Strengthening Civilian Oversight of the Sheriff’s Department Through Subpoena Power

Patti Giggans, COC Chair and Executive Director of Peace Over Violence, provides testimony. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

As part of continued efforts to increase public transparency and accountability over the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl to provide recommendations for how to modify County ordinances to grant the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) the power to compel, through the Office of Inspector General issuing subpoenas.

The motion directs County Counsel, in consultation with the Inspector General and the Executive Director of the COC, to report back in writing to the Board of Supervisors in 30 days with ways to grant the COC access to Department data, documents, and direct testimony by issuing subpoenas when deemed necessary by a majority of COC commissioners to fulfill its oversight function. County Counsel will also look at the impact this action would have on the March 2020 ballot measure titled “Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission Ordinance.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks about Civilian Oversight of the Sheriff’s Department at the October 15 meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

“Transparency and accountability have been – and remain – critical hallmarks to the reform of the Sheriff’s Department. The COC’s recent lack of access to Sheriff’s Department data, documents and testimony has impeded their ability to perform their core oversight functions,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “Backtracking on progress made is not an option. Given this, the Board must re-think – and must be open to re-configuring – their authority, including granting subpoena power, in the name of stronger reform.”

“External oversight is the only means to which sustainable reform, where checks and balances are robust enough to guard against abuse of power at the top, can truly happen,” said Max Huntsman, Los Angeles County Inspector General. “What we need is a Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission with the power to require compliance with the law and an Inspector General with the investigative power to uncover what may be hidden by the Sheriff’s Department.

“There are moments when we must question the actions of the Sheriff’s Department. It is in those moments that we must have every tool at our disposal to be an effective oversight body and shine a light where one must be shone,” said Patti Giggans, COC Chair and Executive Director of Peace Over Violence. “Subpoena power through the Inspector General would represent a tool of last resort, but one that we hope will give us maximum cooperation with the Sherriff’s Department.”

“As a former prosecutor, working on behalf of the people, you had tools at your disposal to do your job—to get to the truth and ensure that justice was done,” said Brian Williams, Executive Director of the COC. “Similarly, in my position on the Commission, working on behalf of the people, to effectively do our job, we must have tools available to us—to shed a light, to increase trust, and better the transparency of the LASD. Subpoena power helps us with this.”

Recognizing the importance of civilian oversight and the need for access to information, this motion comes after the October 1, 2019 Ridley-Thomas – Solis motion which, unanimously created the Probation Oversight Commission (POC) with a range of authorities, including the power to compel through the Inspector General. Today’s motion will ensure both civilian oversight bodies – the POC and the COC – have access to information from the respective departments they oversee.

Brian Williams, Executive Director of the COC, speaks about the importance of subpoena power. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

Historic Vote Strengthens Oversight of Probation Department

Probation Oversight Commission and Inspector General to Have Unprecedented Powers

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, and guided by a yearlong public process, the Board of Supervisors voted to overhaul and strengthen oversight of the long troubled Probation Department, including by creating a Probation Oversight Commission (POC) with unprecedented authority. The POC would have the power to compel the Probation Department, via subpoenas issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG), to provide information and testimony required for its investigations.

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:

  • advise the department and the Board on wide-ranging matters that affect the well-being of department staff as well as youth and adult probationers, guided by the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT)’s Reform Plan;
  • conduct investigations through the OIG;
  • access department data, documents and direct testimony, and have the authority to  compel its production through the  OIG;
  • conduct facility inspections; and
  • establish an independent grievance process for  the public and probation clients, and a process for advising on systemic staff issues.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas speaks during the historic vote on October 1, 2019. Photo by Dave Franco / Board of Supervisors

“Reforming the Probation Department has never been more urgent, with both youth and staff in our juvenile facilities reporting feeling unsafe,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “Robust oversight of the largest and most complex department of its kind is long overdue and critical to the success of any reform, and this motion is intended to enhance transparency and accountability and, ultimately, restore the public’s trust in Probation.”

“The new Probation Oversight Commission will help guide the Probation Department toward positive culture change, reduced juvenile facilities, expanded and improved community services, and strengthened accountability and performance management,” Supervisor Solis said. “The Probation Oversight Commission will ensure that changes to the Probation Department are aligned with a truly transformational mission and vision, supported by modern best practices, and are created in partnership with community and labor stakeholders. This large leap forward will provide the public with ongoing opportunities to shape the future of probation in LA County.”

Earlier this year, the OIG demonstrated its ability to shed light on important issues involving the Probation Department, including investigating its use of pepper spray.

