LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County’s inspector general Tuesday backed a recommendation for civilian subpoena power over the Sheriff’s Department, while a sheriff’s representative warned that work on a long-negotiated agreement to share information could be slowed as a result.
Inspector General Max Huntsman is part of a working group hashing out the mission and responsibilities of the yet-to-be-appointed Civilian Oversight Commission and voted as part of a 4-3 majority in favor of subpoena power. (Read more on the Civilian Oversight Commission here.)
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich quizzed Huntsman about why he favored granting such power even as he is negotiating an agreement with the Sheriff’s Department that would give him broader access to records.
“It’s been a year and a half and we haven’t been able to get an (agreement),” Huntsman replied.
The debate came as the working group presented its report, the result of months of debate and multiple town halls, to the Board of Supervisors.
The commission “wouldn’t enjoy the full trust and confidence of the public without (subpoena) power,” working group member and former Public Counsel CEO Hernan Vera told the board.
Subpoena power would require an amendment to the county charter, which would need to be approved by voters. Even if a ballot measure were approved, legal challenges are likely.
The inspector general has long said he is stymied in doing his job by a lack of access, while Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said he welcomes transparency but that some personnel and investigative records must be kept confidential by law.
Huntsman said the agreement and subpoena power were not mutually exclusive and both have drawbacks.
“Subpoena power by itself does not get us access to the kind of detailed, internal information that I believe is absolutely critical,” Huntsman said.
An agreement would allow greater access, but relies on the sheriff’s goodwill and is not legally enforceable, he said.
Neal Tyler, McDonnell’s executive officer and a member of the working group, urged the board on behalf of McDonnell not to move forward with a ballot measure.
Tyler said the sheriff was anxious to get started working with the commission but worried about subpoena power for “a group of nine people that he doesn’t even know yet” and unsure “whether they’ll be driven by statesmanship or a preconceived agenda.”
If the board moves forward with a ballot measure, it might slow progress on the agreement with the OIG, which otherwise might be “just weeks away,” Tyler said.
Other members of the working group had argued that the fight over a ballot measure would scuttle the chance for real cooperation between the Sheriff’s Department and the commission.
Tyler said the board should have faith in the sheriff since he has championed accountability and civilian oversight even during his campaign for the job.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said it wasn’t a personal issue or about respect for the sheriff, but a systemic problem.
“My days of deferring to a sheriff, elected or not, a chief, appointed or not, are over,” he said.
Ridley-Thomas noted that civilian oversight of law enforcement can be found in many other jurisdictions nationwide.
“We are rather late to the party,” he said. “It’s about time Los Angeles County got with the program.”
The supervisors took no action Tuesday on the working group’s report, which also included a recommendation to bar any former or current Sheriff’s Department employees from being appointed to the commission. Current law enforcement employees from any jurisdiction would also be prohibited from serving, under the group’s proposal.