In a widely anticipated move, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week voted 3-2 to establish the first-ever civilian oversight commission to periodically review the embattled Sheriff’s Department.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas, Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl backed the plan with Michael Antonovich and Don Kanabe voting in opposition. The structure of the commission has not yet been determined, although the board did agree by a 5-0 vote to establish a “working group” to study the issue.

There are several oversight committees already in place to review LASD policies—said to work in collaboration with one another—but now a specific selection of community leaders will review the department which has been under fire the past two years for inmate abuse that led to 20 deputies being fired and brought up on federal charges of lying to federal investigators.

The new panel at the LASD may have the power to hire and fire the inspector general, serve as a forum to discuss inspector general reports and, as a unique feature, operate a 24-hour hotline to allow the public to report misconduct complaints.

County leaders, including new Sheriff Jim McDonnell, want to get ahead of the kind of law enforcement problems which have triggered unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and in New York City after the deaths of two unarmed Black men at the hands of law enforcement; also, the deaths this year of unarmed South L.A. residents Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego by LAPD officers may have played an outside role in trying to quell early any possibility that mass civil unrest may again visit Los Angeles.

Creation of the panel had been under debate for two years. Now McDonnell will join the aforementioned working group appointed by the board to sift through the details of the commission’s charge, and also determine what structure and ties it will have with the LASD and the department’s inspector general.

Ridley-Thomas said following the vote that the name “Ferguson” and the resulting mantras of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” have, unfortunately, come to represent many of the problems that the county once dealt with years ago with the LAPD, and which still confronts the LASD after reports of alleged deputy abuse of African American and Latino residents of Lancaster and Palmdale.

“The sheriff’s department has long required a level of scrutiny that has been missing,” Ridley-Thomas said last week. “The time has come.”

New board, new vote

In August, retired Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky joined with Antonovich and Kanabe in voting against the oversight commission because he believed it would only add another level of bureaucracy and would result in “a step backwards” from an existing plan for an inspector general to serve as a watchdog for the department. The three doubted that such a commission would wield enough power to make any effective, unbiased determinations of deputy abuse and/or improper actions taken by members of the department in their interaction with the public. But each day, the Sheriff’s Department is said to be edging closer to a federal consent decree—similar to one imposed on the LAPD in wake of the Rampart corruption scandal—for court oversight of its jail system. The DOJ last year announced that the treatment of mentally ill inmates at the department’s Twin Tower facility downtown violated their constitutional rights.

The formation of the oversight commission may spark a battle within the Board of Supervisors as to how much influence the body may wield. Other questions may relate to the power of the Board to subpoena documents, what sway it may hold over the actions of the sheriff—who will continue to report directly to the voters via reports to the supervisors—and also, what can be effectively accomplished by a body that is totally in an advisory capacity.

The commission will have to clarify these issues with the Board in order to properly function. Many cities nationwide have an independently-elected sheriff and oversight commission, but Los Angeles County has a far more dense and diverse population, therefore the composition of the committee must take that into account. A good example of addressing diverse issues within the confines of the commission would be how to incorporate the work of the multidisciplinary task force created this year by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who canvassed cities—and some outside counties—to learn how to successfully divert mentally ill arrestees from jail to more suitable clinical treatment facilities. This is one of the most prominent issues facing the L.A. County jail system which, by admission from the previous sheriff, the interim sheriff as well as from McDonnell, is underfunded and poorly equipped to handle the increase in this population.

In May, the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, an activist organization, asked a group of UCLA law students to study similar civilian oversight panels and draft their own proposal. They did so and called for a civilian oversight board similar to that which convenes to oversee police-public policy at the LAPD.

The five-member oversight panel will likely consist of one appointee from each of the supervisors who can only be removed by them.

New Board members Solis and Kuehl supported during their respective campaigns the establishment of the oversight commission, citing controversies not just with the Sheriff’s Department, but also controversial law enforcement killings nationwide that remain the catalyst for daily protest marches and rallies.

