OKAY, NOW WHAT?
“The time for negotiation has long since gone.” Sup. Mark Ridley-Thomas
“If any of these [jail cases] that we see were on TV like Rodney King had been, the public would be asking for the sheriff’s head.” Sup. Gloria Molina
On Tuesday morning, the LA County Board of Supervisors had the first of its meetings about what actions the Supes must take now that their blue ribbon Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence has issued its 194-page report full of scathing findings, plus its list of 63 recommendations for how to address the disturbing array of problems that the report describes.
At the meeting’s beginning, the board listened to a summary of the CCJV report (delivered by the commission’s chair and vice chair, Judge Lourdes Baird and Rev. Cecil Murray, plus commission executive director, Miriam Krinsky and general counsel, Richard Drooyan). After the presentation, the Supes collectively thanked the commission profusely for its work, then three of the supervisors discussed in detail their concerns about how the board could best move forward to make sure the commission’s report actually came to something, as opposed to just getting cheerfully shelved once everyone’s backs were metaphorically turned.
This was despite the fact that Sheriff Lee Baca had announced last week that he was fully committed to implementing all of the commission’s recommendations.
In fact, after again praising the commissioners’ work, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas suggested that the commission may not have gone far enough. Specifically, he said that the creation of a new Inspector General’s office, a move that the commission said was crucial, would only be effective if the IG had some legal power that went beyond the merely advisory.
Ridley-Thomas was undeterred by the fact that giving legal power to an oversight entity like an inspector general or an LASD commission, would require a county charter amendment or state legislation.
“There has to be legal authority which is non-negotiable,” he said. “I think the time for negotiation has long since gone.”
MRT seemed to suggest that the sheriff might very well intend in good faith to follow through with the changes that the commission has called for, but that it was unrealistic to believe that he could magically do so simply by recalibrating his previously unfocused attention.
“It’s flawed to think that a single individual can cause the department to become a better department on his own,” he said. “That’s why I seek to put those pieces in place that honor the democratic system of checks and balances.”
The report makes it “abundantly clear” he added, “that, to a significant degree, the problem is essentially a function of inattention. And it’s substantially so because [power] is vested in one single place, without sufficient levels of oversight and accountability….”
Supervisor Mike Antonovich who, of anyone on the board, might be characterized as law enforcement friendly to a fault, sounded equally frustrated. “The sheriff has stated that twenty of the  recommendations have been implemented,” Antonovich said. “But I’ve not seen twenty that have been implemented,”
Antonovich then drew a comparison between the commission’s recommendations and the video cameras that had long-ago been ordered by the board to be installed in the jails. “We were told that the cameras have been implemented in the facilities,” he said, “and now we’ve been told that they have not been fully implemented.” The same was true with lapel cameras for the deputies. “Now we hear that there is a technological problem with that too….”
Last up was Supervisor Gloria Molina who, like Ridley-Thomas, felt that, without some new sharp-toothed instrument of change, all the commission’s valuable work could conceivably come to naught—or almost naught, anyway.
She pointed to the matter of the Undersheriff whom she called insubordinate. “He’s insubordinate to the sheriff, and insubordinate to us, and insubordinate to the public, by…overriding policies and by virtue of how he handled promotions based on loyalty…”
So why hadn’t Tanaka been disciplined or in any way held to account? she wanted to know. “If we can’t bring discipline at the top,” how could they expect it from the deputies working the jails?
“With all due respect,” said Molina, “your report is wonderful. It’s well organized. It’s sincere. it is clear. It’s the best pathway we’ve had in…forever. But now [the responsibility] lands on us….Now there are the tough, challenging questions of implementation.”
Like Antonovich, Molina ticked off a list of the ways that the board has tried to implement change and to hold the sheriff accountable, with little to show for their efforts.
She described how the commission routinely sees cases where extreme force has been used on inmates, causing serious injury. “But everyone, all the commanders, tell me this is appropriate use of force.” Meanwhile, according to Molina, the county’s attorneys tell the board they can’t take these same cases, deemed to be perfectly within LASD policy, to court, because “a judge or jury will rule against us. So we pay the $3 million or $5 million settlement.
“I think that if any of these [jail cases] that we see were on TV like Rodney King,” concluded Molina grimly, “the public would be asking for the sheriff’s head.”
KEEPING FEET TO THE FIRE
On Tuesday afternoon, just before she took off for a round of meetings in Washington D.C., Miriam Krinsky said she was heartened that every board member had so thoroughly done their homework, but also observed that the Supes were “struggling to define their role in keeping the sheriff’s feet to the fire.”
In a phone call on Tuesday night, I asked Supervisor Ridley-Thomas how he felt the morning’s meeting had gone and what was likely to happen next.
He said he was cautiously hopeful.
“I think progress is being made,” he said, that the board was coming to terms with the “more active role” it must take “in insuring that structural reform occurs.”
He reiterated that, in addition to the creation of a new inspector general as the commission recommends, he believes it is important for the board to go a step further and “impanel a commission that will see it as its sole responsibility to oversee the department.”
There is a need for “profound change” in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, Ridley-Thomas said before we rang off, “But it can’t be dependent on the intentions of a single individual”
And speaking of that “individual,” next week Sheriff Baca is scheduled to meet with the commission about these very issues.