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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

L.A. County Board Priorities May Run Headlong Into Financial Constraints


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ ability to fund or expand new programs designed to support an anti-racist, pro-social justice policy stance may be limited this year, as illustrated by a report available on the county’s website Tuesday.

Last month, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed scaling up a three- person unit within the Public Defender’s Office to better track misconduct and the use-of-force by law enforcement officers countywide.

“The epidemic of police shootings of unarmed individuals is an unrelenting outrage that has rightfully provoked a much larger conversation around the twin objectives of promoting public safety and investing in community well-being,” Ridley-Thomas said at the time.

The board called for a report back in 30 days, a fairly tight timeline indicating an interest in moving quickly to implement change.

In response, the Public Defender’s Office produced an analysis — posted to the county website Monday — requesting 11 new positions and roughly $2.3 million annually to expand the unit.

Despite the relatively small request, given the county’s $34.9 billion budget for fiscal year 2020-21, Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai recommended that the board first consider leveraging existing staff and technology to do the job.

Hamai — after 32 years with the county, nearly six of those as CEO — may know better than anyone how much give-and-take there is in the county’s spending plan.

She announced Monday that she will retire at the end of this month, leaving the board in the hands of Fesia Davenport — now chief operating officer and soon-to-be acting CEO — as the supervisors decide what to include and exclude as part of the Supplemental Budget this fall.

During the current board’s tenure, supervisors have had the luxury of adding new programs and services to the list of what the county hopes to accomplish as part of that final adjustment to county spending. This year, absent an unexpected increase in federal or state funding, the board will likely need to make tougher decisions, including whether it will be necessary to lay off as many as 457 employees working in the jails for the Sheriff’s Department.

Whether this one new line item proposed by Ridley-Thomas makes the cut or not may be illustrative of the board’s ability to follow through on its plans and promises given a bleak financial picture.

Hamai did not specifically recommend against the spending, but highlighted “numerous competing funding requests and priorities” to be evaluated in September and urged the board to consider holding off on a broad expansion of the unit.

The CEO also reminded the board that the “eventual roll-out of body- worn cameras will improve the accountability of police interactions and provide resources to the PD that may address the workload of the (Law Enforcement Accountability Unit).”

While some deputies will begin wearing body cams this fall, the program is expected to take roughly a year and a half to roll out to all patrol deputies. When any resources might flow to the P.D.’s office was not immediately clear.

Public Defender Robert Garcia said the unit, given enough resources, could review footage from body-worn cameras. It could also set up a mechanism to gather information from the community, uncover information on deputy cliques, review social media posts to identify officers who glorify violence, track recurring instances of excessive force by individual officers and more.

“The Law Enforcement Accountability Unit, properly scaled, could be one of the most powerful, cost-effective and direct means to ensure law enforcement accountability,” Garcia said when Ridley-Thomas introduced his motion.

For the moment, the team reviews only a fraction of publicly available information, according to the report. That includes hundreds of filed claims and shootings and thousands of investigative records disclosed by police agencies under state law. However, information on the Sheriff’s Department in particular is limited.

“The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is one of the only agencies in Los Angeles County which has not produced a single document in response to Public Defender requests. The responses received from the Sheriff’s Department either indicate that they have no responsive documents, they need more time to respond, or that the request is overbroad,” according to the report.

Garcia believes that the lack of resources to call out bad behavior has emboldened law enforcement officers, even as Sheriff Alex Villanueva has reduced the number of internal investigations into misconduct.

“In this moment more than ever, it is imperative to invest in cost- effective programs which answer the public’s call for reform and promote 21st century constitutional policing,” the report concludes.

Whether that imperative and others will survive this fall’s revisions to the county budget remains to be seen.

The Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General’s Office are both also tasked with overseeing the Sheriff’s Department and deputy misconduct.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 1.

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