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How Much Power Should Civilians Have Over The Seriously Effed Up Sheriff's Department?

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Sheriff's department (Photo by Annie Daniel via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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Big changes could be afoot for the corrupt and violent agency known as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Jim McDonnell recently took over as sheriff of the deeply troubled department with a mandate to change it, and today a reshuffled Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to create a civilian commission to oversee it.

The board voted 3-2 for the proposal. Last August the board voted against the proposal, but new board member Sheila Kuehl cast a vote in favor—while her predecessor Zev Yaroslavsky had opposed it. Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis joined her in the vote, while Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe voted no, according to City News Service. Ridley-Thomas had campaigned for the measure, and he told the news agency, "It is all about accountability ... and constitutional policing."

A working group that includes representatives from each of the supervisors, as well as McDonnell and Huntsman (or their representatives) have 90 days to come up with recommendations for the commission's mission, authority, size and structure. They have some big questions to answer (and psssst...we're sure they'd love to hear from their voters).

There are skeptics who are worried that a commission won't be given enough—or really, any—power to keep the department in check and put its darkest days behind us. Under Sheriff Lee Baca, deputies abused inmates and visitors in jails and then covered it up when the FBI started poking around.

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Richard Drooyan from the Citizens' Commission for Jail Violence, which was established in 2011 to help reform the jails, says the new commission would have no power over the elected sheriff because of the way state law works. But if the group was given enough power to actually look into the inner workings of the department, that might be something. Drooyan, a former U.S. attorney who oversaw the CCJV, said the board would need subpoena power to be effective—something the current Inspector General of the currently struggles with. Otherwise the civilian board could "create expectations among the people that cannot be met."

Inspector General Max Huntsman didn't give his opinion on whether there should be a civilian board, but he told the Los Angeles Times that without full access "I do not think this will succeed." Huntsman says that he hasn't been given enough access to do his job properly.

McDonnell has backed the idea of a civilian commission since his campaigning days, but he has questioned whether the commission should have subpoena power. Today his Interim Undersheriff Neal Tyler, speaking on McDonnell's behalf, reaffirmed his support for the commission and said he wants it to "maximize access.''

Advocates who support the proposal are also asking that the commission be formed entirely of people who are not and never have been in law enforcement, so that it truly represents citizen's voices.