When the Police need to be Policed (on a Civilian Oversight Commission)

We, as a nation, are in the midst of a full blown crisis. While the carnivalesque debaucheries of the Trump run at the White House have taken much of the air out of the room, exposing a dangerous level of xenophobic hatred and racist violence in segments of the American electorate, there is another crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves.

This crisis is being acted out with the slow motion intensity of a car crash in Chicago, but also in Baltimore, in Texas, in Minneapolis, and here in Los Angeles. Though the details of the crisis change slightly from place to place, the bottom line is the same: as a result of a lack of transparency, a history of abuse, law enforcement agencies have lost credibility, and therefore a lack of legitimacy among the people and communities that they are supposed to be serving.

In September 2014, Nina, a forty-seven year old African-American woman, was detained at the Century Regional Detention Facility (“CRDF”). After two weeks at CRDF, she attempted suicide by jumping off of a second-story balcony.

Prior to her incarceration, Nina had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. During her incarceration at CRDF, Deputies denied Nina access to any medical professionals and to any medication. For those two weeks, they confined her to her cell for all but 30 minutes a day. Nina had no access to basic hygiene products such as soap and toothpaste. Deputies regularly denied her access to showers, except on a handful of occasions. Deputies verbally abused her — sometimes on the basis of her race, and sometimes because of her mental state. Her depression worsened. She asked to see a psychiatrist or a clinician every day, and in response the Deputies responsible for her care systematically ridiculed and denied her requests.

Unable to take any more abuse, Nina saw what she considered a way out of her misery when a medic came to her cell to check her blood pressure. She managed to escape her cell, and hoping finally to silence the voices in her head she jumped from a second story balcony at CRDF.

Nina survived the fall, but the medical neglect and abuse that drove her to it continued. (From Breaking the Silence: Civil and Human Rights Violations Resulting from Medical Neglect and Abuse of Women of Color in Los Angeles County Jails a report by Dignity and Power Now.

It is because of an overwhelming number of stories like Nina’s (a pseudonym) that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted the recommendation of its working group and voted in December of 2014 to create a civilian oversight commission. The goal of the working group’s recommendations was to create a body with the power to demand accountability from the Sheriff’s department, so that the abuse in the jails and on the streets would stop, and so that Angelenos would see the department as responsive and transparent, and thereby once again worthy of trust. Legitimacy flows from accountability. If the department is not accountable to those it polices, they will not see the department as legitimate. Unfortunately the recommendation (here agenda item 8) that is being brought for a vote on Tuesday (tomorrow January 12) will fail at accomplishing these goals.

The proposal will fail because it does not grant the civilian oversight commission subpoena power, it includes law enforcement personnel amongst those eligible for membership on the commission, and finally the criteria and mechanism for becoming a member of the commission are not transparent.

This struggle is personal for me. It is not personal because I know Nina. I don’t. It is personal because the sheriff’s department, like the police department, is the public face of the justice system, and operates in the name of the community. In my name and yours. Officers of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are supposed to be on the front lines of making this city and this county a more just place. If the community cannot rely on their sheriff’s department to keep them secure; if people don’t believe that their relatives or friends will only be arrested when they have actually caused harm; if the sheriff’s department is not vigilant in taking care of those whose rights have been deprived, those who are incarcerated, then we—all of us—cannot get on with the business of democracy, which is creating a just society. We cannot get on with the business of creating a society in which everyone can strive to fulfill their potential.

All over the country, and in Los Angeles itself, it has become glaringly obvious that law enforcement does not reform itself. It is only when there is outside intervention, civilian intervention, that officers of the law are brought to justice and the departments change their behavior. It is in all our interests that there are no more cases like Nina’s. It is in all our interests that the sheriff and his deputies serve and protect the residents of this county. It is in all our interests that the we can trust the sheriff’s department. Right now, we are far from all of this. The only way we get from here to there is by having a civilian oversight commission, which is representative of the population that the sheriff’s department serves. To accomplish that, the commission must include formerly incarcerated persons; it must have truly independent investigative power—that is, subpoena power or that which is close to it—an independent relationship with the sheriff’s department not mediated by the Inspector General; and finally membership on that commission must be decided by the Supervisors and also organizations who have been demanding the commission, without any present or former law enforcement officials. The current proposal that is before the Board of Supervisors does not accomplish this and should be voted down.

What you can do:

Easier: Call Supervisors Mark Ridley Thomas (213) 974-2222, Hilda Solis (213) 974-4111, and Sheila Kuehl (213) 974-3333 today and demand that they vote against the current form of the recommendation.

Harder: Show up at the Board of Supervisors meeting and voice your opposition to the current recommendation. 500 West Temple Street, Room 381B, Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in Los Angeles.

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