In the interest of real oversight

August 5, 2014 

Max Huntsman, testifying Tuesday, is the first inspector general, a position that carries high expectations.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject a proposal  to create a new citizens’ commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, a proposal  I opposed. Here, in a statement I read during Tuesday’s board meeting, is why:

Ensuring constitutional policing, and the accountability and transparency that promotes it, has long been one of our society’s–and especially Los Angeles’–most difficult challenges. Law enforcement agencies, which have the extraordinary power to take away our freedoms, to use deadly force, to collect information on private citizens, must be held to the strictest standards of law.

Each of us serving in public office takes an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the State of California. For me, that oath has a very personal meaning because many years ago, before I ever was elected to office, my rights as a private citizen were violated by a local police agency. As an elected official, I spilled considerable political blood–even as others were spilling real blood–when I took on such police abuses as excessive force, bad shootings, reckless use of chokeholds and illegal spying on law-abiding citizens.

Today’s upheaval in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is only the latest in a series of crises that have engulfed our local law enforcement agencies over the years. When jail violence and other misconduct issues shook the Sheriff’s Department, this board, on a motion I authored with Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, established the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence to recommend steps to reverse the department’s slide into scandal. The commission produced a hard-hitting report on what its esteemed members concluded was necessary to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable for how it polices our jails and, by extension, our communities. Our board unanimously approved each and every one of those reforms, most of which have been implemented, some of which remain works in progress.

Today’s discussion focuses on this very question: What is the most effective way to ensure that the department strictly adheres to its constitutional mandate while conducting itself with as much transparency as possible to restore public confidence. The problem with the Sheriff’s Department is not that there is too little oversight. The problem is that there’s been too little effective oversight.

Since 1959, before the now-notorious Men’s Central Jail was even opened, the County’s Sybil Brand Institutional Inspection Commission has been charged with monitoring our jails. After the 1992 Kolts Report, which focused on excessive force, community relations and citizen complaints, the Board of Supervisors hired Special Counsel Merrick Bobb to track these issues and produce semi-annual reports. The Board also created an Office of Ombudsman to hear and vet citizen and inmate complaints. Later, the Board engaged the ACLU as an independent jail monitor–so independent, in fact, that the ACLU would periodically sue us over the very conduct they were monitoring on our behalf.

Later still, we created an Office of Independent Review, a group of attorneys operating within the Sheriff’s Department to provide a second set of eyes on the department’s internal investigations of alleged and potential misconduct. And on top of all this, the U.S. Department of Justice has been looking over our shoulder for years on a variety of matters, including whether the department is meeting its obligations under a Memorandum of Agreement in its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

Despite these oversight efforts, the Sheriff’s Department went into a tailspin that included: the failed administration of our jails; violence perpetrated against some of our inmates and jail visitors, and a lack of adequate and effective treatment of inmates with mental health issues. This is not to mention problems elsewhere in the department that made it a poster child for how not to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.

It was in response to this meltdown that I proposed the creation of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. After nearly a year of dedicated work under the leadership of some of L.A.’s most respected jurists, experts and community leaders, the panel urged enactment of more than 60 reforms. The centerpiece was the establishment of a new, full-time Office of Inspector General that would be independent of the Sheriff’s Department, answering directly to the Board of Supervisors, with its own staff, budget and broad investigative authority, including unfettered access to the department’s records.

Those recommendations did not include the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission, like the one now being proposed. In fact, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence concluded in its final report: “While the Commission considered a civilian commission comprised of community leaders as an additional oversight body, such a commission is not necessary if the Board of Supervisors continues to put a spotlight on conditions in the jails and establishes a well-structured and adequately staffed Office of Inspector General.”

But the ink was barely dry on this historic report before this Board was asked to consider the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission. A year later, before the Board had even appointed an Inspector General, a second motion was proposed, calling again for the creation of a sheriff’s oversight commission. And now, just as the Board is preparing to formally establish the Office of Inspector General, we once again are being told that only a sheriff’s oversight commission can really do the job.

I understand the deep and long-held frustrations that have led to this proposal. I share them. Long before the scandal over brutality in the jails erupted, residents in some neighborhoods complained of heavy-handed tactics by the Sheriff’s Department. In recent days, we have all heard from many people who support the idea of a new oversight panel, and I applaud them for their active engagement in an issue of such critical importance. But I believe it is necessary at this moment of understandably high emotions to provide straight talk about what I see as the surest way to reach our goal of righting the Sheriff’s Department for today and the future.

Some of you might ask: What’s the harm? Isn’t too much oversight better than too little?  But that’s been precisely the problem—not too much oversight, but too much inadequate, ineffective and duplicative oversight. Somehow, with the many monitoring efforts launched over the years, problems were overlooked, ignored or never addressed. In my judgment, the ambiguous roles of these various oversight structures contributed to a lack of focus and decisiveness in addressing the department’s problems, which have now become a national embarrassment.

Simply put, when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.

This is why the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence urged the creation of the Office of Inspector General, an agency with authority, resources and a single-minded dedication to our collective mission of restoring constitutional policing to our County. Today, more than seven months after we appointed our Inspector General, we finally have before us on our agenda a staffing and organizational plan for his office. In addition to providing rigorous oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, his mandate includes reaching out to the public through town hall meetings and other vehicles to hear complaints and investigate.

The Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, the acting Sheriff, the County’s CEO and our own Inspector General all agree that the first priority must be to get this new office fully operational before contemplating any additional oversight proposals.

These are the indisputable facts: the proposed sheriff’s oversight commission would have no real power, no legal investigative authority, only limited access to sensitive department materials and no meaningful way to implement any recommendations it might make. The state constitution grants great power to the Sheriff, and he is not subordinate to the Board of Supervisors. And this Board cannot delegate powers to a commission that the Board itself does not possess.

Finally, looming ahead, there is a potential for oversight, beyond the Inspector General, with very real and sharp teeth. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating key areas of the Sheriff’s Department for a number of years. While it has noted some progress toward reform, it recently warned of serious deficiencies. It is becoming abundantly clear that the Justice Department will compel the department and this County to be accountable for constitutional policing through a consent decree or a Memorandum of Agreement, all under the supervision of a federal judge.

We must permit the Inspector General, the Justice Department and this Board to implement the system of accountability recommended by the jail violence commission nearly two years ago. Creating any additional structure would be counterproductive. These entities, working in tandem, offer the best chance of establishing the kind of accountability and transparency that we all want. If this system falls short, then our Board can reassess any number of alternatives, including legislative changes at the state and county levels that would allow for an oversight body with real authority over the Sheriff’s Department.

This much I know for sure, the commission we’re being asked to create today would be unable to live up to our highest—and rightful—expectations.

Posted 8/5/14


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