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LA County Board of Supervisors vote to study civilian oversight of Sheriff's Department

Members of the Los Angeles County sheriff's department wait for Undersheriff Paul Tanaka's hearing to begin with the County Board of Supervisors on July 27, 2012.
Bear Guerra/KPCC
Members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on July 27, 2012.

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted to study creating a civilian body to monitor the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The Board has debated for months a proposal by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to create a civilian oversight commission, but Ridley-Thomas could not muster the three votes needed for passage.

On Tuesday, the Board agreed instead to ask Interim Sheriff John Scott, Inspector General Max Huntsman and the county counsel to study what sorts of oversight might be appropriate for the department.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has seen a large share of scandals in the past few years. In 2012, a Blue Ribbon panel investigating accusations of inmate beatings found a "culture of violence" at L.A. County's jails. In late 2013 and early 2014, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles charged a total of 20 deputies working in the jails with federal crimes. Many are accused of beating inmates and jail visitors. Others face charges for allegedly obstructing an FBI investigation into the department.

The violence issues and apparent internal oversight failures prompted calls for greater oversight of the department, which runs the largest jail system and one of the largest patrol forces in the nation.

In December, the Board hired Huntsman away from the L.A. County District Attorney's Office to start an Office of the Inspector General to monitor the Sheriff's Department.

Related: LASD inspector general: 'The power that I have comes from you'

But Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said that move was not enough – that the Sheriff's Department needs a civilian oversight body, akin to the LAPD's Police Commission, to serve as a transparent, public watchdog. Supervisor Gloria Molina cosponsored the proposal.

Critics, however, wondered how much "oversight" a commission would actually have. Voters elect county sheriffs in California, meaning that by law they are independent from other county leaders. The Board of Supervisors oversees the sheriff's budget, but, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told KPCC in December the Board can hardly threaten the sheriff by withholding funding.

"In practice, we’re not going to withhold money from the Sheriff’s Department that polices the communities of our county,” Yaroslavsky said. “We’re not going to punish our public to send a message to the sheriff.”

Checking the sheriff's power is "really a struggle,” Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU-Los Angeles, told KPCC. “It’s not like city government where there are all sorts of hierarchical authorities that can directly influence the police department.”

Huntsman, who finds himself in the position of monitoring the Sheriff's Department as its new inspector general, while lacking formal authority, told a town hall earlier this month he doesn't like the word "oversight." 

"I can't force change. I can't order the Sheriff's Department to do anything," Huntsman said. His power comes in the form of politicking, persuasion and public discontent with the Sheriff's Department, he said.

Now Huntsman will help evaluate whether a civilian board might also serve a role in the county — what sorts of power it would have and whether it might benefit the county through its own brand of public input and political sway.

The Board instructed Huntsman, Scott and the county counsel to not only study what sorts of models already exist, but what laws or constitutional amendments might need to pass at the state level to give such a body any real teeth.

"I'm not into symbolic things, I like to get product out the door," Yaroslavsky said.

The team is scheduled to report back to the Board with their recommendations in July. 

Last month, longtime L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca retired early, citing the need for a new beginning at the department. Interim Sheriff John Scott, who retired from the LA. County Sheriff's Department, has taken a leave of absence from Orange County to run the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

He will return to his post as second-in-command in Orange County once L.A. County voters elect a replacement.