Although civilian oversight of police has been around for decades, testimony from a panel of experts on the subject at a hearing last Friday revealed there is a dearth of research on the topic and sharp disagreement over which model is best.
The hearing – convened by Orange County supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer -- comes as supervisors consider an overhaul of sheriff’s department oversight, which is currently handled by the county’s Office of Independent Review. Last month, county supervisors decided to completely de-fund the office after they said it failed to keep them apprised of misconduct in the department.
Civilian oversight of police is now part of the national conversation as police departments have faced intense scrutiny over officer-involved shootings, especially in minority neighborhoods.
And locally, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is dealing with the fallout of the still unfolding jailhouse informants scandal. In a court brief filed July 14, the state Attorney General’s office laid the all the blame for the illegal informants network on Sheriff’s deputies, despite a Superior Court judge’s conclusion that the county District Attorney’s office was also culpable.
At the hearing, Hutchens and Spitzer balked at the AG’s office coming to such a conclusion before its investigation into the scandal had even begun. Hutchens said any investigation should take a more “global look” that includes other agencies, and she said she’s “not confident” with how the AG’s office will conduct its investigation.
Spitzer agreed and pointed out that Hutchens had perhaps for the first time publicly indicated that other agencies – presumably the DA’s office – might also bear responsibility.
“Just now sheriff, you put some very big, big, big issues on the table,” said Spitzer, who has an ongoing feud with District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
The panel assembled for the hearing included: Hutchens; Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine’s School of Law; Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center; Michael Gennaco, principal at the OIR Group; Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement; and Kimberly Edds, a former OC Register reporter and spokeswoman for the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
The experts espoused very different models of civilian oversight. Chemerinski backed a civilian oversight commission, while Bobb supported an inspector general that would answer to the Board of Supervisors. Hutchens and Gennaco backed the current Office of Independent Review, with Gennaco saying it should be beefed up.
Chemerinski said an oversight commission should include full investigatory powers, including the right to subpoena witnesses and documents. He said It should be independent, in ways both “rhetorical and real,” with appointees immune to removal absent malfeasance. And it should have strong whistleblower protections so officers have a confidential avenue to pursue when reporting misconduct, he said.
Bobb, who in the past acted as supervisors’ special counsel, recommended an inspector general’s office that would have “undivided loyalty” to the Board of Supervisors, with the board able to direct it to conduct a wide range of investigations, though he also recommended that it act strictly as a monitor during Internal Affairs investigations. He said the current Office of Independent Review’s close relationship with Hutchens is a “dangerous thing.”
Gennaco – who has worked with Office of Independent Review director Steve Connolly at the OIR Group – emphasized strengths of Connolly’s model. He pointed out that Connolly can make recommendations on officer discipline, and that an inspector general that reports to county supervisors could end up having a sour relationship with the Sheriff.
The civilian oversight commission in Los Angeles is prevented from offering opinions on officer discipline, according to Gennaco, and in Sacramento County the inspector general angered the county Sheriff and was blocked access to documents.
Gennaco suggested beefing up the Office of Independent Review to solve supervisors’ concerns about its effectiveness and lack of updates from the office.
Buchner noted that the disagreement among experts over the “nuances” of how to implement civilian oversight of police reflects the national conversation, though there is agreement over the “overarching principles,” which include adequate funding, community support, transparency, independence, investigative power and input into the department’s policies and decision-making.
There is very little research on whether civilian oversight enhances community trust or increases department effectiveness, Buchner said. Still, he maintained that without civilian oversight, “it’s difficult if not impossible, for the police to maintain the public’s trust.”
Edds, who was filling in for association President Tom Dominguez, asked county leaders to slow the process down, noting that civilian oversight is usually implemented as a “knee-jerk reaction” to incidents that trigger community upheaval. In this case, supervisors have the luxury of taking a more thoughtful approach.
She didn’t endorse a particular model, but said the current Office of Independent Review is a reactive model that only steps in when things go wrong, and that a new model should be more proactive and emphasize officer training, rather than “a system that casts stones long after the fact.”
Spitzer said he and Supervisor Andrew Do would sit on an ad-hoc committee to study various models and then return to the board at its Aug. 4 meeting to offer recommendations, with at least some “interim change” approved at the Aug. 25 meeting to keep ahead of the expiration of Connolly’s contract Aug. 31.
He emphasized that he didn’t want to see any lapse in civilian oversight, despite the upcoming contract expiration.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Brian Buchner's last name. We regret the error.