LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors indicated its intent Tuesday to approve an ordinance giving a watchdog agency over the Sheriff’s Department the ability to subpoena documents through the Office of Inspector General.
The proposed ordinance would allow a majority of the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission to vote to compel documents, testimony and other information.
Assistant Sheriff Steve Gross urged the board not to grant subpoena power, warning that it could result in harm to deputies and pit the department against other members of the county “family.”
Gross appeared on behalf of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, whose relationship with the board is already antagonistic and involves a lawsuit and countersuit in the case of a deputy terminated for misconduct and then rehired by Villanueva.
“We absolutely respect and value the role of oversight,” Gross said.
Gross said the department was working to foster a better relationship with the Civilian Oversight Commission and work to provide more transparency, putting out all information it could legally publish online for public consumption.
Inspector General Max Huntsman has repeatedly complained about the lack of transparency and cooperation with the department during Villanueva’s tenure. Gross sought to counter that argument, telling the board that the OIG staff has access to the jails and stations, the department’s case review process, risk management documentation and other records.
“We feel that we have been overwhelmingly in compliance with county code,” Gross said.
Gross argued that “collaboration, cooperation and teamwork” would provide a better result than subpoenas.
“Our voluntary compliance is best for both the sheriff’s department and the county,” Gross told the board.
Gross said Villanueva wants to renegotiate the Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the department, citing that as a best practice among law enforcement agencies. That agreement predates Villanueva.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl acknowledged that an MOU would be preferable, but seemed to express skepticism about compliance.
“I think an MOU would be better, but only if it’s adhered to by both sides,” Kuehl said before voting in favor of the ordinance granting subpoena power.
Several criminal justice advocates urged the board to follow through.
“The sheriff claims (subpoena power) would undermine trust with the community. We have no relationships or trust with the sheriff’s department,” said Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition. “Subpoena power is essential … for you to hold the sheriff accountable.”
A policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California referenced allegations of harassment against family members of individuals fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies.
“This is not a drill. We have a sheriff that is terrorizing people in the community … we have to have subpoena power,” said Dakota Belle Witt.
A separate ordinance, also approved Tuesday, indicates that the board plans to grant the Probation Oversight Commission the same power. That commission is still in formation.
A second administrative vote by the board is required for final approval of both ordinances.