For 22 years, Merrick Bobb has been the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors’ special counsel when it comes to oversight of the sheriff’s department.
Bobb issued his last report on the department on Thursday. Now all oversight of the LASD will be left up to Inspector General Max Huntsman, who has yet to completely gear up.
Bobb’s work provided the very first long-term civilian oversight of law enforcement in the nation’s history. There were many areas in which Bobb and the 1992 Kolts commission were able to achieve important change, as this final report points out.
Under Lee Baca, however, the cooperation that Bobb and his command staff had enjoyed under Sherman Block, began to wither.
“While relationships remained cordial with Baca,” in the jails, Bobb writes, “an anti-reform counter movement took over as certain recent Undersheriffs rose to the forefront and Sheriff Baca’s and the Supervisors’ attention seemed to be focused elsewhere.”
The report continues: “…brutality seems to have festered in the jails. Across the Department, deputies were affirmatively encouraged to ‘work in the gray zone’—an apparent green light for unconstitutional or near-unconstitutional misconduct.”
Work the gray was, of course, one of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s signature phrases, a phrase that he has repeatedly maintained had nothing to do with suggesting that deputies cross the line into illegality, although multiple independent sources suggest otherwise.
Under Baca, Bobb writes, “accountability for discovering and dealing with actual or potential misconduct was not very high on the list of priorities….”
This disregard by Baca and Tanaka for holding deputies accountable for their misconduct, Bobb writes, all but called for the involvement of the FBI to discover “….what was going on in front of their eyes.”
Bobb takes Baca to task for allowing his underling, Tanaka, too much power. Yet he reserved the bulk of his criticism regarding the problems with the department, for the former undersheriff himself.
“To say that Sheriff Baca over-delegated to Paul Tanaka understates the matter. Paul Tanaka has been considered by some to be bright, good with numbers and budgets, and skilled at handling fiscal crises. Nevertheless, with regard to police accountability, reform, rewarding constitutional policing, and engendering the active support and trust of the ever-diversifying community, the man seemed to avoid evolving substantially from his days as a Lynwood Viking.” [WLA's ital.]
“Lee Baca placed great importance on loyalty to subordinates and the duty to mentor future leaders. Paul Tanaka managed to repay Baca’s loyalty, quick promotions, and sustained mentoring by undercutting the Department’s moral authority and mocking the values that Lee Baca so often professed to be central to his vision.”
And during all this time, the board of supervisors, by and large, Bobb suggests, did nothing.
The creation and selection of an inspector general—Max Huntsman- is meant to signal a new kind of oversight of the sheriff’s department. It has also meant the elimination of Bobb’s role as special counsel and the similar elimination of Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, (OIR).
Yet, it remains unclear how successful Huntsman will be able to be considering the fact that Bobb’s reports of problems and wrongdoing were so cheerfully ignored year after year, with no consequence whatsoever for the sheriff and those to whom he delegated.
In November, of course, we will have a new sheriff, and that sheriff will likely be Jim McDonnell, a man who has repeatedly made clear that he welcomes aggressive oversight. McDonnell was even strongly in favor of a civilian commission, in addition to an IG, an option that the board of supervisors voted down this week.
Yet, it was also this week that Paul Tanaka announced in a tweet that he was still running for sheriff, providing a potent reminder that we cannot have a system of departmental oversight that is dependant on the goodwill of the sheriff for its effectiveness or lack thereof, as has been the case in the past.
Such an arrangement—as this and other reports from Merrick Bobb vividly attest— can easily lead to catastrophe.
Under Lee Baca and Paul Tanaka, catastrophe arrived.
There is much more to Bobb’s report, including an analysis of litigation against the department, a look at employee discipline, an update on the canine units, and a critique of the LASD’s strategy of gang enforcement.
The section on gang enforcement, in particular, is well-informed and thoughtful in its analysis, and should be scrutinized carefully by the next sheriff for its usefulness, as the points that it makes are remarkably consistent with what we have heard over the past decade from community members who live and work in the Los Angeles neighborhoods that are the most adversely affected by gang violence.
A large thank you to Merrick Bobb for his 22 years of commitment to improving the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for the people of LA and for the men and women who protect and serve at the LASD.