the meeting, said afterwards that such numbers are comparable to those in other major law enforcement agencies. 

A report earlier this year by the LAPD's Inspector General found the City of L.A. paid out $110 million in lawsuits and settlements involving the department between 2006-2012. Police professional liability, which includes excessive force, accounted for $44 million of that total. 

"I think that criticism is critical to any public office," the sheriff said of Molina's sharp comments.

Baca pointed out that the sheriff's department already has an independent oversight body – the Office of Independent Review (OIR) – established over a decade ago. (Critics, like the ACLU of Southern California, argue the OIR has been largely ineffective.)

As for an additional oversight body, Baca said he's "open."

Supervisors are scheduled to vote on the proposal October 8.