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  July 29, 2015

Only Civilian Oversight with Subpoena Power Will Stop Sheriff Abuse, Say LA County Residents

Black Lives Matter activist Mark-Anthony Johnson says LA County residents are calling for civilian oversight, with teeth, to keep the Sheriff's office in check.
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EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: I'm Eddie Conway for the Real News.

On Tuesday in Los Angeles community members told officials police oversight with teeth, mainly subpoena power over police enforcement, is necessary if abuse by sheriff departments is to be stopped. Subpoena power, the authority to force officers to testify and obtain documents is a demand advocates say is essential to hold police accountable, yet few oversight boards have this across the country.

The move comes in the wake of a string of police brutality scandals that have rocked the sheriff's department. The LA Daily News details some of the recent scandals, which include three former deputies who were convicted last month of beating a visitor to the jail and falsifying reports to cover it up; 14 current or former members of the sheriff's department have been convicted of various crimes.

Well, now joining us to discuss this is Mark Anthony Johnson, director of health and wellness with Dignity and Power Now. Talk about what you told the LA County Board of Supervisors today. Why do you think subpoena power is necessary to hold police accountable?

MARK ANTHONY JOHNSON, DIGNITY AND POWER NOW: Yeah. I mean, I think this is an important point. If we look at the context of the last year in law enforcement, violence over the last year, I think folks all across the country are calling for independent civilian oversight of law enforcement. But not just independent oversight. Independent oversight that has power. And one of those powers is subpoena power.

Without the ability to force law enforcement to produce records, to produce misconduct reports, to produce video footage, all these things are what give us real access to the footage and to the material and to the evidence that really shows how are folks being mistreated and how are folks, human rights violations are being violated. And Los Angeles county is no different than that. We have the largest sheriff's department in the country. The largest jail system in the country that historically has housed a lot of brutality. And yet there's no way for us to have independent insight into what's happening inside those county jails.

So what subpoena power does is it gives us a tool to force the sheriff's department to produce those records and produce that documentation, to produce that testimony so we can get to the bottom of what's happening and really enact justice for our people.

CONWAY: So how was these comments received by the board?

JOHNSON: You know, it was a mixed bag. I think some of the board members are interested in the idea of subpoena power, but I think most of them are curious about how to give the Los Angeles County oversight commission, civilian oversight commission, real access to the department. And what we're hearing now is that there is a leaning towards, moving towards a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff's department.

And I think this is important to name. Because a memorandum of understanding would lay out an agreement with the department around time frames, protocols, and ways in which the sheriff's department would have to act in response to requests for information. But an MOA is non-binding. So at any point the sheriff's department could walk away from that. And that's our biggest gripe with this issue. That's not real accountability.

We don't want an agreement that at any point one of the most violent sheriff's departments in the country that historically has had such a code of silence and historically has hidden records and historically has denied our people access to justice, we don't want an agreement that they can just walk away from. We want real power. We want to move power away from the department. And that's what subpoena power would do, and that's what restricting law enforcement from sitting on the commission would do.

CONWAY: I understand that the sheriff's department is opposed to any kind of reform. Can you give me a little background or history on the kind of abuses that the sheriff's department has been involved in?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, look, at the time when we started, about three years ago, 57 percent of use of force incidents inside of the county jail system were initiated by the sheriff's department. So we're talking about nothing in response to a prisoner's behavior, nothing in response to what our loved ones are doing on the inside. Literally initiated by the department. We're talking about beatings, folks being beaten until they're unconscious. Folks being beaten while they're unconscious.

But not just physical violence. Violence can take many forms. We're talking about denial of medication. Over-medication. Denial of mental health care, releasing people while they're in the middle of psychiatric episodes. All those things are what we consider sheriff violence. All those things are, we consider traumatic. And those are things you can't really quantify and yet they have deep impacts on our communities and our loved ones once they come out.

And so while the sheriff's department, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, supports a civilian oversight commission he does not support subpoena power. And that's of concern for us.

CONWAY: Okay. And so I understand that it's a coalition of groups that organized to push forward this reform?

JOHNSON: Yes. The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence is approximately 20 organizations, many grassroots organizations who have directly related to folks who have been incarcerated, folks who have been incarcerated themselves, and who have all been doing work around law enforcement accountability and transparency.

And so this is the work we've been doing for the last three years. We've been pushing this--it took us two years to get the county supervisors to vote in support of civilian oversight. We had to win three votes on the supervisors' board. And now we have to win another three votes to actually get the features that we want, including subpoena power, including restricting any law enforcement from sitting on the commission. Including directing the functions of the Inspector General's office, which was created last year. Including having independent legal council. And lastly, including the idea that the commission would have nine commissioners, four of which would be appointed by the community.

And these are things we've seen all over the country. These aren't new, these aren't novel ideas, but they are the bare minimum that we believe are necessary to protect black and brown people and the human rights of folks who are inside the county jail system.

CONWAY: When can we expect a decision from the board on this?

JOHNSON: It's unclear at this point. We heard something that it might take as long as September for them to come up with a decision. We're also concerned because right now it sounds like they might in fact discuss this MOU in closed session.

And we're really concerned about that. We actually believe the community should have access to this MOU and see it and be able to weigh in on the process before it's approved. And yet it sounds like they are discussing this MOU in closed session. So we're actually really concerned about that. We don't know the status of it. But we will definitely be pushing for that MOU not to be implemented until we have a sense of what that's going to look like, and how it's going to impact our ability to hold them accountable.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, please stay in contact with us, and let us know exactly what's happening out there, because this is of interest to everybody. And thanks for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Thank you for taking the time. This is an important issue, it's one of the largest jail systems on the planet. And we are looking forward to keeping folks involved and making it happen. You can get us at, as well as @PowerDignity on Twitter.

CONWAY: Okay. And thank you for joining the Real News.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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