Suspect Captured in Unique Russell Shooting

When Donna Wade was told by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies that they had made an arrest in the shooting death of her 14-year-old daughter Unique Russell, she was brought to tears. But the relief and gratitude she felt was tempered by the pain of knowing her daughter would never be at her side to make her laugh or celebrate Christmas or her birthday or to kiss her goodnight.

“I’m glad they got him,” said Wade on Friday, December 14, outside of the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s station as the announcement of the arrest was made. “But it won’t bring her back.”

The arrest Friday was made by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies in part because of a $10,000 reward posted in July by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Over six months, dozens of tips rolled in, bringing investigators closer to finding the suspects until they were able to arrest 19-year-old Michael Staton of Compton and an alleged gang member. The motion, authored by Chairman of the Board Mark Ridley-Thomas, was “Instrumental in getting people to provide information,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Rosson.

Unique, a bright and bubbly girl who wanted to be a pediatrician, was shot to death in front of a home on the 1300 block of West 97th Street as she watched fireworks with friends, family members, and neighbors at an annual block party July 4. Witnesses, who initially thought the gunfire was the crackling of fireworks, saw two young men standing on the southeast corner of 97th Street and Normandie Avenue and fire several shots into the crowd.

Chairman Ridley-Thomas, who was at the arrest announcement on December 14, said the county will spare no expense to find perpetrators of such horrendous crimes.

“We will not allow these acts of violence to go unpunished,” he said. “It is our responsibility to support law enforcement in their efforts and to embrace families that are victims of crime. Finding the alleged suspect is an example of what happens when hard working deputies, detectives and a community come together.”

Should the Board Establish a Citizens’ Commission to Oversee the Sheriff’s Department?

Ever since the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department came under intense public scrutiny for allegations of violence in the County jails, the role of the Board of Supervisors in overseeing the Sheriff’s Department, a department headed by another elected official, has begged the question: who is in charge?

The Supervisors’ fiduciary duties are clear – they control the Sheriff Department’s purse strings and its nearly $2.8 billion annual budget. Yet, on October 2, 2012, when Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed that the Board establish a permanent citizens’ commission to oversee the department, the question of whether the Board had the legal authority to do so went unanswered.

County Counsel John F. Krattli

At Tuesday’s meeting, County Counsel John Krattli provided the public with some answers.

The Board of Supervisors has statutory authority (through Government Code Section 25303) to supervise the conduct of all county officers — and the Sheriff is considered a county officer. Furthermore, Krattli noted, the courts have found that the “operations” of the sheriff and the “conduct” of the sheriff’s department employees are a legitimate concern of the Board of Supervisors.

So yes, the Board of Supervisors has authority to establish a citizens’ commission as an advisory body; the Sheriff, however, would not be bound by its findings or recommendations. This suggests that, the Supervisors would be required to seek state legislation and charter reform to create a commission with the power to effectively oversee the Sheriff’s Department.

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Supervisors takes bold action to reform Sheriff’s Department

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca testifies before the Board of Supervisors.

Taking bold action to push for reform in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to hire an independent monitor to ensure that recent recommendations to improve oversight and restructuring of the department are implemented.

[pullquote_right] “It will take all of us,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. [/pullquote_right]In addition to deciding to hire a monitor — a move put forth in a motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — the board also voted to hold monthly meetings with Sheriff Lee Baca, starting in November. At these special meetings, the board will assess the Sheriff’s progress implementing reforms suggested by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by supervisors last year. The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence put forth 63 key recommended reforms after hearing hours of testimony and studying allegations of excessive use of force by deputies against inmates surfaced.

“With all due respect to the Sheriff, I simply do not believe we will see these reforms implemented in a timely and thorough way unless there is an oversight process put in place,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas when calling for an independent monitor. After documenting 16 years’ worth of previous reforms that went unheeded by the Sheriff’s Department and more than $42 million in excessive force settlements in the past several years, the Supervisor insisted that the Sheriff alone could not overhaul the department..

“It will take all of us — the board, command staff, rank and file, and the public, to see this through so we create a new and improved L.A. County Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

Supervisors Molina emphasized that the Board of Supervisors must remain fully engaged in the reform process: “Setting aside a specific day and setting aside a special hearing will clearly fulfill the mandate the commission left with us for public transparency,” she said.

Once retained, the monitor would work with the Sheriff to review the implementation of the commission’s 63 recommendations, which include a major restructuring of the department’s command and custody workforces, internal investigations, and inmate complaint processes. The monitor also would be assisted by representatives from Sheriff’s deputy and commander rank labor unions, county counsel and other county departments.

Sheriff Lee Baca said he agrees with the reforms, which the jail violence commission said were needed to fix fundamental failures of leadership by the Sheriff.

“I am very pleased with the progress we made today,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “The Sheriff has embraced the reforms; the Board has shown it means business in seeing them implemented, and now I’m confident that the stellar recommendations of the jail violence commission will not go the way of so many other strong reports and calls for reform of the Sheriff’s department.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ Statement on the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence Report

Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence Chair Lourdes Baird

Now that the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence has completed its mission, we can be sure of one thing: The Sheriff’s Department cannot police itself.

