The County Board of Supervisors voted this week to establish a “blue ribbon” commission on public safety to review how the county implements state laws that allow early parole, reduce criminal sentences and shift responsibility for supervision of non-violent offenders to counties.
The board’s vote was 3-0, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining after urging that the matter be postponed and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on a planned trip out of the country.
Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn co-authored the motion to create a commission made up of board appointees, law enforcement officials and representatives from county departments handling mental health and diversion programs, among others.
The aim is “to improve rehabilitation, improve public safety, including for the brave men and women of law enforcement,” Barger said, adding that it is “not a referendum on criminal justice efforts” but a hard look at probation policies and how to protect people.
Barger and Hahn said creating the commission builds on their earlier demand for an investigation into the fatal shooting of Whittier police Officer Keith Boyer and the criminal history of his alleged killer, reputed gang member Michael Christopher Mejia, who was on probation at the time.
Mejia was released from state prison in April 2016 on a grand-theft auto conviction and arrested several times after that. He was released from county jail less than two weeks before allegedly gunning down his cousin, then Boyer.
The report on Mejia’s probation record requested by Hahn and Barger has been kept confidential and not even released to the Whittier Police Department, according to Hahn.
“I think the public has a right to see these findings,” Hahn said.
“We should not be afraid of the truth or transparency.”
Probation Chief Terri McDonald told the board the report couldn’t be released given the pending criminal proceedings.
Speakers opposed to creating the public safety commission raised concerns about the link to Boyer’s killing and the disproportionate number of law enforcement representatives who may be at risk.
“How can we expect this commission to come out with an unbiased set of recommendations?” asked Jose Osuna of Homeboy Industries, which he characterized as the “world’s largest gang rehabilitation center.” He called the proposal “flawed and reactionary.”
But many city officials, police chiefs, prosecutors and community members pointed to Boyer’s death as evidence that changes must be made.
“This felon should not have been on the street and should have been behind bars for our safety. Instead, two people are dead,” said Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri, adding that “violent attacks against our law enforcement officers … (are a) call to action.’
Vinatieri was one of several city officials who referenced “double-digit increases in crime” and said there’s little to stop criminals from committing new offenses.
Barger mentioned individuals who had been re-arrested “15, 20 and 25 times” and even one who was picked up 69 times.
Both opponents and supporters of the motion claimed to have the best interests of the public and crime victims at heart.
Despite the supervisors’ disclaimers about a referendum on state policies, Sheriff Jim McDonnell pointed to potential “unintended consequences” of recent legislative changes “placing our first responders and members of the public at risk … It’s not about politics, but about public safety.”