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.

 

Yesterday, 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.

New Study Shows LA County Can Safely Divert Thousands of People with Mental Illness from Jail into Treatment

On any given day, more than 3,300 people struggling with mental health disorders in Los Angeles County jails are legally suitable and clinically eligible for diversion to community-based treatment programs, according to a new study by the nonprofit RAND Corp.

A significant proportion of this population is likely to be homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Conducted in response to a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger, the independent research noted about 5,400 of the County’s average daily inmate population – nearly one-third — are in mental health housing units and/or have been prescribed psychotropic medications.

The Board of Supervisors takes up the RAND report. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

Of that total, RAND concluded 61 percent meet the criteria currently used by the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) to determine whether an individual may be put forward to the courts as a candidate for diversion. An additional 7 percent are also potentially eligible for diversion, while 32 percent are not, according to the study.

RAND said 74 percent of women and 59 percent of men with a mental health disorder in County jail are appropriate candidates for diversion.

RAND recommended expanding diversion programs and better tracking their outcomes. It also urged the County to improve its early diversion efforts, which may be able to help people before they enter the criminal justice system. For example, some jurisdictions intervene at the point of law enforcement contact.

RAND behavioral scientist Stephanie Brooks presents the study’s findings to the Board of Supervisors. Photo by Martin Zamora/Board of Supervisors.

“Knowing how many people are appropriate for diversion is a first step toward understanding the types of programs, staff and funding that would be needed to treat those individuals in the community,” the study’s lead author, RAND behavioral scientist Stephanie Brooks, said.

RAND’s findings echoed those of ODR, whose own recent research concluded 56 percent of the County jail’s mental health population is eligible for diversion, with an additional 7 percent also potentially eligible.

Since its creation in 2016, ODR has diverted more than 4,400 people from County jails to long-term care and supportive housing, with very low rates of reoffending. Among those placed in the ODR Housing program, 90 percent have remained housed after six months.

The Los Angeles County Office of Diversion and Reentry’s Dr. Kristen Ochoa and Judge (ret.) Peter Espinoza. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors.

Diversion programs cost the County about $70 daily per person, while incarceration costs about $600 daily per person with serious clinical needs.

“No one can get well in a cell,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion that created ODR. “With diversion, we are creating better outcomes for people and saving County resources — without compromising public safety.”

“Diversion is also breaking the cycle between jail and homelessness, enabling those with mental health disorders to get treatment instead of the costly alternative of serving additional time behind bars and then being released with no support,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “RAND’s research underscores the need to double down on diversion to reach all those who could benefit.”

Graphic courtesy of the RAND Corporation.

 

 

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.