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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department Needs Civilian Oversight Now

Neither the departure of one Sheriff nor the arrival of a new one will bring the type of sustained, structural improvements to the department that the residents of Los Angeles County are demanding.
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Significant changes have come to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department in recent weeks, and more are in the offing. Long-time Sheriff Lee Baca surprised many with his sudden retirement, and the board of supervisors appointed Orange County Undersheriff John L. Scott to serve as Sheriff until Baca's successor is elected. As early as June 3, if a candidate emerges from the primary with more than 50 percent of the vote, we will know who is going to be the new Sheriff in town.

Change, however, should not be confused with reform. Neither the departure of one Sheriff nor the arrival of a new one will bring the type of sustained, structural improvements to the department that the residents of Los Angeles County are demanding.

There are few agencies in Los Angeles County as urgently in need of reform as the Sheriff's Department; yet unless we as a community agree to establish a new form of public monitoring, there is little chance we will see the progress all parties agree is so desperately needed. Let me be blunt:

No matter how many people with histories of misconduct were hired to be Sheriff deputies; no matter how many deputies are indicted by federal authorities; no matter how many guards behave like criminals while guarding inmates, no matter how many millions of taxpayers' dollars get awarded to families of unarmed victims of deputy-involved shootings; and no matter what the next shocking news report reveals about wrongdoing in one of the nation's largest sheriff's departments; in 2014 don't expect to see the kind of progress and reform that could and should be achieved.

Why? Because there is no mechanism to advance the reforms that the people of Los Angeles County need and deserve.

The department has proved time and again that it cannot police itself. The former sheriff said he had no knowledge of violence in the jails, of obstruction of justice by deputies with regard to an ongoing FBI investigation, and no knowledge of the hiring of dozens of deputies with troubled or criminal pasts.

The problem, however, is that if he didn't know, there's no way we could know either. After all, the Board of Supervisors receives its information from the Sheriff. But there are those who did know -- those who have known for a long time of the department's problems -- the people of Los Angeles County.

This is why it is imperative that the county create a citizens' oversight commission akin to the Los Angeles Police commission and other law enforcement agencies across the nation. Police commission structures exist in Oakland; Long Beach, CA; San Diego; San Francisco; New York City. What would it do? It would work with the new inspector general, Max Huntsman, a veteran prosecution, to suggest areas right for investigation and provide a platform for citizens to bring ideas, suggestions and complaints to light. It would create a new level of transparency and accountability for the department from which both employees and citizens would benefit.

The fact is the Sheriff's department is not set up to accommodate independent input that has to be taken seriously. That must change.

In 1850, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was a mostly volunteer organization that served a population of just over 3,000 people. And Los Angeles really was the Wild West; thousands of men with gold fever were rushing into our new state; fugitives from justice found California a safe hideout. Shootouts and duels were common, and Los Angeles held the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the nation.

Those old Western films weren't far off track with regard to law and order: basically the most popular man in town was urged to quell the chaos, best the bad guys and the grateful populous would award him a shiny Sheriff's star.

Despite the exponential growth of the county and tremendous advances of modern day policing, we are still beholden to this anachronistic model of law enforcement. We hold a popularity contest for arguably our most important law enforcement position -- try to imagine electing a police chief -- and then we are left without a mechanism to ensure transparency and to hold the Sheriff accountable. The result is that we have something worse than democracy; we have the illusion of democracy. But real democracy provides means for civic engagement. The franchise is neither the beginning nor the end of citizens' rights and responsibilities -- it is a means to an end. Furthermore, real democracy provides a means for civic engagement such as an independent citizen's oversight panel because there is an expectation of public participation and guidance. When dealing with law enforcement, that means a constant dialogue between the public and law enforcement with respect to civil rights, transparency and ongoing accountability.

For those who say it is the supervisors' responsibility, here are some fast facts: as supervisors, our power over the Sheriff's department are primarily limited to budget and litigation matters -- and no one to date has suggested the pathway to reform is to defund the agency. But more to the point, the board's duties require us to attend to a constellation of issues and geographical regions -- not just to one department. Los Angeles County encompasses 88 cities and with 10 million people, is more populous than 42 states. Also included in the county are 140 unincorporated communities and the five of us effectively serve as the city council for all of them, and each one of us acts as mayor for those communities in our individual districts. With 2 million constituents each and 33 departments to oversee -- from children and family services, senior services, health services, parks etc., we do not have the wherewithal to focus attention wholly or solely on any one department. And the Sheriff's department needs and deserves that kind of scrutiny. Laser-like, focused monitoring.

This truth is increasingly understood by careful observers of the department. Los Angeles Times editorial writer Robert Greene hit the nail on the head writing:

The sheriff would still be, on paper, answerable only to the public. But the public would now have a regular forum, even during those times when the attention of the Board of Supervisors is distracted by crises in other departments.

Some who are cool to the idea of a citizen's commission speak in almost pugilistic terms: It wouldn't have the necessary "teeth," they say, or the power to pummel and punish a Sheriff, who, after all, is a duly elected official. That argument implicitly misstates and mistakes the commission's role. Partnership, not punishment is in order; vigilance -- not vigilantism. After all, we're not talking about rounding up a posse.

Shortly before he retired, Sheriff Lee Baca joined Supervisor Gloria Molina and me in calling for the creation of an oversight commission, rightly emphasizing that it would assist the department by strengthening transparency and accountability. It is noteworthy that one of his last public statements in office was a call for reform.

Week after week citizens come to the Tuesday board meeting and ask for the right to monitor, oversee and yes, partner with their Sheriff's department. Supervisor Molina and I are clear that such is the best path to take. One more vote gets us to a model of 21st century policing that the residents of Los Angeles, public safety advocates, employees of the department and even the former Sheriff himself endorse. It is time for us, as a county, to take the steps necessary to affect genuine, sustainable and ongoing reform.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.