LOS ANGELES – County supervisors on Tuesday approved a process for selecting members of the long-awaited Civilian Oversight Commission intended to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, agreeing to allow former deputies to serve on the panel.
“This has been a long time in the making,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “This is the result of an accumulation of small steps taken to reach an ultimate goal. That goal is constitutional and community policing practices that square with the best practices in the 21st century.”
Each of the five supervisors will appoint one of the nine commission members. Twenty other candidates for the four remaining seats will be identified by an outside consultant.
The five original appointees will interview and rank those 20 candidates to select six finalists, and then the board will vote to select the final four.
The working group charged with shaping the commission’s mission, authority and structure offered 50-odd recommendations to the board. Only three did not reflect a consensus.
The panel couldn’t agree on how to choose the remaining four members, whether former Sheriff’s Department personnel could serve on the commission and whether to pursue subpoena power for the group, which was approved in concept in December 2014.
The majority favored granting subpoena power — which would require voters to approve a change to the county’s charter — and excluding former deputies, according to the group’s chair, Dean Hansell.
He said it was “not because of a belief that former sheriff’s deputies could not be good commissioners,” but because it is “important for each member to have credibility with both the Sheriff’s Department and the community” and not be perceived as biased.
Dozens of community activists railed against the idea of appointing ex-deputies to the commission.
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California urged the board to reconsider, saying allowing deputies to serve would “surely and deeply sabotage this commission’s credibility with the community.”
Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now told the board that his organization had played by the book, spending six months meeting with the working group to present its case for excluding deputies. Then the board moved in opposition of the panel’s recommendation.
“You expect us to believe that community input into this process will be anything less than symbolic?”, Johnson asked the board, drawing loud applause in the hearing room.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said it was “not a good idea” to appoint former deputies, but that she stood alone in that view and was not willing to derail the overall plan over that issue.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said she didn’t think it was fair to exclude all ex-deputies.
“Alumni of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have gone on to distinguished professional careers in various other fields. I don’t think it’s fair to rule them all out with such a broad stroke,” Solis said.
Deputies must have left law enforcement at least one year ago to be eligible for consideration.
Jose Osuna of Homeboy Industries said the commission was “a good step in the right direction,” but suggested the appointment of former deputies should be balanced with “input from those that have been formerly incarcerated.”
Ridley-Thomas and Solis recommended holding off on a final decision about subpoena power in light of a recent agreement with the Sheriff’s Department on sharing confidential information.
Inspector General Max Huntsman said his office had requested 33 different sets of confidential data in the last month, since he and Sheriff Jim McDonnell settled on how to share those types of documents. Huntsman told the board he’d received everything he’d requested.
Many advocates agreed with the majority of the working group, saying the authority to issue subpoenas was a critical tool.
One advocate called not giving the commission such power a “slap in the face of democracy.”
The Board of Supervisors directed Huntsman to come back in 60 days with a progress report on cooperation with the Sheriff’s Department.
“It does not say no to subpoena power, it simply defers the question,” Solis said of the board’s action.
Huntsman said the commission would provide a forum for an important conversation about law enforcement’s relationship with the community that is too often reduced to media sound bites.
“True accountability means public participation,” Huntsman said, even as some advocates said the relationship between the commission and the IG’s office wasn’t clearly spelled out by the board.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the board he embraced the commission.
“There will always be problems in an organization like ours,” McDonnell said. “We are working very hard to be the very best agency we can, each and every day.”
Previous related story: OIG backs push for civilian subpoena power