After nearly five months of work and nine town hall meetings held around Los Angeles County, a specially-appointed working group has is nearly finished hammering out a comprehensive strategy for civilian oversight of the nation’s largest—-and, in recent years, most troubled—-sheriff’s department.
The seven-member working group charged with coming up with a plan for the formation and function of the civilian oversight commission for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department voted Friday on some of the last and most crucial recommendations for the oversight body that is soon due to be formed by the LA County Board of Supervisors.
Most notably, the working group voted 4-3 to recommend that the commission be granted subpoena power in order to get the documents and information it needs from the department to function adequately. To make subpoena power possible, however, would require the Board of Supervisors to vote to put a measure on the ballot.
The other vote that caused arguments among the working group members—who reportedly have been operating on most issues with great cooperation—was the 4-3 decision to prohibit any members of the LASD, currently working or retired, to serve on the oversight commission for the sheriff’s department.
The three who voted against the recommendation to go for subpoena power and also the motion to nix anyone from the LASD, were the present department undersheriff, Neal Tyler, Les Robbins, a past president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), and former FBI agent, Brent Braun.
According to group member, Hernán Vera, subpoena power and excluding members of the sheriff’s department emerged as important issues to the community at the string of well-attended town hall meetings that the working group sponsored.
“We really got an earful from people at the town halls telling us that the commission would not have the public trust if department members were on it,” said Vera, the former longtime president of the public interest law firm, Public Counsel, now an attorney in private practice. “After all, it’s a civilian oversight commission, and having sheriff’s department members would harm public confidence and present a conflict of interest.”
As for subpoena power, Vera explained that, “after looking at other jurisdictions like San Diego we found out what had been most successful,” and subpoena power was one of the ingredients, he said.
Advocate groups and inspector general, Max Huntsman, who is one of the working group members, have all expressed strong support for subpoena power. Huntsman, in particular has said he’s already been having trouble getting documents.
Peter Eliasberg, the legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, agreed on both issues. “It’s a no brainer that they need subpoena power,” he said. “Any argument against it is laughable. I don’t know a single expert on the issue of civilian review commissions who would say otherwise.”
Eliasberg also agreed that having LASD members on the commission would present “an obvious conflict of interest. I’m afraid they’ve dug their own grave on both these issues. The department has proven over and over that it can’t police itself.”
WHY THE COMMISSION….?
The creation of a civilian oversight commission for the LASD was approved by the newly configured LA County Board of Supervisors last December, with the idea that the oversight body would “help restore public trust and promote transparency” in the sheriff’s department, which had been lacerated by scandal in the last few years.
In order to facilitate the commission’s creation, the board nominated the seven-member working group to study how best to proceed, then to make recommendations about the commission’s mission, authority, size and structure.
Although the department is widely considered to be moving forward with substantive reform under Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the wisdom of creating a permanent external oversight body was once again emphasized by the recent indictments of the department’s once powerful second in command and sheriff’s candidate, Paul Tanaka, along with the former head of ICIB, the LASD’s internal criminal investigations bureau. Both men are alleged by the feds to have turned away from investigating reports of egregious wrongdoing by department members, along with allegedly actively obstructing an FBI investigation into brutality in the jails.
…AND HOW IT WILL BE CHOSEN
The groups other big vote on Friday had to do with how many members ought to be on the commission, and how those commission members should be chosen—a decision that, unlike the previous two, was reportedly made with little controversy: After considering six different possible configurations, the group went with nine commission members, the first five of whom would be chosen by the board of supervisors, with each picking one out of the five. The remaining four would be selected by a majority vote of the full board from a field of vetted applicants, meaning that community members could apply.
The working group is expected to deliver its final report to the supervisors in June.
“All seven of us have worked together very productively and professionally,” said Vera. “And the final product will incorporate the community’s comments,” along with “real life language to flesh out our recommendations.
“It’s something I’ve very proud of.”