Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff's civilian oversight panel gets mixed reviews

Photo vis conner395 via Flickr Creative Commons

When the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted a year ago to create the first-ever civilian panel to monitor the troubled L.A. Sheriff’s Department, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said a new era had begun.

"This commission is going to be a game-changer in the county," she told a news conference packed with activists with a long list of complaints about the nation’s largest sheriff’s agency.

One year later, the biggest question that dominated debate surrounding the creation of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission remains: Can the panel effectively influence Sheriff Jim McDonnell when it's just an advisory body without the power to compel him to act on issues confronting his department?

Supervisors had resisted the idea of civilian oversight for decades, and established the commission only after a federal investigation led to the conviction of 20 officials for brutality against jail inmates, corruption and other charges. Former Sheriff Lee Baca was the last to fall when a jury found him guilty of obstruction of justice.

The fact that nine civilians now hold monthly meetings where they are able to quiz sheriff’s officials about various policies and members of the public are able to voice their opinions is significant. Previous watchdogs did most of their work in private.

The panel is diverse. Its chair is a former federal judge who once ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Other members include a rabbi, a former sheriff’s deputy, a former deputy district attorney and a former public defender. It has a staff of seven but can use the county’s Inspector General’s Office to investigate issues.

"This is a good group of people," said activist Marc Anthony Johnson, who was one of the most vocal in saying the sheriff needed outside civilian oversight.

"We...got more transparency"

During its first year of work, the panel looked at a range of issues, from the sheriff’s use of drones to his desire to hand over to the district attorney a list of deputies who had engaged in misconduct that might raise questions about their credibility.

Pushing McDonnell to release more information about deputy-involved shootings and other issues was one of the panel’s most significant achievements, said chair Robert Bonner.

"He may very well have done it anyway," he said. "But I do think we nudged that forward and got more transparency on the sheriff’s department website than otherwise would have been the case."

Some panel members also commended McDonnell for providing a lot of information on his much lauded mental health evaluation teams. 

The sheriff said he appreciated the input on transparency, as well as the commission’s decision to file an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court supporting his legal fight to hand the list of deputies with misconduct issues to the DA. He's also asked the panel to weigh in on how the department should deploy body cameras.

"It’s been a vehicle for us to share information with diverse communities across L.A. County as well as for them to share concerns they hear," McDonnell said.  At the same time, he said he already knew the concerns of L.A. residents.

"It was a validation of what we knew," the sheriff said of a series of community town halls hosted by the panel.

Disputes over drones and rape policy

McDonnell's use of drones illustrates the challenges facing the commission. An ad hoc committee studied law enforcement’s use of drones and recommended a series of restrictions.

Then in the face of vocal criticism by drone opponents, the full commission voted 5-4 in September to call on McDonnell to ground his pilot drone program. He refused, saying they're a valuable tool in search and rescue operations and in identifying the location of armed, barricaded suspects.

"I value greatly the commission and the input they give, but they are not a policy-making body," McDonnell said in rejecting the panel's recommendation.

Under the California Constitution, sheriffs are elected officials. That is a far cry from the situation under the Los Angeles City Charter, which has the mayor select the chief of the LAPD and the five-member police commission sets policy for the department.

The sheriff's oversight panel bumped up against its political limitations when it tried to play a role in shaping rape prevention policy. 

When panel members expressed concerns the sheriff may be dragging his feet on implementing the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and asked for the draft policy, McDonnell said he would finalize it with senior staff and the deputy’s union as required by the labor contract. In other words, he cut the commission out of the process.

"I think there is an effort by some to try to go beyond the scope of what they were intended to be," McDonnell said. "I will respectfully push back on that."

"We are sort of flying blind sometimes"

The commission has the ability to ask county Inspector General Max Huntsman to look into an issue, and he has an agreement with the sheriff to obtain almost all confidential documents.

But members of the civilian panel should get access to proposed policies so that it can weigh in, said Loyola Law School Professor Priscilla Ocen, who sits on the commission.  

"We need something to change," she said. "Either the sheriff needs to be more forthcoming with the information or we need to restructure the authority the civilian oversight commission has."

"We are sort of flying blind sometimes," she added.

The working group appointed by the board of supervisors to set up the civilian panel recommended it have subpoena power so it could compel sheriff’s officials and others to provide information. But McDonnell staunchly opposed that idea, and the supervisors sided with him.

But subpoena power would only go so far, said commission chair Bonner.

"The problem isn’t subpoena power," he said. "The problem is the Police Officer Bill of Rights" – California’s tough restrictions on which police documents the public can see. There’s little chance of that changing, given the police union’s powerful lobby in Sacramento.

The coming year will be crucial for the success of civilian oversight, said Bonner, who believes the panel should focus on issues that prompted its creation in the first place: use of force, discipline and the proper treatment of jail inmates. Then, he said, the commission should produce thoroughly researched and thoughtful recommendations.

"If we do that, I am optimistic that we will be a meaningful force for reform at the Sheriff’s Department," he said. "If we do not do that, I think we are likely to be meaningless and irrelevant."

"We are not a cheerleader for the department"

Focus is a challenge for civilian panels across the country, said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "That’s a constant criticism of civilian oversight – the fact that the goals are never fully defined."

But he also described most such commissions as "paper tigers" with little ability to influence reform.

Many are concerned good reports and recommendations from the panel won’t be enough, including lawyer Melanie Ochoa of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It is true that more information is always going to be useful in policy making," Ochoa said. "But if you are trying to change an intransigent Sheriff’s Department, then that is not enough."

She said she's looking to the board of supervisors to be a more vocal backer of the panel in its second year and to even use its power of the purse to persuade McDonnell to follow key recommendations on discipline and use of force.

For McDonnell, he’d like to see a more supportive civilian oversight panel.

"There’s a tendency to look for things that are not going right," he said. "But I think there is also an opportunity to highlight what is being done well."

The sheriff said he would also like to see the commission recommend that the board of supervisors give him more money to hire deputies and fund other priorities.

"We are not a cheerleader for the department," Bonner said. "But if he can make a case to us that more resources would improve a certain area, we might support that."

Activist Marc Anthony Johnson, formerly of the watchdog group Dignity and Power Now, said he remains "hopeful" about the panel’s future. "It's creating a culture in which the department can’t hide as easily behind its closed doors," he said.

At the same time, the board of supervisors must give the commission subpoena power or some other authority  to avoid it becoming "window dressing," Johnson argued.