The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously adopted three ordinances that grant subpoena power to watchdog agencies for the Sheriff’s and Probation departments, over Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s objections.
A majority of the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission will be able to vote to compel documents, testimony and other information from the Sheriff’s Department through the Office of Inspector General. The Probation Oversight Commission — still in formation — will have the same power.
Brian Williams, executive director of the COC, promised not to use the power as a hammer.
“The foundation of justice is good faith,” Williams said. “Subpoena (power) is not a weapon. It really is a tool for justice.”
Villanueva told the board that he campaigned on transparency and said his department is doing its best to make information available.
“It’s not as simple as pushing a button and snapping our fingers and voila,” Villanueva said.
However, the sheriff said he plans to put “everything that is not legally restricted” online for everyone to see. He said he plans to post a wealth of information on deputy-involved shootings, for example, including deputies’ first reports, coroner’s reports and bodycam video. He said he would be asking the board to fund more server capacity to support that effort.
“We want the public to be able to decide for themselves” rather than having someone else “sell” an idea to them, Villanueva told the board.
Despite numerous and well-documented complaints from the OIG about a lack of transparency and cooperation, the sheriff insisted that he was being responsive and had shared “reams and reams of data” with the COC and OIG. By Villanueva’s count, the OIG released 21 reports last year — Villanueva’s first year running the department — versus 10 the prior year.
That has led some of his supporters to claim that Inspector General Max Huntsman has an unhealthy animosity for the sheriff, who warned that battles over documents would ramp up the county’s litigation costs. He said confidential information — personnel records and information on the victims of sexual assault or domestic violence crimes, for example — are legally protected and would remain out of reach of a subpoena.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the decision about what is or isn’t legally protected shouldn’t be Villanueva’s alone.
“It’s not a lack of trust,” Kuehl said. “It really is a question of law.”
Many speakers expressed their support for Villanueva.
“I wish I had the same faith in our courts,” said Lisa Zeller, a longtime senior jail chaplain. “They are incredibly backlogged … my vote is less bureaucracy. Let’s let the sheriff do his job please.”
Many others said the sheriff’s behavior — including a lack of attention to rooting out deputy cliques and deputies who allegedly harass family members of those killed in deputy-involved shootings — demands stricter oversight and subpoena power.
“His business is secrecy,” ACLU lawyer Andres Kwon told the board, pointing to a lack of compliance and calling Villanueva “the Trump of law enforcement.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger expressed hope that the county and the sheriff could work out a Memorandum of Agreement about how to operate, “so that the subpoena is a last resort.”
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said commissioners would be appointed to the Probation Oversight Commission in the coming months.
“For years, the board has been concerned with excessive use of force, dysfunctional governance, and misuse of public funds haunting the Probation Department,” he said. “Creating the POC is nothing short of game-changing, as is giving the ability to compel data, documents and direct testimony.”