That is why I will ask the board to make profound structural changes with regard to oversight of the department and create a system for permanent and independent citizen oversight of our jails.

On Tuesday, Oct. 2, I will introduce a Board motion directing the County Counsel and the Chief Executive Officer to assess the viability of establishing both a Citizens Law Enforcement Commission and an Inspector General for the Sheriff’s Dept.

Last year I co-authored a motion for the creation of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV) with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Our goal was to obtain and analyze the data necessary to determine the full extent of the custody problems within the County’s jails. Today, CCJV released 77 findings in its nearly 200-page report. After more than a year of investigation, testimony, and sifting through over 35,000 pages of documents; the evidence of inmate abuse and jail mismanagement is clear and convincing. Now that we have the data, we cannot stop here.

New oversight is warranted and it needs to be more substantial and comprehensive. The change has to be structural because there are no easy remedies and shortcuts to accomplish the goal of fair and equitable treatment by those entrusted to provide public safety services. The CCJV report makes clear that the most robust change would be achieved by independent and consolidated oversight. We should not let another 20 years pass with a piecemeal and compartmentalized approach to public safety accountability. It is time to deal with the problems now, using a unified approach that achieves reform in L.A. County law enforcement, achieves constitutional policing and bolsters public trust.

None of the calls for change should be construed as a wholesale condemnation of the Sheriff’s Department. Indeed, I anticipate the full support of the Sheriff and the department for greater citizen involvement and consolidated oversight. The Sheriff has clearly stated his determination to right this ship, and I take him at his word. Furthermore, the men and women of the department deserve a process that will no longer permit a few bad apples to besmirch the thousands of deputies who perform bravely and admirably every day.

We cannot be timid about tackling these policing issues. There are a number of deputies who have failed the public. These are not isolated incidents. The report refers to a culture of violence. This culture was repeatedly overlooked by jail custody management and Department executives.

Plainly said, we must make sure that people in custody are not victimized by those charged with their supervision. That’s why we must steer the Sheriff’s Department in a new direction.

Increased civilianization of the jail custody staffing may be a way to decrease inmate violence. There are far too many Sheriff’s deputies who simply do not want to work in the jails but nonetheless are required to do so for the first five to seven years of their employment. By contrast, custody assistants are specifically trained for jail assignments and want to do this work.

The weight of the CCJV report will be measured by the manner in which those elected to maintain public safety move forward to address the problems and change the culture. Otherwise, the work of this Commission and staff will have been undertaken in vain.

Click HERE to read the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence Report

Supervisors act to examine and improve realignment services

[pullquote_left] “The matter is urgent,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. [/pullquote_left]The Board of Supervisors today imposed greater oversight on the County Probation Department, which has been struggling to provide services to the inmates recently released from state facilities who now must rely on local agencies for help. Last October, the state shifted responsibility for certain inmates to the counties. Since then, the state has released to local supervision more than 5,000 offenders who were convicted of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual crimes. The Probation Department, which is charged with providing released inmates with rehabilitative services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, housing and job training, has had little success in fulfilling that obligation. Since February, the department has referred only 60% of former inmates to services, of which only 15% actually have received treatment.

The Supervisors today called for more accountability from the department. Acting on a motion sponsored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board unanimously called for staff to develop a feasibility plan to ascertain how best to expeditiously increase the number of released prisoners who receive rehabilitative services.

To ensure that this target is reached, as part of the motion, staff is directed to examine clear performance goals for both referring departments and agencies, locate referring County service providers, and ensure participation of community- and faith-based organizations.

Officials from the Probation Department told the Supervisors that significant progress already has been made. For example, 48% of those who need mental health services are now receiving treatment. Implementing AB 109, the state’s realignment program, has been a challenge, said Cal Remington, the department’s chief deputy, but Probation increasingly is mandating that the former inmates comply with orders to receive therapeutic and other services.

“Early on we found that many of these coming out with problems did not have a condition that allowed us to, in essence, mandatorily refer them,” Remington said. Now, he said, the department is implementing the use of low-level violations and sanctions on a case-by-case basis.

Representatives from several community-based organizations spoke in favor of the motion; however, some urged the County to resist creating a structure of mandates and resulting violations that could lead to the re-incarceration of returning prisoners.

“We think it’s a positive step,” said Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition. She added that those returning often are hindered in their efforts to comply. The lack of a valid or government-issued identification card, without which they often cannot access educational, housing and health care services, presents an enormous hurdle for many attempting to comply with Probation’s orders.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas emphasized that having the department clearly spell out its guidelines is essential for a successful reentry scenario.

“The matter is urgent,” the Supervisor said. “If we do not see substantially more people receiving the treatment and services they need, no one will be well served; public safety will be undermined and the cycle of recidivism will continue unabated.

It is imperative, the Supervisor continued, that the County not duplicate the State’s abysmal recidivism rate; about 65% of former inmates return to prison within three years.