Santana: The Demise of OIR Should Trigger Calls to Feds

Last summer, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens boldly announced to county supervisors that the Office of Independent Review was the only thing keeping back a federal takeover of our local jails.

Well, last week OIR Director Stephen Connolly abruptly resigned.

And I’m starting to think a federal takeover may not be such a bad idea.

It’s likely a better deal for local taxpayers.

And much more transparent.

“That poses a very interesting question that certainly needs to be debated in an open and public way,” replied County Supervisor Todd Spitzer late Friday, adding that Connolly’s departure had him – a swing vote on OIR – questioning the concept as well as his own expansion of the idea last year.

Judging from the lack of public information from the OIR bureaucracy over the past seven years, it’s a fair bet to say we’ll get much more actionable information from federal monitors.

On Tuesday, Hutchens is expected to head into a closed session with supervisors and unveil the general fund price tag for an escape-proof roof at the Men’s Central Jail.

It won’t be cheap.

Also keep in mind these could likely be temporary fixes given that supervisors on Tuesday also will be talking in open session about reshaping the entire Civic Center complex -- with a $150 million transformation in mind.

And don’t forget that your Deputy Sheriffs are also angling reportedly for a 12 percent raise in their contract talks, which hit official mediation earlier this month around the same time that crooks came shimmying down the front door of the jail in the wee hours.

Given the continually stunning revelations coming out of our jails (check out the lawsuit filed this month by the Deputy Sheriff’s union); and our courtrooms (check out R. Scott Moxley’s dogged postings at OC Weekly); and now the total failure of independent oversight - isn’t it more fiscally prudent to just call in the feds?

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas already did.

Rackauckas last month staged a sad press conference, where he himself had to call on the feds to investigate his own shop, admitting publicly that his hand-picked panel of legal experts told him his agency suffers from a "failure of leadership" and executives are too scared to tell him the truth – not to mention hostile to his own Nixonian-style press operation.

Now, why should taxpayers spend a bunch of money to upgrade aging and outdated jail facilities in a civic center looking at an overall upgrade -- with seemingly systemic failures throughout the jails and criminal courts and a breakdown in independent oversight?

Spitzer keeps repeating, and he’s 100 percent on point, that in 2016 citizens expect more oversight of police.

“I don’t believe we’re ever going to be able to go backwards in our country to an era without some civilian oversight of police,” Spitzer said.

That’s why he said he insisted on keeping OIR funded last year, despite blowback from supervisors like Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel – who I think correctly questioned continued spending on OIR.

So now, how do you double down on a law enforcement complex that seems to be faltering on the fundamentals?

Just watch them.

They are stuck.

There is no cheap fix now, other than the feds.

OIR isn’t a fix-all for the Sheriff’s Department.

Spitzer keeps playing a public game of questioning whether it was Steve Connolly’s failings or whether the model itself doesn’t work.

“You had a cooperative Sheriff,” Spitzer said of the OIR model, “yet he (Connolly) didn’t bring any of these symptoms or signs to the attention of the board that could have telegraphed serious problems.”

“So now I ask myself, is this Connolly or the model or the concept?” Spitzer said.

It’s neither.

You can’t spend $10 on gas and expect to drive across America.

It’s not a question of the type of car or whether gas works.

It's been six months since the start of what I called a "bullshit ballet" on OIR, which ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. And guess what -- just as I predicted we're nowhere nearer to enacting anything, even though our politicians rashly voted to expand the concept to encompass numerous other agencies like the DA, the Public Defender and the county's probation department without any kind of study and total opposition from the agencies and their respective labor groups.

Politicians love to play games when it comes to law enforcement oversight.

Lets face it.

They chase the law enforcement union endorsement - because voters love cops.

So politicians don’t want to piss them off.

But independent oversight pisses off police unions.

So politicians like Spitzer, armed with a million dollar staff provided by taxpayers who have been researching this since at least last summer, still says, “I don’t support civilian review commissions but I do support oversight.”

But he still doesn’t quite know what works.

And he’s the most vocal supporter of "oversight."

After watching this cat-and-mouse game as a reporter for decades, I can tell you it comes down to a few simple options – depending on your penchant for spending.

Civilian review commissions are expensive – because they feature staff, hearings and reports – but they are good for letting off public steam at tense times. Given recent court decisions barring them from sharing any subpoenaed information, they are toothless in terms of public disclosure on incidents.

OIR is not bad, given the cost, but it’s basically just an extra layer of risk management that is able to offer a second set of eyes to internal affairs investigations and certain incidents that are flagged for review.

Yet OIR never reports out anything publicly and has virtually no capacity for public engagement. In fact, an odd key to its success is whether or not the sheriff embraces it – which in turn hinges on total confidentiality for the department.

Lastly, there's the private lawyer approach, where county supervisors hire their own attorney during controversial incidents or issues and that official can use subpoena powers to help supervisors quickly assess civilian not criminal liability.

That kind of lawyer can help a politician early in a crisis to have an independent set of eyes deliver private advice in real time.

Yet that kind of connection also comes with a cost, called accountability.

Knowledge demands action…

And that kind of knowledge, even Spitzer admits, is something that his colleagues don’t want or at least declined the last time Spitzer put together experts on the issue last year.

Jails are nasty places.

The most comprehensive approach toward civilian review of police is arguably to blend all three options.

LA County taxpayers did just that, paid for all three options.

And their jails turned out to be totally corrupt.

Their sheriff, Lee Baca, left in disgrace. Just like Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona did back in 2008.

And guess who built those cases?

The feds.