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Los Angeles County Supervisors approve civilian oversight over Sheriff

Shortly after his swearing in, new L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he's happy to hear about the White House's plan to use federal funding to supply body cameras to officers.
Erika Aguilar/ KPCC
New L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell at his swearing in.

The Los Angeles county Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved the creation of a civilian commission to oversee the sheriff’s department - though it hasn't yet decided how the new government body will work or how broad its powers will be.
A working group, made up of new Sheriff Jim McDonnell and appointees chosen by the supervisors, will meet next to decide those specifics.

The change is significant. Just a few months ago, the idea didn’t have the votes to pass.

But a lot has changed since then.

Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl have joined the board – and both wanted the commission. Solis said it would help supervisors know how to best direct money for reforms.

McDonnell also had said he supported the idea.

“Ladies and gentleman, the time has come,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, who authored the motion both times. “We are prepared to move forward. We are effectively overdue for this level of transparency, accountability and appropriate involvement."

The commission will be an additional layer of oversight. Inspector General Max Huntsman already oversees the department.

“I think there is more pressure potentially placed by a citizen commission on us and on the sheriffs commission, partly because of the fourth estate, and partly because there are simply more energetic individuals engaged,” Kuehl said.

Dozen of citizens spoke passionately at Tuesday's meeting. Rev. Peter Laarman, of the advocacy group Justice Not Jails, said the board was picking the right time to make a strong statement, as the national protests against two grand juries failing to indict police officers in New York and Missouri for killing unarmed black suspects.

"For me  - and the people I work with - the independence of this oversight commission will be the crucial thing,” Laarman said.

Several members of the public spoke about what they would want the commission to be like. Many spoke about independent investigative power and subpoena power. Many said no law enforcement should be on the commission.

Huntsman, the IG, said it's not so easy to oversee the Sheriff. He told the board his powers are limited because he can't access sheriff’s personnel records and no county watchdog can truly make reforms until personnel records are turned over.

Several members of the public stepped up to the microphone during the meeting to tell the board they had served time in jail and witnessed mistreatment first hand. They said a commission needs to keep sheriff’s deputies accountable, and to create more transparency in the department.

“When I got out [of jail], I wasn’t worried about how the Inspector General was going to get access to paperwork, or any bureaucracy, or what went wrong with oversight commissions in the past," said Shannon Soper from the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now. "I was looking to solve real problems in real time, and these girls in those jails can’t wait. This stuff has to be done, and it has to be effective."

This story has been updated.