Should civilians have subpoena power over the sheriff's department?

Sheriff’s Captain Chris Bergner (left), who is overseeing the investigation into the killing of 16-year-old Anthony Weber by a deputy, is confronted in February by the boy’s older brother John Weber during an emergency town hall sponsored by the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.
Sheriff’s Captain Chris Bergner (left), who is overseeing the investigation into the killing of 16-year-old Anthony Weber by a deputy, is confronted in February by the boy’s older brother John Weber during an emergency town hall sponsored by the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Community activists in Los Angeles plan to launch a campaign Saturday that would give subpoena power to the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission. The nine-member panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors and created in the wake of the jail abuse scandal is currently advisory only.
 
“The commission needs legal powers so that the sheriff’s department actually takes it seriously,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told KPCC. “It will also give the community real accountability.”
 
Cullors said she believes Sheriff Jim McDonnell takes the commission seriously, but she “highly doubts” his deputies do.

Their push comes a time of increasing efforts to increase transparency into law enforcement personnel issues.

Cullors and fellow activists say the civilian commission needs to be empowered to be effective.

They aim to gather 150,000 signatures by June 11 to qualify the initiative, known as the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative, for the November ballot.

That measure would give the commission the ability to compel the sheriff to provide documents and testimony on a range of issues, including use of force by deputies and the provision of mental health care inside the jails.

Loyola Law School Professor Priscilla Ocen, who sits on the commission, said the sheriff's department has delayed handing over documents related to sexual assault complaints by jail inmates and other matters. Subpoena power would force the sheriff to hand over such documents in a timely fashion and to testify before the panel, she said.
 
“It wouldn’t be at the pleasure of the sheriff’s department to cooperate or not,” Ocen said. Subpoena power would be used only "as a last resort," she added. 
 
“Members of a Civilian Oversight Board need to have unfettered access to Sheriff’s Department records, policies, and facilities,” Commissioner Heather Miller said in a statement.
 
McDonnell has denied his department has delayed handing over documents and said any confidential information that he’s withheld from the commission is accessible by the county’s inspector general.
 
The sheriff opposes giving the panel any power.
 
“The voters of Los Angeles County have entrusted me to oversee their Sheriff’s Department,” McDonnell said in a statement. Giving it subpoena power “would diminish the purpose of the COC [Civilian Oversight Commission] as a bridge to the community.”
 
Not all members of the commission believe they need subpoena power. Former federal judge Robert Bonner, who chairs the panel, said while there have been some delays in getting some information the sheriff has never refused to hand over non-confidential documents.
 
“It just hasn’t happened,” said Bonner, who said he is not speaking for the commission. He added he’s not opposed to getting subpoena power. 
 
Bonner noted that subpoena power would not give the panel access to records related to the discipline of deputies and investigations into use of force, which are confidential under California’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights.
 
That could change under Skinner's bill, which would make public all records involving police shootings and other major uses of force.

If the measure makes it onto the ballot and succeeds, it would also require a study of how $3.5 billion planned for a new downtown jail could instead be diverted to reduce the inmate population.
 
“Instead of investing $3.5 billion into building more jails, we should be investing in youth programs, quality public education, and affordable housing to keep people out of jail,” said Mark-Anthony Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate