The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved multiple motions designed to push Sheriff Alex Villanueva to be more transparent and to cooperate with the Office of Inspector General in investigating fatal shootings by sheriff’s deputies.
The board also vowed to move forward with a long-awaited probation oversight commission.
Supervisor Hilda Solis submitted a motion asking the sheriff to release evidence pertaining to deputy-involved shootings as quickly as possible and to give the Office of Inspector General immediate access to all related records.
“L.A. County has been facing an epidemic for years: systemic violence, brutality, and racism at the hands of law enforcement agencies. We have seen too many loved ones from our communities of color killed by law enforcement and have witnessed these very same agencies subsequently conduct their own investigations into these matters,” Solis said. “Recent civil unrest both nationally and locally underscore the public’s deep-seated distrust in law enforcement agencies. This distrust is exacerbated by the lack of transparency in how these agencies conduct their investigations into these cases.”
The motion, approved by the board, also asks the sheriff to provide written justification when video evidence is not released or autopsy results are placed on a security hold, as well as to “repurpose” the Sheriff’s Information Bureau to comply with laws on transparency.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger expressed her own frustration.
“As someone who truly does believe in public safety, I think it’s more important now than ever to have that transparency front and center,” Barger said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to continue to request that this OIG be allowed to oversee the very department the office was created to monitor. And by the way, that predates the sheriff that is in that office now, this is something that dates back to … Sheriff Baca and also under Sheriff McDonnell. We’ve had several deputy-involved shootings recently with absolutely no transparency to the public.”
The motion cites penal code section 832.7 as authority for these requirements, but given the sheriff’s willingness to ignore subpoenas issued by the Civilian Oversight Commission and requests for information by the inspector general, it is not entirely clear how the board will enforce compliance.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas emphasized that the board wasn’t asking for a rush to judgment on deputy-involved shootings, but that a second, independent investigation by an entity other than the Sheriff’s Department was essential to public confidence in the results of any inquiry.
“Anything that seeks to remove the option for independent investigation reeks of, implies, cover-up,” Ridley-Thomas. “That’s the very thing that we are seeking to avoid … we have to continue to press this case. This sheriff has to abide by the law.”
In his comments to the board, the sheriff seemed to reject the independence of Inspector General Max Huntsman and also suggested that the board itself be subject to oversight.
“I support the notion of oversight in its entirety, however, it has to be independent oversight and the efforts from the Board of Supervisors fall far short of independence,” Villanueva said. “I would support an inspector general who was voted on by the public at large, so he’s not beholden to your political interests.”
The sheriff said he sent a letter Monday to Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the board, citing multiple requests for redaction software and additional personnel to manage requests for documents. Villanueva said such requests had been deferred by the CEO at least five times.
“We’ve been asking for it ever since this came on the horizon … the ball’s in your court for the funding,” Villanueva said.
Ridley-Thomas separately proposed scaling up a three-person unit within the Public Defender’s Office that tracks misconduct and the use-of-force by law enforcement officers countywide.
“The epidemic of police shootings of unarmed individuals is an unrelenting outrage that has rightfully provoked a much larger conversation around the twin objectives of promoting public safety and investing in community well-being,” Ridley-Thomas said.
With more funding, the Law Enforcement Accountability Unit could better hold officers accountable, Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said.
“The Law Enforcement Accountability Unit, properly scaled, could be one of the most powerful, cost-effective and direct means to ensure law enforcement accountability,” Garcia said. “I concur with and wholeheartedly support the LEAU motion and what it represents — an opportunity to increase accountability and promote fairness within our justice system.”
The board directed the CEO to report back in 30 days with a plan for expanding and funding the unit, which currently operates with an advisor, one deputy public defender and a student worker.
Separately, the board committed to move forward with a probation oversight commission that was first proposed by Ridley-Thomas in 2017 and approved by the full board last October. In addition to the commission, a new probation-focused unit will be established within the Office of Inspector General.
The new efforts will funded by defunding additional vacant, but budgeted positions within the department.
The work of the Probation Department and the related need for accountability has become more critical now that the state will close its juvenile justice facilities, said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who co-authored the motion with Ridley-Thomas.
“We are having a national conversation about the importance of effective oversight and accountability in our criminal justice system, and that must apply to our probation system as well,” Hahn said. “As the Probation Department undergoes major changes, we need to get this oversight commission up and running so that it can start the important work ensuring that the young people in our charge get the best care and support possible as they work to get their life back on track.”
Huntsman said there is an opportunity to reshape probation.
“The Probation Department is at a critical point and needs strong civilian oversight now, not later,” Huntsman said. “With a strong POC and investigative role for the OIG, it has an opportunity to remake itself not only to prevent abuses, but to improve public safety, promote well-being and further reduce incarceration.”
The motion also directs staffers to immediately resume recruiting for an executive director for the oversight commission.
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