Another 'Path to Reform'
The case for an appointed Los Angeles County Sheriff
By Kevin Uhrich 03/12/2014
Since the surprising resignation of embattled LA County Sheriff Lee Baca in January, there have been some welcome if not well-worn calls for change within the perpetually troubled Sheriff’s Department.
Perhaps a commission should be empanelled, a citizens’ oversight board to watch over the department’s growing number of so-called bad apples, an idea that two of five county supervisors support. Such a group would look into things such as violence against jail inmates and their visitors, suspicious shootings in the 40 of 88 county cities and unincorporated areas patrolled by deputies, and other questionable deputy behaviors that arise all too frequently.
What we haven’t heard much about is any calls for structural reform — changing the way LA County’s sheriff, the person responsible for these deputies and their behavior on and off the clock, is chosen to lead what over the years has become a virtual army.
Along that vein, there have been precious few ideas over the past several years about systemic reform, something that our virtually non-representative county government has needed for decades.
Less than perfect
Some recent calls for immediate intermittent change have come from Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who teaches at UC Irvine School of Law, and Miriam Aroni Krinsky, executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
They contend that the “path to reform,” for the Sheriff’s Department should be similar to that taken by the LAPD, which began with the Christopher Commission. After the vicious beating of Altadena’s Rodney King at the hands of four LAPD officers in 1991, that body, in short, proposed that the Los Angeles Police Commission have the authority to manage the department. To do that, voters were asked to approve a City Charter amendment empowering the commission, and they obliged.
“Of course, unlike the police chief in Los Angeles, the sheriff is elected and directly answerable only to the voters. The county Board of Supervisors sets the sheriff’s budget, but it cannot manage the department or mandate full access and authority for any civilian commission,” the pair points out in a recent op-ed piece appearing in the Los Angeles Times. “Although these constraints render a civilian oversight board less than perfect, there are still significant benefits to its creation. The supervisors should proceed down this path, even as efforts continue to create by statute the best possible authority for civilian oversight.”
It’s hard to disagree, but is this really enough? Even if there were a separate commission working with a recently installed inspector general in keeping an eye on what’s going on, is real reform, real accountability even possible without making the sheriff an appointed position?
The last time anyone tried to limit the power of the sheriff, the county assessor and district attorney, the latter two the county’s other elected positions, came in March 2002. At that time, voters forced the Board of Supervisors (perhaps better known as “the five little kings”) to accept term limits by a super-majority of 64 percent. In the same election voters were also asked to set term limits for the sheriff, assessor and district attorney, approving the measure by 61 percent. However, Baca sued, and in November 2004, he won, nullifying the election and assuring that the DA, assessor and he could run as many times as they liked.
‘Don’t elect me’
The professor and Krinsky seem to minimize the fact that the supervisors not only “set” budgets, but with our tax money they also pay for salaries and benefits, manage millions more in purchases and properties, as well as pay out tens of millions of dollars in judgments and settlements incurred by troublesome deputies. They also neglected to remind readers that we have been down this particular “path” before, only without the same generally satisfying results as those produced by the Christopher Commission.
The Sheriff’s Department had its own version of the Christopher Commission back in the volatile 1990s, the Kolts Commission, so named for retired LA County Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts (also of unincorporated and deputy-protected Altadena), which issued its own blistering report and called for a number of reforms.
Many of those ideas were publicly supported but never fully implemented by Baca’s predecessor and mentor, Sherman Block, who essentially treated these recommendations as suggestions, leaving much of the mess for which Baca is now being blamed.
“My staff and I found deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline,” Kolts, who died at age 77 in 2001, bellows at us from two decades past. “The Sheriff’s Department has not been able to solve its problems of excessive force in the past and has not reformed itself with adequate thoroughness and speed.” In fact, “this report is a somber and sobering one in terms of the large number of brutal incidents that have been and still are occurring,” states the final document, issued in July 1992, less than three months after the LA Riots. “Like the LAPD,” Kolts wrote, “the LASD has too many officers who have resorted to unnecessary and excessive force. The department has not done an adequate job of disciplining them.”
As it happened, the big difference between the Kolts and Christopher commissions was Judge Kolts did not have a sheriff’s citizens’ board to consider that panel’s recommendations.
Fast forward to 2010 and another indictment of a report, this time prepared by the ACLU of Southern California, court-appointed monitors of the jails for nearly three decades. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the county and the sheriff in January 2012 over the disgraceful situation in the jails. The report that sparked the suit states that “overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that have plagued Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail for more than 30 years still persist, along with an apparent culture of violence and fear, including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and the use of excessive force by deputies.”
Baca, a well-meaning man overwhelmed by circumstances who actually did some good things for the homeless, the mentally ill and about deputy accountability during his time in office, responded defensively to what by late 2012 had turned into a chorus of criticism of his handling of the jail crisis. When asked in October of that year by Richard Drooyan, a lawyer for the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, “If you’re to blame, how do we hold you accountable?” a clearly frustrated Baca replied simply, “Don’t elect me!” Really, without admitting knowledge of all that was going on in his department, what else could he say?
Baca’s remarks were made prior to the jail violence commission issuing its final report, which ultimately accused Baca and his second, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, of a failure of leadership. That commission proposed 77 recommendations for improvements, most of which Baca said he endorsed, including the creation of an inspector general’s office. That was also before 18 of Baca’s deputies were indicted by a federal grand jury for a variety of crimes, including: a deputy allegedly making false statements about an inmate, assaulting another prisoner, and arresting visitors to the jail; up to seven deputies supposedly participating in a conspiracy to obstruct justice by allegedly hiding an FBI informant posing as an inmate who had bribed a deputy to smuggle him a cell phone; and a deputy allegedly illegally building and possessing an assault rifle. The last of five separate counts allege three deputies, who are brothers, made false statements to two banks in connection with an alleged mortgage fraud scheme.
