A Citizen Commission May Soon Have the Power to Subpoena the L.A. Sheriff’s Department

As records requests go unanswered, the Board of Supervisors approves a proposal to compel Alex Villanueva’s department to turn over info to the Citizen Oversight Commission

For months, county officials charged with overseeing the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have reported that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is stymying their efforts to obtain records and access to key agency personnel. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors weighed in, throwing support behind a process to equip the civilian oversight panel with subpoena power to compel the sheriff’s department to produce information pertaining to oversight.

By unanimous vote, the board approved a proposal designed to authorize the Citizens Oversight Commission to direct the county’s inspector general to issue a subpoena to get the Sheriff’s Department to turn over records and make agency officials—including the sheriff—available for questioning.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who introduced the measure, referred to repeated instances over the past year in which the Sheriff’s Department has “impeded” the ability of the commission to perform its “core oversight functions.”

The Civilian Oversight Commission has previously expressed concerns to the Sheriff over requests it made for records, statistics, and speakers that have not been met. The requests have sought information on matters including the decision-making process behind the agency’s reinstatement of deputies fired for misconduct, the hiring of new deputies, its inactivation of dozens of misconduct investigations before they were complete, and its effort to address deputy cliques among the rank and file.

The motion by supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl instructs the commission to explore ways that a subpoena might be issued by majority vote of its nine members. Endorsing the proposal, Supervisor Hilda Solis called the granting of subpoena power “a necessary tool to bring people to the table.”

Ridley-Thomas struck a somewhat more urgent note. “Backtracking on progress is not an option for us,” he said. “Backsliding on accountability is fundamentally unacceptable.”

Reflecting the growing antagonism between the sheriff and county officials, the measure excludes the sheriff from the working group that will report back to the board in 30 days on how the county might grant subpoena power on the oversight commission.

Sheriff Villanueva took umbrage with the board’s decision in a statement to Los Angeles. “If transparency is the issue at hand,” the statement reads, “I urge Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas & Supervisor Hilda Solis, Supervisor Janice Hahn & Supervisor Sheila Kuehl to reconsider yesterday’s decision that does NOT allow me, an elected sheriff, to be a part of the group tasked to report back to them in 30 days on this potential COC/OIG subpoena power.”

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the only Republican on the board, had asked the board to invite the sheriff to the working group. But the remaining board members were unmoved. In response, Ridley-Thomas said that “the position of the sheriff couldn’t be more clear.”

“If the sheriff wishes to memorialize his point of view, if the department chooses to weigh in, there’s nothing in the motion that precludes that,” he added.

In his response, Villanueva wrote that “the board’s decision yesterday to limit the department’s participation, allowing us only to submit feedback to the working group in writing as opposed to being at the table, is far from reasonable nor effective public policy making for the safety of our communities.”

In recent months, the office of Inspector General Max Huntsman has issued a series of reports highly critical of Sheriff Villanueva’s unwillingness to comply with public oversight, most notably in the summary reinstatement of a deputy (and Villanueva campaign aide) who was fired for allegations of domestic abuse. The county had, earlier in the year, taken the unusual step of suing the Sheriff’s Department to reverse the reinstatement, and in August, an L.A. Superior Court judge ordered the rehired deputy be stripped of his badge and gun. Huntsman used the term “bunker mentality” to describe for board members the attitude he saw being fostered in the agency by Sheriff Villanueva.

Civilian oversight is relatively new to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, emerging out of a series of scandals under former sheriff Lee Baca. The board created the Office of the Inspector General in 2014 and the Civilian Oversight Committee in 2016. Villanueva’s predecessor as sheriff, Jim McDonnell, successfully opposed subpoena power by signing an agreement to allow the inspector general far-reaching access to agency records and officials—an arrangement that Villanueva says he continues to honor and which makes subpoena power “unnecessary.”

Dennis Neer, a division chief of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, testified before the board on Tuesday, saying that the inspector general’s office has made excessive requests for information that involve medical records and private information of employees that fall outside the bounds of their agreement.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl called Neer’s statement a “red herring.” “I wonder if you can tell us how many of the many, many, many requests the OIG has made to the sheriff’s department which have not been answered or responded to have been for medical records,” Kuehl asked in response to Neer’s statement. Neer replied, “I’d have to do some research and get back to you.”

In a previous interview with Los Angeles, the sheriff dismissed the growing concern over public accountability as a “naked power play” by the Board of Supervisors. “[The board] wants to control the entire county, including departments controlled by elected officials like myself. It’s all politics and nothing else,” he said.

Villanueva has disparaged the civilian commissioners as “political appointees” and made no secret of his mistrust of the Office of the Inspector General, either. The sheriff’s department recently dialed back the OIG’s computer access to agency files, restricting remote access and requiring OIG staff to use computers inside the sheriff’s headquarters (and barring them from downloading documents).

Huntsman testified in July that the department had radically scaled back background checks for new hires and refused to allow his staff to monitor the hiring process. He warned of a “Tanaka-level crisis” brewing inside the department, referring to Paul Tanaka, the notorious second-in-command under former Sheriff Lee Baca who presided over a series of scandals involving jailhouse beatings and cover-ups in the department.

A month later, in August, the sheriff took of the unheard-of step of placing the inspector general under criminal investigation. Huntsman allegedly accessed files protected under the California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights, files the inspector general says he is entitled to access under the mandate of his office.

During public discussion of subpoena power at Tuesday’s board meeting, Civilian Oversight Commission chair Patricia Giggans and executive director Brian K. Williams aired their concerns relating to a rising level of secrecy in the department.

Speaking in favor of subpoena power, Williams, an 11-year deputy L.A. city attorney who now works as a criminal defense and civil litigator, said: “If we really want to shine a light where light should be shone, if we really want to increase transparency, if we really want to get the critical questions answered, we have to have this additional tool.”

Giggans, who has run a domestic violence agency in L.A. for 34 years, told Los Angeles in May that subpoena power was a necessary tool to keep the oversight commission “consequential.”

“People are asking us all the time, what are you doing? Can’t you do something? It’s frustrating,” Giggans said. “If we’re not having impact doing it in a collaborative way, we’re going to see what can we do.”

There are serious legal questions about the new measure, not the least of which is whether the supervisors can confer on someone else the power to compel testimony and the release of records, when they lack such power themselves. There is also a ballot initiative on subpoena power of civilian oversight set to be placed before voters in March. Does the current measure preempt the ballot measure, and do voters have the power to compel law enforcement?

In his statement, Sheriff Villanueva argues that the California constitution and state law clearly define the separation of powers between a board of supervisors and an independently elected sheriff.

“It is, in fact, the sheriff and the district attorney who provide the only checks and balances against a board of supervisors in circumstances where there is a concerted effort by the [board of supervisors] to control virtually every single aspect of county government, to the detriment of the citizenry,” the statement reads.

RELATED: Meet Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the Donald Trump of L.A. Law Enforcement

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