LA County watchdog gets new power to investigate Sheriff's Department

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says he will continue to protect deputy personnel files even as a newly passed ordinance will give subpoena power to county watchdogs to obtain confidential information.

"Confidential peace officer records, background files of applicants. You want to encourage no one to apply to the department, give it to the Inspector General who will give it to the Times," Villanueva said.

The ordinance is called "historic" by county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas because it provides subpoena authority to the Civilian Oversight Commission and the county's Inspector General, both civilian entities.

"The use of the subpoena would be a tool of last resort," says the COC's executive director Brian Williams, pledging that the commission would be judicious in what it requested.

The oversight commission was established to ensure transparency at the Sheriff's Department.

Citizens question the legitimacy of certain arrests and believe that deputies who are members of tattooed "gangs" or "sub-groups" are carrying out an unlawful agenda.

"What did you have to do to get a tattoo? What does the tattoo represent? What do you have to do to continue to maintain that tattoo? That is the ultimate question here," says Williams.

The sheriff says that county officials have a history of releasing sensitive information to the public.

Last year, the sheriff took the unprecedented step of opening a criminal investigation of Inspector General Max Huntsman claiming that Huntsman wrongfully accessed personnel files of high-ranking brass.

Huntsman says that county code entitles his office to obtain those records.

The sheriff says the Board of Supervisors is unhappy that he won the election and is interfering with his efforts to make the discipline system more fair for the deputies.

"When it devolves into a weaponized system that is just there for political attacks, then they lose their effectiveness."

The sheriff seeks a memorandum of understanding with the county that would provide the public with more access to department records. But the Oversight Commission says that the new ordinance is set to take effect in 30 days.

"There has to be a way forward. Our job is to increase the level of accountability and transparency and serve as that bridge," says Williams.
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