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Sheriff's oversight panel to reassess its priorities

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission conducted its first meeting at Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles January 26, 2017.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
The Sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission conducted its first meeting at Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles Jan. 26, 2017.

The first civilian panel to oversee the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will meet Thursday to figure out which issues it should focus on at the sprawling law enforcement agency. Several members have expressed concerns that they've been spreading themselves thin by trying to address too many issues at once. 

The concern arose as the nine-member panel considered creating a fourth ad hoc committee at its last monthly meeting. The commission has just four staff members.

In its previous five meetings, the panel has discussed everything from whether the sheriff should fly unmanned drones to how well the department deals with mentally ill people.

The group also has discussed how the sheriff’s department interacts with federal immigration authorities as President Trump plans more aggressive deportation efforts; allegations the department discourages residents from filing complaints; and concerns the agency’s internal affairs bureau, which investigates allegations of misconduct by deputies, is understaffed.

The agency patrols all unincorporated areas in the county, 44 cities and community colleges. It also operates county jail, which holds nearly 20,000 prisoners.

"This is a massive system," said Mark Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now, a watchdog group created in 2011 as reports of inmate abuses inside Men’s Central Jail grew. The group successfully lobbied the board of supervisors to create the commission.

He praised commissioners for their willingness to ask tough questions of sheriff’s officials who have testified before the commission, and their decision to launch a series of town halls to hear the concerns of residents. Johnson viewed any pause to re-focus as natural for a new organization.

Besides public comment, the main agenda items for Thursday’s meeting are "defining project priorities" and future meeting schedules. Some members have suggested that the commission should meet twice a month instead of just once.

The commission has no formal authority over the sheriff’s department. Under California law, elected sheriffs are beholden only to voters.

The panel does have  the bully pulpit and the ability to request the county’s inspector general to investigate and provide data on particular issues. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has agreed to provide the inspector general access to department records.

Ideally, the commission will begin to generate data and reports on problems and issues at the department and make specific recommendations for reform, said Commission Chairman Robert Bonner, a former federal judge and one-time head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

McDonnell told KPCC he’s satisfied so far with the relationship between his department and the commission.

"The relationship is one of mutual respect," he said. "They are working with us and taking the time to learn about the [sheriff's department] and the range of issues that we deal with," McDonnell said.

The panel has approved two resolutions during its short tenure. One supported McDonnell’s decision to give the district attorney a list of 300 deputies who may not be able to testify in court because of serious misconduct. The Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs has gone to court to block the move.  

The other resolution called on the sheriff to release more data on the department's website – something the sheriff has indicated he is willing to do.

Usually anywhere from 25 to 40 people attend the oversight commission's meetings, including community activists, sheriff’s officials and a couple of news reporters. The L.A. Police Commission, which has formal authority over the LAPD, tends to attract more people and more reporters.

Johnson said the commission needs subpoena power in case McDonnell refuses to hand over documents, or to compel sheriff’s officials to testify before the panel on a given issue. He argues it would also allow the commission to subpoena independent contractors who work or make deliveries at the jail and may have witnessed abuses.

"In order for them to be effective, they need to have power," Johnson said. "For us, that is the north star."

McDonnell has said subpoena power is unnecessary because he has agreed to provide complete access to the county’s inspector general. He argues his relationship with the oversight panel should not be an adversarial one.

The county working group appointed by the board of supervisors to create the framework for the commission recommended it have subpoena power. The supervisors rejected the idea.