Board Takes Historic Step Towards Granting Civilian Bodies Subpoena Power

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas hears important feedback from the community advocating for enhanced oversight of law enforcement on January 21, 2020. Photo by Bryan Chan.


On January 21, the Board of Supervisors (Board) took important steps to create the Probation Oversight Commission and strengthen oversight of the Sheriff’s Department by giving new tools to the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Inspector General. Once adopted at next week’s Board meeting on January 28, the civilian bodies overseeing the Probation and Sheriff’s departments will each have the ability to subpoena documents or testimony.

The creation of a Probation Oversight Commission (POC) with unprecedented authority follows a year-long public process to gather community recommendations and a unanimously passed motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis from October 1, 2019 (motion) The POC will be endowed with all the authority currently vested in the existing Probation Commission, as well as new powers, including the ability to conduct facility inspections, establish an independent grievance process, conduct investigations through the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and compel information by issuing subpoenas. The commission, which will be composed of nine appointed members, has designated seats for the formerly justice system-involved, family members of probation clients, and experts in juvenile justice and legal defense.

Advocates for probation reform came out in strong support of the creation of this robust oversight body, and in a letter submitted by prominent organizations like Community Coalition, Public Counsel, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Children’s Defense Fund – California and Youth Justice Coalition, noted, “The urgent need  for a strong POC cannot be understated, as the Department continues to face massive challenges and major transitions.” Nicole Brown, a policy representative from the Urban Peace Institute and representative of Youth Uprising Coalition who submitted the letter, testified that, “We appreciate the motion and the fact that it grants the POC subpoena power.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who has consistently led on Probation reform during his tenure on the Board and was the lead author in creating the POC, added, “For years, the Board has spoken loud and clear about the need to enact robust oversight of the Probation Department. Creating the POC is nothing short of game-changing, as is giving the ability to compel data, documents, and direct testimony. Probation reform is the order of the day, and stronger oversight will help us get there.”

The Board similarly took an unprecedented step towards strengthening oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, by moving forward with modifying the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) to give the COC authority to direct the issuing of subpoenas. These changes, stemming from a motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Kuehl in October 2019 (motion), will grant the COC access to Sheriff’s Department data, documents, and direct testimony, including the authority – through a majority vote by the COC – to compel their production through the issuance of subpoenas by the OIG. This change comes after months of difficulty in obtaining information from the Sheriff’s Department, which has stymied both the COC and OIG’s ability to perform their core function of oversight, as highlighted at last week’s COC meeting.

“The County cannot afford to erase the progress that has been achieved under recent reform efforts of the Sheriff’s Department. Backtracking is not an option; returning to the day of rampant abuse in the jails, or of scandals hidden from the public, cannot happen under our watch. Oversight is a critical part of reform and the County’s oversight bodies – for the Sheriff and Probation department – need timely access to information.” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas noted.

“Over the past three years as executive director of the Civilian Oversight Commission, I have learned that the Commission is only effective when we have access to information,” said Brian Williams, Executive Director of the COC. He added, “Obtaining this information has not always been easy. Subpoena power will help us in our efforts to provide solid oversight of the LASD and will go a long way toward increasing the level of transparency of the Sheriff’s department and repairing relationships with the community. This is an important day for the Commission.”

In addition to taking steps on the POC and COC, yesterday the Board also moved to modify the OIG’s ordinance to give enhanced authority to perform various functions for oversight of the Sheriff’s Department while giving it a new role overseeing the Probation Department.

Dozens of community stakeholders, who have been advocating for enhanced oversight of law enforcement, came out in support of the ordinances.

These ordinances will come back to the Board next week for the second and final reading. Once adopted, they will go into effect in 30 days.