Sheriff’s Department needs Civilian Oversight

In a recent editorial regarding allegations of corruption at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Times called for the Board of Supervisors to quickly install an inspector general.  In his spot-on response to the Times editorial board, noted civil rights attorney, Samuel Paz, emphasizes that equally necessary is the establishing of a civilian oversight panel.  The full text of Paz’ letter is below.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, seen here in October speaking with reporters at Men's Central Jail, has been harshly criticized by a onetime trusted aide. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press via LA Times)

By R. Samuel Paz

The Times’ editorial Thursday on the dysfunction at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was only half right in concluding that the recent spat between Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka “should serve as a catalyst to speed along the Board of Supervisors in hiring an independent inspector general to oversee the department,” as recommended by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence.

What is missing is the recommendation by the Kolts Commission in 1992 that the county should also create a permanent civilian oversight panel to be the eyes and ears of the public. Such oversight would operate in harmony with the new inspector general, similar to the Board of Police Commissioners that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department‘s inspector general.

The need for civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department became apparent in 1992 after a wave of excessive-force incidents and deaths resulted in public outrage and several revelations by The Times and other newspapers, not unlike what we have seen in the last two years with L.A. County jails.  Then, the Board of Supervisors voted to create the Kolts Commission to review the department and make recommendations to stop the violence.

The Kolts Commission then, just as the jails commission now, rejected the sheriff’s argument that civilian oversight was unnecessary because, as an elected official, he was accountable to the public. The commission noted: “Indeed, we know of no major metropolitan police department in the United States which is not subject to some civilian oversight — except the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”

Its recommendation was unequivocal: “We believe that a commission should be appointed by the Board of Supervisors and empowered on an ongoing basis to audit and monitor the [Sheriff’s Department] on the topics covered by this report and any others the Board of Supervisors may deem appropriate.”

This recommendation was ignored.

The jails commission found the present oversight systems ineffective and inadequate. L.A. County Special Counsel Merrick Bobb’s frequent reports on systemic problems and the necessary reforms to fix them were ignored by the sheriff and lacked any enforcement mechanism or follow-up capability. The oversight by the Office of Independent Review, which was created in 2001 to monitor use-of-force and misconduct investigations, was found to be ineffective, ignored or changed by management. It also has been hampered by Sheriff’s Department officials withholding key documents on use of force in jails, in violation of the understanding that the Office of Independent Review was to have “unfettered access” to records.  The ombudsman, which the jails commission described as the “clearinghouse for public complaints,” was found to be woefully inadequate in identifying patterns in complaints by civilians.

Beyond the moral obligation to have a permanent civilian panel to prevent another episode of uncontrolled violence, such an oversight body would save money. As a practical matter, it is doubtful that the county supervisors can adequately monitor an inspector general with all of their other obligations as elected officials. Plus, the jails commission found that in the five years before 2012, the county paid $25.6 million to settle excessive-force cases in the jails (a combined $42.3 million was spent on force cases involving the jails and regular patrol).  Fiscal responsibility demands that the Sheriff’s Department establish a civilian panel in addition to an inspector general. Most police departments have found such meaningful civilian oversight to be absolutely necessary to establish accountability, trust and community respect.

One could argue that because the Sheriff’s Department ignored the recommendation by the Kolts Commission in 1992 for a civilian oversight panel, L.A. County has continued to pay a high price for deputy violence, the sheriff has remained disconnected, dysfunctional leadership has been the norm and many individuals have suffered unnecessary deaths and serious, permanent injuries. We are where we were two decades ago, with the chance to establish meaningful civilian oversight — or again to ignore it and invite the past to repeat itself.

Original letter was posted in the LA Times on May 3, 2013.