Crime & Justice

Who's watching the police? The state of civilian oversight in Southern California

Two efforts are under way in Los Angeles County to assert more civilian oversight of law enforcement.
Two efforts are under way in Los Angeles County to assert more civilian oversight of law enforcement.
Christopher Okula/KPCC file photo

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When Sacramento police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark last month, the city’s Community Police Review Commission watched and listened to the fallout. The 11-member panel is advisory only, so it could do little more.

When Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies failed to find a gun allegedly carried by an African-American teenager they killed in South L.A. in February, the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission conducted an emergency town hall. That gathering ended with people shouting down a detective investigating the shooting. The panel, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, wasn’t able to do much more because it too is advisory.

In Pasadena, there is no civilian oversight panel. So when two police officers were seen on videotape breaking the leg of a black teenager who allegedly was resisting arrest in November, angry residents packed a city council meeting to denounce the officers. Their comments took up most of the meeting but the council soon moved on to other matters.

[VIDEO: Altadena man files claim after Pasadena police break his leg]

Civilian oversight has been among the reforms demanded by Black Lives Matter and other groups seeking more transparency and accountability when officers use force. At the same time, police unions and many chiefs and sheriffs have pushed back, wary of oversight from people outside of the profession who may not understand law enforcement.

Protesters at Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters rally to express their anger over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed homeless man on March 3, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Protesters at Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters rally to express their anger over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed homeless man on March 3, 2015 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

In California, relatively few law enforcement departments have civilian oversight. Where it is in place, nearly all are advisory. Those include panels in Long Beach, Riverside and Anaheim.

The most robust oversight is in San Francisco, where the panel both sets policy and decides discipline for officers. The L.A. Police Commission is also one of the most powerful. Under the city charter, it oversees the LAPD by setting policy. Still, the police chief retains control over day-to-day operations, including discipline.

Now, two efforts are under way in Los Angeles County to assert more civilian oversight of law enforcement. Here's a look at where those efforts stand:

Oversight of the sheriff's department

The newly formed Reform L.A. Jails Coalition has launched a signature-gathering effort to place on the November ballot an initiative that would give subpoena power to the commission that oversees the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. 

Some panel members say the sheriff’s department has delayed providing information on issues, including data on inmate complaints of sexual assaults. That makes it harder for the panel to engage in effective oversight, said Loyola Law School Associate Professor Priscilla Ocen.

“Subpoena power will enable us to require the Sheriff’s Department to divulge information,” said Ocen, one of nine panel members. “It will allow the community to ask important questions and to demand answers.”

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy stands in front of an empty cell at Men's Central Jail.
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy stands in front of an empty cell at Men's Central Jail.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Sheriff Jim McDonnell has denied the department delayed providing documents. He also has said some information is confidential and available only to county Inspector General Max Huntsman, including disciplinary records. The sheriff has agreed to give Huntsman wide access to discipline and other records, video footage from squad cars and the jails, and investigatory files including witness interviews.

Supporters of the initiative said McDonnell or any future sheriff could terminate that agreement at any time.

What's the backstory?

The Board of Supervisors created the panel more than a year ago after a federal investigation found deputies were beating jail inmates and department leaders were covering it up. The scandal led to the conviction of more than 20 sheriff’s officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca

Decades after he first put on a sheriff's deputy star former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of directing deputies in 2011 to hide an informant from FBI agents who were investigating the abuse of inmates in the county jails.
Decades after he first put on a sheriff's deputy star former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was convicted of directing deputies in 2011 to hide an informant from FBI agents who were investigating the abuse of inmates in the county jails.
Grant Slater/KPCC file photo

But the board rejected a recommendation to ask voters to give the commission subpoena power. If it were to have any “teeth,” the panel would need the ability to compel the sheriff to produce documents and call witnesses to testify at meetings, said Dean Hansell, a former L.A. Police Commissioner who chaired the board’s working group that designed the commission.

The group’s relationship with the sheriff should be more cooperative than adversarial, supervisors said, agreeing with Sheriff Jim McDonnell. At the time, they said, the issue could be revisited.

McDonnell said in a statement Friday that the panel should not have authority over him.

“I believe our residents recognize the complexities of modern law enforcement in such a large, diverse community and prefer that ultimate responsibility remain with an experienced law enforcement professional,” he said.

The debate in Pasadena

Calls for civilian oversight in Pasadena grew after an officer fatally shot Kendrec McDade in 2012 while responding to reports of a man with a gun. The call was fake and the African American teenager was not armed. An independent report found serious problems with the officer’s tactics and the Pasadena Police Department’s investigation of the incident.

More recently, demands for more oversight grew after the city released body camera video of officers beating Christopher Ballew, 21. The video shows Ballew pulling away from officers as they try to handcuff him. A scuffle ensues as one officer wrestles with Ballew and the other repeatedly swings his metal baton at Ballew’s leg, breaking it.

The incident outraged many in the city.

