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Supes Consider Civilian Commission to Oversee Sheriff's Department

Unlike the Los Angeles Police Commission, such a citizens panel would lack legal authority over an elected sheriff, at least under current state law.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today asked for input on whether a civilians should oversee the sheriff's department. Patch file photo.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today asked for input on whether a civilians should oversee the sheriff's department. Patch file photo.

The Board of Supervisors today asked for input from the sheriff's inspector general and interim sheriff on whether a civilian commission should be set up to oversee the Sheriff's Department and tabled any decision on the matter until July.

Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina proposed such an oversight commission in September, but for months have been unable to garner a needed third vote in support.

Unlike the Los Angeles Police Commission, such a citizens panel would lack legal authority over an elected sheriff, at least under current state law. Despite those limitations, civil rights advocates have pressed for a civilian panel to enhance public scrutiny of the Sheriff's Department.

Violence against jail inmates, the hiring of deputies with records of bad behavior and corruption within the department have drawn attention for months, including from federal investigators. At least 20 former and current sheriff's deputies have been indicted as part of an ongoing probe. Sheriff Lee Baca retired in January in the face of a contentious re-election battle, and the board appointed Interim Sheriff John Scott in his stead.

The board today asked Scott and sheriff's Inspector General Max Huntsman to report back by June 30 with their reactions to the idea of a citizens commission and possible alternatives for structuring independent oversight.

Supervisor Don Knabe made clear that the board was not dictating the need for a civilian commission.

"In no way, shape or form would I support that at this point," Knabe said.

Patrisse Cullors, executive director of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails and an aggressive advocate for public oversight, struck a conciliatory tone today, thanking the board for its work on reforms. She reiterated her support for a citizens commission.

"The Sheriff's Department has wrought so much havoc," Cullors said. A commission "would be a huge reform and would be a stance on human and civil rights."

Shortly before retiring, Baca had said he would welcome such a commission.

Ridley-Thomas pointed to recent editorials in support of the idea.

"Many, many others have suggested the time has come," Ridley-Thomas said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky asked county lawyers to create a matrix of oversight options and related legislative changes, including amendments to the state Constitution.

"What would need to be done to give an oversight commission the teeth that I'd like to see any such entity have?" Yaroslavsky asked.

Yaroslavsky has long said a citizens commission would have no statutory power to compel action by the sheriff or enforce policy changes.

In a statement released after the vote, Ridley-Thomas said he viewed the vote as "moving a step closer to bringing accountability" to the sheriff's department.

"The Sheriff's Department cannot police itself," Ridley-Thomas said. "We need a permanent, public watchdog that will ensure inmates' rights are not being violated. While most of our deputies patrol our communities admirably, the culture of violence that exists in our jails simply cannot continue."

--City News Service

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