By Christina Villacorte
LOS ANGELES — As he settles into his new job, Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Inspector General Max Huntsman said Wednesday that one of his key goals is to provide more chances for the public to provide feedback and air grievances about the highly-criticized agency.
Huntsman was hired in December to provide new oversight to the LASD following several years of investigations into deputy corruption in the jail system. The former district attorney's prosecutor is still hiring — right now his staff is himself and a secretary on loan from the DA's Office — and ultimately hopes to have some 30 people working for him, including lawyers, retired law enforcement officers and accountants.
To give the public a louder voice on the problems facing the agency, he hopes to hold a series of town hall meetings.
"I view my job to be, in part, reaching out to the community and getting input from them over to the Sheriff's Department," he said. "At the same time, I'll act as a buffer because there are certainly some people in the community who have very extreme views, and you can't just vomit out that whole collection of thoughts on the Sheriff's Department."
Patrisse Cullors, who founded the community organization Dignity and Power Now after accusing deputies of assaulting her mentally ill brother in jail, believes town hall meetings are critical to restoring public trust. She even offered to help host and organize them.
"People who have been impacted by deputy violence are extremely angry," she said. "They expect to get answers at these town hall meetings about what happened to their loved ones, who may have been beaten, shot, brutalized."
American Civil Liberties Union legal director Peter Eliasberg said town hall meetings could indicate the seriousness of problems at the LASD.
"If people are coming in routinely angry, it doesn't mean everything they say is true, but it's a form of early warning."
A Sheriff's Department representative pointed out town hall meetings have been held at various stations for years. Those, however, suffered from a lack of public trust.
Huntsman wants his town hall meetings to create a bridge between the people and the LASD.
"It certainly has its limitations, but it's very helpful," he said. "I'd like to create something like that, because my job is to bring the community and the Sheriff's Department together, try to get them to the same place as much as possible about what they want policing to look like."
For months, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina pushed for the creation of a Citizens Oversight Commission, but Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe refused to vote for it, pointing out that anything they create cannot have teeth.
The sheriff is elected by voters throughout the county and is therefore mostly independent of the supervisors' authority. Making him answer to a panel of board appointees would require changes in state law, including the state Constitution, critics noted.
Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Inglewood, filed a bill last month seeking to create a Citizen's Oversight Committee for the LASD. AB 2511 cites the "unique circumstances in the county of Los Angeles that create need to strengthen transparency and accountability practices by the LASD."
Miriam Krinsky, who served as executive director of the blue ribbon Commission on Jail Violence, also advocated creating such a panel.
"I don't think the inspector general alone doing town halls is a long-term solution for creating empowered civilian oversight," she said. "But until any new commission comes into being, I think it's important and encouraging to hear the inspector general is open to that kind of a process (town halls)."
The Los Angeles Police Department answers to a Board of Police Commissioners, which sets policies and oversees operations. Together with the inspector general for the LAPD, they hold public hearings every month.
There is a key difference, however, between the two departments. The civilian LAPD commission is appointed by the city's mayor, while the sheriff is directly elected by voters across the county.
In June, Huntsman and interim Sheriff John Scott will tell the board what they think of civilian oversight. "With just a county ordinance, such a commission can't really do much more than what I'll be doing as inspector general," Huntsman said. "So the question becomes: If people are interested in something more powerful, what are they willing to do to change the law to make it possible?"
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