Brandon Lamar, who stands 6'2
Brandon Lamar, who stands 6'2" and weighs 305, laughs when he recalls the time Pasadena police stopped him as a possible burglar who was crawling through windows. "“I know I can’t fit into nobody’s window - no way," said Lamar, who is among those calling for a civilian panel to monitor the police after two officers broke the leg of a 21-year-old African American man after he allegedly resisted arrest at this Mobile gas station.
Frank Stoltze

“We can see it happen in Ferguson, we can see it happen in Texas, but when it happens in our own backyard, it hits home,” said Brandon Lamar, a police watchdog with the NAACP who sits on the city’s Human Relations Commission.

The beating happened a few blocks from the Pentecostal church his grandmother founded and where Lamar, 24, now preaches.

“Now we need to do something,” he said as he stood in the parking lot of the Mobile Gas Station on Fair Oaks Avenue where the beating happened during a traffic stop.

What watchdogs want

Lamar has joined a cadre of police watchdogs calling for the creation of a civilian police panel that might be advisory at first – “at least giving voice to the community.” 

The city council’s public safety committee, which reviews police activity, doesn’t provide that voice, he said.

After a police officer shot and killed McDade, an independent report commissioned by the city recommended the creation of a police advisory panel. That was three years ago. The same report also recommended the city hire an auditor who would conduct investigations.

A divided city council rejected the idea amid opposition from the police union and Chief Phillip Sanchez, who has announced his early retirement effective April 18 amid the Ballew and other controversies.

Why didn't they go forward?

Opponents pointed to surveys that show many in Pasadena think the police are mostly doing a fine job – especially those living in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Robin Salzer is among those who oppose creating a civilian oversight panel. It’s not that he thinks the Ballew beating was OK.

“It was pathetic to watch,” said Salzer as he sat at a table inside Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ, the restaurant he owns in the eastern part of the city. “It was something you thought went away with Rodney King 25-30 years ago.”

Still, he agrees with Lamar on a lot. Like Lamar, Salzer said Pasadena police need to get out of their cars more and talk to people – another familiar refrain across California and around the country.  

He’s also familiar with the neighborhood where the Ballew beating happened. Salzer runs a soup kitchen nearby. 

Robin Salzer said the Pasadena police officers who broke the leg of a young unarmed black man for allegedly resisting arrest during a traffic stop were
Robin Salzer said the Pasadena police officers who broke the leg of a young unarmed black man for allegedly resisting arrest during a traffic stop were "bad apples" and that there is no need to create a civilian police oversight panel. Salter, who is standing in his BBQ restaurant in East Pasadena, says police need to get out of their cars more and interact with people.
Frank Stoltze

Salzer pauses amid the sounds of a lunchtime crowd and puts himself in the shoes of a black guy who regularly sees police driving down the street eyeballing him.

“That would kind of bother me,” he said. “It’s like, who are they looking for?  Are they looking at me?  Or should I be running because somebody is on the loose in the neighborhood?” 

But Salzer said any problems with the police likely wouldn’t be solved by a civilian oversight panel.

“If you keep adding layer and layer of bureaucracy, you can’t make that cogent decision,” he said. “You have to listen to everybody. You have to pacify everybody.” 

Different perspectives

Lamar said if police listened more, incidents like the one involving Christopher Ballew would not happen — even though he acknowledges Ballew should have followed the officers’ orders.

“Should he have stopped and stayed still? Yes. Maybe that would have been better,” Lamar said. “But still that doesn’t give them the right to do what they did.”

The officers likely would not have broken Ballew’s leg if he were white, said Lamar.

Those officer were “bad apples,” said Salzer, hardly evidence of widespread racial bias at the department.

“This isn’t some small town in Texas or Mississippi,” he said. “This is Pasadena.”

But Salzer, who hosts a Sunday morning basketball game at his house with a group of Pasadena’s civic and business leaders also said “the whole city is watching” how police handle the investigation into the incident.

“If it’s not handled properly, then we might need that oversight,” Salzer said.

The bottom line

Regardless of how the investigation into the police beating of Ballew turns out, Pasadena’s mayor says he’s going to propose some form of civilian oversight before the end of the year.

In Los Angeles, an officer's decision to use deadly force is now evaluated based on whether they first did everything possible to de-escalate the confrontation.
In Los Angeles, an officer's decision to use deadly force is now evaluated based on whether they first did everything possible to de-escalate the confrontation.
Brian Frank/KPCC file photo

Do we know if civilian oversight works?

In the city of Los Angeles, the police commission in recent years has approved a more restrictive shooting policy. An officers’ decision to use deadly force is now evaluated based on whether they first did everything possible to de-escalate the confrontation.

And last year, the department's  inspector general issued a use of force report – the first exhaustive look at the issue from outside the department.

In Orange County, the Office of Independent Review has been faulted for missing serious corruption. Those misses include a jailhouse informant who worked for police and prosecutors in exchange for favors that were not revealed in court. Its executive director abruptly resigned in 2016 amid allegations he had become too close to the sheriff. The Board of Supervisors only last month replaced him with L.A.’s Assistant Inspector General Kevin Rogan, and the U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation.

In San Diego, the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board created in the early 1990’s has been credited with a reduction in jail deaths. Members of that board do have subpoena power. However, reports have found that reductions in the board's budget by county supervisors made it less effective over time. More recently, much of that funding has been restored.