Sheriff Candidates Talk Tough, Talk Progressive:

Sheriff Candidates Talk Tough, Talk Progressive:  Questions Remain

By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor This race for sheriff has produced some candidates who are good at talking tough and talking progressive as of late. With the ongoing federal investigation of the department and deputies getting indicted left and right, the circumstances may call for such candidates. Most of the candidates seem to agree that there needs to be a change in the departmental culture, but their solutions doesn’t go much beyond changing the regime running the department—presumably to one they head themselves. On one end of the spectrum, there’s sheriff candidate Paul Tanaka, who is officially under federal investigation connected to the hiding of an FBI informant in the Men’s Central Jail system.  Tanaka seems to advocate the cosmetic changes the Los Angeles Police Department pursued before being forced to submit to a federal consent decree—those cosmetic changes being the installation of a “tough” person of color in the top job to ensure diversity, ergo a chief who is sensitive to ethnic communities that has historically been the most subjected to sheriff deputy abuses. On the other end is former Men’s Central Jail Cmdr. Bob Olmsted, who has probably presented the most progressive vision on changing the department’s culture by advocating clearing out executives in the department that knew what was happening but said nothing. He has also been most vociferous in his advocacy for a civilian review board, even though there is no law that would give such a board the teeth it needs to be effective. However, with perhaps one or two exceptions, there’s little that distinguishes the seven candidates running for the top job in county law enforcement. On May 19, a coalition of community organizations that have organized against sheriff deputy abuses and jail violence and the UCLA Law School released a report that outlined the structure of an effective civilian review board for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department. The coalition includes:

  • Dignity and Power Now/ Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails,
  • Justice not Jails – Interfaith Leaders from across Los Angeles County,
  • Empower, L.A.

The coalition consists of nine other organization outside of South Los Angeles. Dignity and Power Now grew out of a performance art project created by the organization’s founder, Patrisse Marie Cullors. Her inspiration came from an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed in 2012 that accused the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department of using excessive force in its jails. For the performance, titled Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence, Cullors enlarged sheets of the nearly 85 page civil rights complaint, and pasted them in a gallery along with bright yellow caution tape. The performance took on life of its own outside of the performance staged and into streets pointed activism supporting the work of the ACLU which has served as a lonely watch dog of the departments abuses over the years. In their struggle to create a broad-based coalition to create a citizen’s oversight commission and curb sheriff abuses of inmates and their families, this coalition has emerged as a leading progressive force for change in the sheriffs department. Knowing this makes measuring the progressive bona fides of each of the candidates vision of the department a little bit easier. The report followed [a proposal that] County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina had proposed this past February. But it was always questionable the degree of “oversight” a commission would actually have. Voters elect county sheriffs Assembly Bill 1586 – by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson in California, meaning that by law they are independent from other county leaders. The report notes that even with the creation of the Office Inspector General, the sheriff’s department needs the oversight of a civilian oversight board — a “high level body composed of non-political leaders held in high regard by the community to fill its seats. The reported noted that the board would serve three primary functions:

  • keeping the communities affected by sheriff violence engaged in the reform process and sheriff department oversight
  • overseeing the work of the inspector general
  • and providing cohesive and vigilant community based leadership in regard to the implementation of reform

Fast forward to May 23, when Justice for Murdered Children hosted a sheriff’s candidate forum at Ports O’ Call Restaurant, where forum topics ranged from the California Victims Bill of Rights to Celebrity Justice, to the County Board of Supervisors’ decision to build a new $2.4 billion jail. Tanaka doesn’t see the civilian review board having a role that’s beyond an advisory one absent the teeth needed to force the sheriff to do anything given the law as it stands. “There’s a little problem with that in the way that is described,” Tanaka said. “The sheriff is elected by the people, so any review board is limited in what their abilities are, whether its a civilian review board or the office of inspector general.” Tanaka did note that such a board was necessary to restore trust between the public and department. “Having a review board provides that opportunity for people put in their input or whatever their concerns brought to the attention of the oversight body,” Tanaka said. “There’s discussion and recommendations potential implementation by the sheriff and there should be a tightly reporting back to the public of what is going on.” The county hired Max Huntsman as its first inspector general in December 2013, but his powers and duties have still not been fully defined due to the legally independent nature of the sheriffs department. Tanaka cautioned voters to give the inspector general time to do set up and do his work. Then decide. Rogers echoed Tanaka thoughts in part about creating toothless citizen oversight panel and advocating a wait and see approach until the details of how the Inspector General’s Office will work. He then suggested looking to successful reform models elsewhere that could be applied to the sheriff’s department. Olmsted took this opportunity to speak on his advocacy of a civilian review board and to use as an avenue to promote greater transparency of the department. He noted that the inspector general is an at-will position. Olmsted argued that the position should instead have set term limits so as to avoid politicizing the office. McDonnell used the Los Angeles Police Department Commission as an example and noted that the department may find itself with a similar commission, if the federal government imposes a consent decree. McDonnell noted he is the only one of the candidates to have experience in dealing with consent decree and regaining the public trust. Essentially, McDonnell argued that there would be no learning curve for him if the department is placed under a consent decree. He’s been there and done it already. The coalition are under no illusion the hurdles they face in forming a robust civilian review board. Assembly member Sandre Swanson passed Assembly Bill 1586 that allowed the city of San Francisco to create city oversight commission to oversee the BART system following the killing of unarmed rider Oscar Grant. With moves stirring in Sacramento over Los Angeles County’s sheriff’s department, one wonders how candidates who are privately not so thrilled about a robust citizens review panel will change their tune. This post has been updated from an earlier version that stated that the brother of Patrisse Marie Cullors, founder of Dignity and Power Now/ Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails was killed by Sheriffs deputies. Also corrected was that National Alliance on Mental Illness worked with the Coalition to end sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails.

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