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Era of civilian oversight begins at LA Sheriff’s Department

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission conducted its first meeting at Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles January 26, 2017.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission conducted its first meeting at Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles January 26, 2017, hearing concerns from police reform activists.

The new Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission conducted its first meeting Thursday, with members pledging to be a strong voice for reform at the sprawling law enforcement agency that patrols much of LA County and operates its jail system.

The county Board of Supervisors created the panel after a federal probe of deputy-on-inmate violence inside the jails resulted in the indictment of more than 20 sheriff’s officials and led to the resignation of longtime sheriff Lee Baca. The board refused to give the panel any formal authority over the sheriff, but gave it full access to the county’s inspector general to conduct investigations.

The nine-member panel includes a former prosecutor, a former public defender, an ex-cop, civil rights activists and clergy. In one of their first acts, they selected former federal judge Robert Bonner as their chair.

Bonner, who once ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and sat on the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, said he is intimately familiar with police practices.

“I actually know how this is done, or ideally could be done,” Bonner told KPCC, referring to writing policies on how and when police should use force. “One of our most important objectives is to substantially reduce the use of excessive, unnecessary, out of policy, and unconstitutional use of force at the sheriff’s department.”

Asked about the extent of the problem, Bonner said that’s what the commission intends to find out.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell attended the meeting, sitting in the middle of the panel on the stage inside the auditorium of Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles. As he did during debates about the creation of the watchdog group, McDonnell sought to focus its attention on issues beyond use of force.

“While police use of force is part of the dialogue, so should the need for local, state and federal resources to deal with the prevalence of mental illness and drug addiction that impact the safety of our community and our officers,” McDonnell said in a statement.

The sheriff invited people to “share community concerns with us freely,” but also to praise deputies when they deserve it and “advocate for us” when the department needs more money.

“We need your help and we welcome your partnership,” said the sheriff.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, including police reform activists, sheriff’s department officials and people who work on criminal justice issues for the Board of Supervisors.

Many of the activists who addressed the panel focused on President Trump’s executive order issued Wednesday, which stated the priority of his administration will be removing deportable immigrants who "have been convicted of any criminal offense; have been charged with any criminal offense.”

Activists worry the sheriff’s department will expand cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE - to avoid any loss of federal funding. Then result, they argue, would be the deportation of more people convicted of minor offenses.

“Under Trump’s presidency, we are very concerned about this,” said Marcela Hernandez of the Los Angeles Immigrant Youth Coalition.

“He’s doing some really crazy stuff,” said another member of the coalition. “We really want the sheriff to stop working with ICE.”

McDonnell has said he has no intention of changing the department’s current policy, which allows cooperation with immigration officials only when an immigrant has been charged with a serious or violent crime.

Other speakers addressed range of issues, including possible violations of people’s privacy by the sheriff’s new drone and disciplining deputies who engage in misconduct.

“One of our biggest concerns is the lack of transparency in the discipline process,” said Karren Lane, vice president of policy at Community Coalition. She urged the panel to advocate for a change in a state law that bans police agencies from revealing discipline against officers.

Commissioners wasted no time delving into issues, asking inspector general Max Huntsman to come back with reports on how the sheriff cooperates with federal immigration authorities, uses drones, and handles mentally ill people inside and outside the jails.

In the back of the room, Nancy Eng sat quietly and listened.

Eng’s schizophrenic sister Jazmyne was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy five years ago as she came toward him with a hammer inside a mental health clinic. Deputies had been called to the clinic to help subdue Eng – not kill her.

The meeting was hard to attend, said Eng, but provided hope that the sheriff’s department would change.

“I’m glad there is this forum because other families in the future will have a venue to talk,” said Eng, her voice quivering with emotion. “Our family didn’t have it.”

The meeting lasted three hours, with the first portion devoted to establishing protocols like when the commission would meet. The panel will meet monthly at 9:30 a.m., a time of day that frustrated some activists who said it would preclude most working people from attending. The panel promised to also conduct town halls.