McDonnell supports idea

“We can’t afford to delay any longer,” said Solis, who replaced long-time supervisor Gloria Molina in representing the First District. “Across this country, public trust in the people who are charged with keeping us safe has fallen to a low.”

In a statement released this month, McDonnell said the commission needs to be independent of the Board of Supervisors. He’d like to increase membership to nine persons, including several not appointed by the board, with members serving unpaid for a set number of years. He said that during his experience at the LAPD, its Police Commission helped establish policies in hiring the chief and for review of use-of-force incidents.

“I have long believed that partnerships with our community should be embraced, not feared,” McDonnell said in the statement.

For two decades, the Sheriff’s Department has received detailed recommendations for reform from watchdog groups and but has often failed to implement them. Merrick Bobb, a former county civilian watchdog hired by the Supervisors who issued some of the aforementioned reports on the LASD, said the new commission has the potential for success … provided that all three sides (the Board, Sheriff’s office and commission itself) enter into an agreement of unbiased cooperation.

“The proof is in the pudding.” What kind of civilian review board it will be, what its powers are, and how it’s appointed. All of this remains to be seen,” Bobb said.

Some of Bobb’s reports described issues including excessive force by deputies against jail inmates, and a department culture that failed to punish bad behavior. Since there were no powers of enforcement—outside of the department—his recommendations often fell on deaf ears and the problems persisted.

In 2002, the DOJ began monitoring the treatment of mentally ill inmates in L.A. County jails. Earlier this year, the federal government said the drastic increase in jail suicides may foretell a court-ordered consent decree.

In 2012, the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence recommended the creation of an inspector general’s office and other LASD reforms, but did not call for civilian oversight. The LASD has been implementing the reforms outlined by the jail violence commission; since then, major force incidents such as deputies kicking suspects in the head or causing broken bones, have reportedly been in decline with only three such incidents reported since January.

Street policing has also been a controversial issue. In 2013, the DOJ accused Sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley of racially biased policing, including unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force against African Americans in low-income subsidized (Section 8) housing specifically in the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale.

Antonovich decries “unneeded” beaurocracy

Antonovich, whose Fifth District includes the Antelope Valley, along with Kanabe, does not believe a new commission is necessary, citing that a separate body would only amount to a distraction from the inspector general’s work.

“We already have a working group to review such a commission,” said Tony Bell, spokesperson for Antonovich. “Why apply more layers of bureaucracy? There shouldn’t be conflict with what is already in place and is working. It is much better to have all oversight entities working in collaboration, not in opposition. Also, once this new layer of bureaucracy is created, it will be difficult to remove it … even if it is found to be ineffective.”

In August, Yaroslavsky said the “ambiguous roles” of current oversight committees may have contributed to a [perceived] lack of focus in addressing the department’s problems. “Simply put, when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” Yaroslavsky noted. At that time, one of Yaroslavsky’s biggest supporters, Rabbi Jonathan Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, urged the former Westside official to “do the right thing” and vote for creating the commission. “What we worry about daily is what is happening inside the county jails,” Klein said.

Another watchdog group, Dignity and Power Now, wants the new commission to have as much “teeth” as possible in relation to having the inspector general report directly to the civilian commission and for the commission to have the power to subpoena sheriff’s officials. “I think the commission should have been formed and instituted two years ago, but we didn’t have the right board for it … now we do,” said Patrisse Cullors, the group’s director.

The board’s authority over the Sheriff’s Department is more limited than it would be if he were not elected. They can’t fire him but must wait for him to decide to step down or be replaced by voters, as in the case of former Sheriff Lee Baca.

Kuehl said that creating a civilian oversight panel would help “bring sunshine into the everyday working of the jails” so that “problems don’t grow and result in more [federal] investigations.”

Approval of the new civilian oversight commission may have been encouraged by the efforts of Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Inglewood) who introduced this year AB 2411 which cites the “unique circumstances in the County of Los Angeles that create the need to strengthen the transparency and accountability practices” of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.