“This investigation started by focusing on misconduct in county jails and we uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests. Our investigation also found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum — in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalized,” said US Attorney André Birotte, sounding eerily similar to Judge Kolts. “The pattern of activity alleged in the obstruction of justice case shows how some members of the Sheriff’s Department considered themselves to be above the law. Instead of cooperating with the federal investigation to ensure that corrupt law enforcement officers would be brought to justice, the defendants in this case are accused of taking affirmative steps designed to ensure that light would not shine on illegal conduct that violated basic constitutional rights.”
Not long after that, Baca apparently had a change of heart and decided to let voters off the hook in deciding his political future, dropping his bid for a fifth four-year term. Baca formally retired after 48 years on the job and the county supervisors chose John Scott, an undersheriff with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and a 36-year LA County sheriff’s veteran who retired from the department in 2004, to take his place until the November election.
Since then, two more deputies, Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, have been indicted, this time for allegedly committing acts of violence against inmates. Also since then, the news blog Witness LA has reported that three of the deputies accused of hiding the FBI informant Anthony Brown said in court documents that their actions were “duly authorized and supervised by LASD Sheriff Leroy D. Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and numerous other high ranking Sheriff’s Department officials,” Witness LA quotes from the documents.
All but one of seven candidates lining up for Baca’s post is a former LA County deputy, or a reserve deputy, and all of them are well aware of the system’s many internal problems, because they experienced them firsthand in one way or another. Tanaka, for instance, a key figure in the jail violence scandal who resigned shortly after the jail commission issued its findings, is a leading candidate, buying ads on a number of online sites, including the Web pages of the LA Times and other newspapers, not including this one.
Here’s what the jail violence commission said about Tanaka: “Not only did he fail to identify and correct problems, but he exacerbated them … Over the course of several years the undersheriff encouraged deputies to push the legal boundaries of law enforcement activities and created an environment that discouraged accountability for misconduct.” In addition, “Undersheriff Tanaka specifically derailed efforts to address excessive force in MCJ [Men’s Central Jail] when he vetoed a job rotation plan in 2006,” the report states. “After the plan was announced, he held a meeting with deputies without the knowledge or presence of supervisors, and in a subsequent meeting berated supervisors who attempted to hold deputies accountable for their conduct. These actions undermined the authority of supervisors, resulted in a breakdown in the chain of command, and perpetuated an environment of aggressive deputy conduct. Ultimately, this set the stage for a sharp increase in the number of force incidents later in 2006 and for the reemergence of use of force problems later on.”
In a word, Tanaka and all other candidates but former Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, a member of the jail violence commission, are “insiders,” just like Baca and Block before them, and now interim Sheriff Scott. And because the No. 1 reason why sheriffs around the country vastly prefer elections over appointments is because they free them from the political influences of “civilian” elected officials, it’s more than likely if one of the former sheriff’s officials wins in November he will listen to ideas for reform about as well as Block and Baca ever did, which is not all that well.
County Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas have expressed the most frustration with problems associated with the Sheriff’s Department. Originally, Ridley-Thomas was the only supervisor who supported the idea of a citizens’ oversight commission. However, he’s since been joined by Molina, who was one of Baca’s biggest supporters and ultimately asked him to resign, or retire, as his departure has been publicly portrayed. Speaking prior to Baca’s resignation and the indictments with “Which Way LA” host Warren Olney, Ridley-Thomas said that it’s time for the sheriff to become more accountable.
“The department has very serious problems, real issues that it has to confront, and the question that emerges from the jail violence commission is how seriously will we take reform? And that’s the challenge that the Board of Supervisors has to take up,” Ridley-Thomas said.
“The idea of an elected sheriff is a bit of an anachronism. This was put in place in 1850, when there were all volunteers that constituted the Sheriff’s Department. The population of the county of Los Angeles would have been no more than 4,000 people. This is a county now of 10 million people,” said the supervisor. “It would seem to me the state Legislature and the governor should convene a special panel to revisit this … I think it is completely outdated to have a sheriff not be accountable to a local governing body, just like police chiefs are. It just means we have to have more transparency and more accountability. That is the order of the day, along with an independent oversight committee.”
It sounds like a good idea, but could a citizens’ oversight board for the Sheriff’s Department be much more than a Band-Aid solution to a problem with what has become “institutionalized” criminal behavior and chronically lax oversight, a virtual ongoing criminal enterprise which may or may not be of concern to an elected sheriff?
This might be a good time to remind readers that one of the county’s other elected posts, the County Assessor’s Office, isn’t doing all that well either. Our current elected County Assessor, John Noguez, awaits trial for his role in an alleged bribery scheme. Legally, Noguez, who is still collecting a $200,000 a year salary, could seek another term, but his lawyer recently told the LA Times that he is focusing 100 percent of his time to beating the rap. He continues to get paid while the person appointed by the supervisors to do his job gets a similar paycheck.
Of course, the Board of Supervisors shouldn’t leave itself off the agenda if or when the County Charter is amended. Perhaps that would be a good time to stop ignoring the three donkeys and two elephants in the room and expand the Board of Supervisors to seven, nine or 11 members and make that board truly representative of the 10 million people Ridley-Thomas alluded to.
Naturally, there are those who would say that the sheriff should remain an “independent” political force. To this one can only ask: Did Baca or Block ever earn the trust required to be “independent” of supervision? Has Tanaka earned that trust, should he be elected?
In a supposedly politically progressive county like Los Angeles, it would be difficult to disagree with Ridley-Thomas that changes like these are warranted. At the same time, it could also be said they are long overdue.
For more on this subject, please see http://pasadenaweekly.com/cms/story/detail/the_favored_few/11677/.