Advocates Plead for a Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence

Eva Flores had never spoken publicly about her son’s story. But at a recent Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting, the young mother from Maywood worked up her courage to talk about the beating her son suffered last August at the hands of sheriff’s deputies. He was pepper sprayed, handcuffed and suffered several broken bones in his back and his nose after being beaten, she said, by sheriff’s deputies. Since that day he has suffered from headaches.

“My son deserves respect and dignity; nobody deserves to be treated this way,” she said in Spanish. “I am concerned for the safety of my son and I don’t want this to happen again.”

Flores was one of more than 100 people that attended the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to push for the formation of a citizens’ commission on jail violence to oversee the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Ever since the department came under intense public scrutiny for allegations of violence in the County jails, Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed that the Board establish a permanent citizens’ commission to oversee the department. At the meeting Tuesday Supervisor Gloria Molina said she was “leaning” in the direction of supporting the citizens’ commission.

The group of advocates, called the Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in LA County Jails, is made up of nearly a dozen organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Youth Justice Coalition and the California Drug Policy Alliance. It was formed in response to the violence that has been plaguing Los Angeles County jails and the need to have civilian oversight of the treatment of inmates.

Patrisse Cullors, founder of the coalition, also became an advocate for personal reasons. Her brother was beaten so badly while in custody that he blacked out. She said he was later denied water and meals. He did not have a history of mental illness when he went into jail, but now he needs medication to handle the trauma he endured, Cullors said.

“It changed my family’s life,” she said. “The citizens’ commission is crucial to holding the sheriff’s department accountable and restoring any sort of faith in the community. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the people who are inside jail. But every single one of those people has a family that loves them. This is a community issue.”

The Rev. Peter Laarman, a member of the coalition and executive director of the organization Progressive Christians Uniting, said they will not stop until long term structural change happens.

“This will take courage and persistence to make the change we need and it will be difficult because it will shake the foundation of the sheriff’s department,” said Laarman. “We know that it is not simply the passion for change but the persistency in advocacy that will achieve an outcome that will serve the people of our county.”

We Must Reduce Gun Violence

The pain and the horror of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut continues to haunt the nation. So, in an attempt to reduce gun-related violence Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas has requested the creation of a taskforce made up of law enforcement, public health, mental health officials and the countywide Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CCJCC) to develop a comprehensive plan on curbing firearm-related violence in Los Angeles.  “The Newtown, Connecticut massacre is yet another horrific example of the gun-related violence we have endured as a nation,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “Just the other day, I met with a grieving mother who lost her 14-year-old daughter in a senseless shooting. We cannot continue to adhere to policies that allow such easy access to guns. We can respect the 2nd Amendment but we must also endeavor to save lives.”

According to the Los Angeles County Coroner, 75 percent of all homicides in Los Angeles County in 2009 were caused by use of a firearm, a trend that is mirrored nationally. In addition, a 2010 report by the Department of Public Health identified homicide as the leading cause of death for 15-44-year-olds. Since 1982, there have been 62 mass shootings and more than 300 million guns in this country—nearly enough for every man, woman and child.

The motion calls for strategies to reduce the stigma related to mental illness and mental health treatment. The motion also calls for enhanced enforcement of existing laws regulating the possession, sale and purchase of high caliber, high capacity weapons as well as make recommendations on revisions to existing laws and regulations governing the sale, purchase, transfer and possession of firearms and ammunition.

The Board also requested that the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) will conduct a survey of each of the 80 school districts to make sure they are in compliance with their school safety plan. In addition, the county’s state and federal legislative advocates will report back with proposed legislative solutions for the county.

“I am hopeful that out of this senseless tragedy, we will find the courage and resolve to end this epidemic of firearm related violence,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas.

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.”