“As we’ve been reminded by events at the Sheriff’s Department in recent months, robust civilian oversight is critical for justice system fairness,” Inspector General Max Huntsman said. “Empowering the Probation Oversight Commission based on lessons learned in a way that maximizes access and input is essential to reform.  The Office of Inspector General looks forward to providing the same investigative support to the Probation Oversight Commission that it has provided to the Civilian Oversight Commission for the Sheriff’s Department.”

Composed of experts in criminal justice, violence prevention and intervention, as well as social justice advocacy, the PRIT worked over a year to engage the community to help design the oversight structure for the Probation Department. They held 14 public hearings, many of which were attended by hundreds of stakeholders.

PRIT Executive Director Saul Sarabia provides testimony to the Board.  Photo by Dave Franco / Board of Supervisors

“The motion approved by the Board adopts many of the powers and authorities the PRIT recommended based on input from the community,” PRIT Executive Director Saul Sarabia said. “By erecting a robust Probation Oversight Commission, the Board has created a venue that all county stakeholders can work with to achieve accountability and transparency.”

Susan Burton, founder of the justice advocacy group, A New Way of Life, said, “For decades, probationers have been under the authority of a Probation Department with no oversight, and probationers have suffered from this lack of checks and balances. I’m excited to see the Board listen to the people and create a Probation Oversight Commission with the authority to compel the information it needs to ensure public safety as well as the health and wellbeing of the people of Los Angeles County.”

The Probation Department has a budget of almost $1 billion and supervisory responsibility for more than 40,000 adult clients and about 8,000 youth, more than 900 of whom are detained as juvenile clients in the halls, camps and other facilities.

The Probation Oversight Commission would consist of nine members, including positions reserved for a person who has been an adult or youth probationer, a family member of someone who has been on probation, and a legal defense expert.

Community advocate demonstrates support for probation oversight during the historic board vote. Photo by Dave Franco / Board of Supervisors

Board Authorizes Implementing Body-Worn Cameras

The Board of Supervisors voted to begin implementing a much-anticipated program to equip the Sheriff’s Department with body-worn cameras.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, the program will first pilot in five stations, one in each Supervisorial office, before expanding countywide. The goal is to have all deputies equipped with this technology, as well as to have footage from the body-cameras shared with the District Attorney, Public Defender and the Acting Alternate Public Defender.

As part of implementation, the Board authorized the Sheriff to phase in technology infrastructure upgrades at patrol stations and other locations. Additionally, the County will move forward with a procurement process for the body-worn camera device and digital management system, as well as hiring additional Sheriff Department staff.

The County Chief Executive Officer has set aside $35 million for the program.

The Board also requested that the Sheriff lay out the policies that would govern the use of body-worn cameras to both the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the outset. Both oversight agencies have done reports supportive of this technology, as well as made policy recommendations to ensure effective and transparent implementation.

“Body-worn cameras are an essential component of 21st century constitutional policing,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “These devices can help increase transparency in law enforcement, improve both officer and citizen conduct, and ultimately improve police and community relations.”

“I have been a longtime advocate for body worn cameras. We know that when body camera policies are focused on building trust between the community and law enforcement, they have been found effective in reducing community complaints as well as excessive and unnecessary uses of force,” said Supervisor Solis. “Implementation of this new technology requires that the public, the Office of the Inspector General, the Civilian Oversight Commission, and the Board of Supervisors have an opportunity to view and weigh in on the Sheriff’s body camera policies. Together, we will work towards ensuring that the use of this technology aligns with our shared goals to increase transparency, accountability, and trust between our communities and the Sheriff’s Department.”

The OIG would monitor the implementation of the program, in consultation with the Sheriff, Public Defender, Acting Alternate Public Defender, District Attorney, Chief Executive Officer, County Counsel and the COC Executive Director.

“Body worn cameras are necessary equipment for modern urban policing,” Inspector General Max Huntsman said. “When the government uses force, the public has a right to see what happened.”

“After years of work on this issue, we’re happy to see progress on the implementation of the body-worn camera program,” said COC Executive Director Brian Williams. “We’re looking forward to reviewing the final body-worn camera policy from the Sheriff’s Department.”

In 2012, the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence (CCJV) was the first entity to recommend that the Sheriff’s Department use “lapel cameras as an investigative tool” to address problematic use of force.

In 2015, the Office of Inspector General echoed CCJV’s recommendations. In July 2018, the Civilian Oversight Commission (CoC) recommended implementing a body-worn camera program over two years. These recommendations were informed by national research, several community town halls, and over 2,500 survey responses.

In August 2018, Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Solis called for hiring an independent consultant to provide expert analysis. The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued its report last month that validated the COC and OIG’s recommendations and cost projections.

Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on the Sheriff’s Rehiring of a Fired Deputy

“I assert that there is no upside to having the Sheriff’s Department tarnished by reinstating deputies who are not fit to serve. It does not help public safety or public confidence to reverse reforms that we have worked so hard to put in place.”

Restructuring LA County’s Juvenile Justice System

 

The Board of Supervisors voted to explore moving Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system out of the Probation Department into another agency, with the goal of creating a rehabilitative, health-focused and care-first system.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, they called for creating a Youth Justice Work Group to make recommendations for creating a system that truly meets the needs of young people in the justice system, noting almost 90 percent of them have an open mental health case.

“Shifting towards a rehabilitative and healing model that builds on a youth’s strengths is not just ideal but necessary,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “This Board must ask itself if the structure of the Probation Department itself is limiting and even counterproductive in the pursuit of reform. If the County is to meet its obligation of adequately addressing the rehabilitative needs of the youth in its care, it must acknowledge that the juvenile camps and halls model is fundamentally flawed, and that housing supervision and services within an agency oriented toward law enforcement may be the wrong approach.”

“All the recent research on juvenile justice points to the need for a care-first approach,” Supervisor Kuehl said. “Punitive approaches have not been shown to make things any better, but rather to worsen them over time. This motion asks an inclusive group of County and community stakeholders to meet and develop guidance, along with a consultant with appropriate expertise, to think through whether this work might be moved out of the Probation Department, and, where it might better be housed. The care-first approach, if done right, can be transformational in the lives of some of our most vulnerable kids, and this motion will provide us with the thoughtful advice we need to consider our options and achieve our goal.”

The motion is consistent with one of the newly released recommendations of the Probation Reform and Implementation Team (PRIT) which, after 14 public hearings, determined the Board should “remove the Juvenile Services Division from the jurisdiction of the Probation Department, thereby separating youth and adult probation services in L.A. County.” Noting 9 out of 10 Probation youth suffer from mental health issues, the PRIT said in its report, “It is truly remiss of L.A. County not to place these youth with an agency staffed with people who are subject matter experts in mental health diagnosis, assessment, education and treatment. This shift in responsibility and care would support youth in their ongoing healthy and safe development, and best prepare them to return to their families and communities, and deter them from penetrating further into the juvenile justice system and/or entering the adult justice system. Such an approach ultimately ensures public safety.”

To date, 38 states have organized or reorganized their juvenile justice systems to be separate departments, or to fall under a health or youth development agency. Governor Gavin Newsom recently reorganized California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, transitioning it out of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and into the Department of Health and Human Services.

LA County 2nd District Probation Commissioner Jan Levine, a retired juvenile court judge and longtime volunteer at Central Juvenile Hall and probation camps, said she has both witnessed and participated in efforts to reshape the current juvenile justice system from a punitive to a rehabilitative model over the last 20 years. “Today, when I inspect our juvenile halls, I am shocked by the deterioration of staff morale, and the evidence of youth acting out through vandalism and assault – on each other as well as on staff. I live with the fear that it’s only a matter of time before someone – youth or staff – will end up severely injured or worse. I know first-hand that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of hardworking, well-meaning, dedicated Probation employees. However, I have reached the conclusion that the juvenile arm of this department, as currently structured and staffed, cannot accomplish the structural changes necessary to become a place that supports either the youth whose care it is responsible for, or the employees who are to deliver that care. For those reasons, I strongly support the Supervisor’s motion.”

“This is the right time for transformative redesign because Probation caseloads in LA County have dropped by some 50 percent or more to historic loads, and eight camps and one juvenile hall have closed,” said Patricia Suong, youth justice policy director at the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund-California. “We can further reduce our reliance on the Probation system by imagining another system of care altogether.”

Judge Mike Nash (ret.), director of the County’s Office of Child Protection, said, “It’s important that we have a system that focuses meaningfully on serving our young people in a way that is different from adults… one that is meaningfully able to focus on the language and spirit of the Welfare Institutions Code, which mandates that we create a system that’s designed to provide care, treatment and guidance consistent with the best interests of youth and the public.”

Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo, who oversees educational services at juvenile justice facilities, said, “The LA County Office of Education already works hand-in-hand with Probation, the Department of Mental Health, and many other community organizations to better serve our students.  I think that it’s important that we take time to explore what we’re doing, to evaluate whether or not it’s working, and to think about how we may be able to improve the services that we’re providing to our children and families.”

Currently, Los Angeles County’s Probation Department has a budget of almost $1 billion and supervisory responsibility for more than 40,000 adult clients and about 8,000 youth, more than 900 of whom are in juvenile halls, probation camps, and other facilities.