It appears that at next Tuesday’s meeting, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will finally vote on a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that sets down a plan to govern what kind confidential information the LA County Sheriff’s Department will share with the two watchdog entities that have been created to oversee the departmen, and under what conditions and circumstances the department will share that information.
This MOA has been a long time coming.
Following the report on misconduct inside the county’s jails issued in September 2012 by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, at the CCJV’s recommendation, the Supervisors voted to appoint an Inspector General to provide primary oversight of the sheriff’s department. That IG is, of course, former prosecutor Max Huntsman
Then, a year ago, the Supes voted, in addition, to set up a civilian commission to oversee the LASD along with the IG. To this end, they caused the formation of a working group to recommend the structure that such a civilian oversight panel might take and what kind of power it should have.
In July of this year, after holding thirteen public meetings and nine town halls across the county to gather community input, the working group presented its final recommendations to the board.
Top among its recommendations was the group’s 4 to 3 vote in favor of giving subpoena power to the commission, even though that would involve putting the matter on the ballot to be voted on by LA County residents.
“First, we believe at the end of this process, that this commission wouldn’t enjoy the full trust and confidence of the public without that power,” said working group member, Hernan Vera, who is also the former CEO of Public Counsel. “That was made clear to us. So much of the public testimony centered around this issue.”
Yet, those three group members who voted against going for subpoena power (which included Assistant Sheriff Neil Tyler, who was part of the working group), felt that some kind of Memorandum of Agreement should be tried first. Tyler told the board that Sheriff Jim McDonnell was concerned about the idea of subpoena power, and thought it unnecessary.
If an MOA was tried, but did not live up to the level of access desired by the commission and board, Tyler said, subpoena power could always go on the 2016 ballot.
So during the months between then and now, members of LASD, the OIG, the District Attorney’s office, plus County Counsel (with additional input from the two LASD unions), have been working to hammer out an agreement that satisfied everyone. The MOA to be voted on next Tuesday is the result.
According to next week’s motion to approve for new agreement, sponsored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the final version of the MOA gives the OIG, as the Board’s agent, “unprecedented access to confidential LASD records, information, and meetings” and will “enable the OIG to aggressively monitor LASD operations and to assist the Board and, ultimately, the Commission in the oversight of LASD.”
Both Sheriff McDonnell and Inspector General Huntsman are poised to sign the MOA once the board gives its go-ahead. And when the new civilian commission is established (which reportedly—and hopefully—will occur shortly after the 1st of the year) the commission chair will also be a signatory.
Among other things, the MOA allows the IG to monitor in-progress investigations into things like excessive use of force, deputy-involved shootings, misconduct by LASD personnel, complaint inquiries and the like.
But it also puts limits on the IG’s actions. For example, without specific authorization from the Sheriff, OIG personnel are not allowed to interview any of the involved parties or independently collect evidence while an active LASD criminal or administrative investigation is in progress.
Under the MOA, the IG and his representatives will have access to a wide variety of privileged and/or confidential information, but only under circumstances that appropriately safeguard and maintain the confidentiality of information such as peace officer personnel records and the like.
To give one example of such protections, OIG personnel are permitted to read and review records of pending investigations but, except in “unusual circumstances,” they may do so only on site at the sheriff’s department. Moreover they may not make copies, but they are permitted to take notes.
There’s a lot more to the proposed MOA (which you can find here if you scroll the bottom of the supervisors’ motion). It’s interesting reading and seems, for the most part, to be fairly sensible.
CAUTIONARY REMINDERS FROM THE PAST
The move forward on oversight of the sheriff’s department, and an agreement on access to its records, comes at a time when a string of fifteen former members of the LASD have been convicted of federal charges having to do brutality, corruption and misconduct inside the county jail system, with more criminal trials coming up next year, including that of the former undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
In addition, it is worth nothing that when two most recently convicted department members were sentenced to terms in federal prison of six and seven years, respectively, for brutally beating a visitor to Men’s Central Jail, then falsifying felony charges against their beating victim to cover their actions, Judge George King, who handed down the sentences, was not willing to characterize the deputies as a couple of bad apples who engaged in isolated wrongdoing. Instead he made a point of saying that the actions of the deputies and their previously sentenced co-conspirator did not represent a “one-time incident.” They were instead part of “a practice” that existed inside the jails,” said King, a “course of conduct.”
And that “course of conduct,” according to what the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence exhaustively described in its final report, was routinely okayed or ignored by department supervisors like former Men’s Central Jail captain, Dan Cruz, whom the CCJV found—in many instances—never reviewed force reports or deputy misconduct cases at all. Instead, he buried the force reports in drawers or on shelves until the year-long statue of limitations expired, and the reports were useless.
The CCJV further found that the failure to address brutality and misconduct existed at the highest levels in the department. The commissioners wrote that then undersheriff Tanaka not only “fail[ed] to identify and correct problems in the jails, he exacerbated them.” As for former sheriff Lee Baca, the CCJV found his claim of ignorance of problems with brutality in his department to be “remarkable.”
With the above in mind, among the most important recommendations made by the CCJV to the Board of Supervisors was the formation of an independent “oversight entity,” with “unfettered access” to “department records, witness interviews, video footage, data, personnel, and facilities.”
Next Tuesday’s vote takes an important step closer to that goal.