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Sunday, April 20, 2014 - 11:39pm

LA County's New Watchdog May Not Have Much Bite

Updated: 8 months ago.
Prosecutor Max Huntsman delivers his closing arguments in the corruption trial of Angela Spaccia, the former city manager of Bell, Calif., in November. Huntsman's new challenge is to monitor the scandal-ridden LA County Sheriff's Department.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is one of the nation's most troubled law enforcement agencies.

Eighteen current and former deputies are facing felony charges as part of a federal probe into allegations of widespread prisoner abuse in county jails. The federal government is also investigating alleged cases of deputies on patrol using excessive force during routine traffic stops, and targeting blacks and Latinos.

Max Huntsman's job in the newly created role of watchdog is to help clean up the department. The only problem is, he doesn't have any real power.

Promises Of Cooperation So Far

In a sign perhaps, of how unglamorous his new job will be, Huntsman's new digs are a cramped collection of dark offices and cubicles, two floors above the famous food stalls of LA's Grand Central Market.

On a recent visit, he had just one employee a receptionist but soon a team of 30 lawyers, auditors and retired law enforcement officers will be in place here. They'll help Huntsman set up a system to monitor the Sheriff's Department namely its jails.

Just blocks from here, at the Men's Central Jail, deputies are accused of beating and choking inmates without provocation, harassing visitors, then conspiring to cover it all up. In the indictments last fall, federal prosecutors portrayed a "culture of corruption" inside the agency.

"The bottom line is, I think you need to have people looking over your shoulder, and knowing what you're doing in order to make sure those cliques don't develop, that you don't get a group of people in the jail who think of themselves more as a gang than as deputy sheriffs," says Huntsman. "That's when you don't have that light shining that that happens."

That "light" is really the only tool that Huntsman will have. Unlike a police chief in a big city who answers to the mayor or a civilian commission, LA's sheriff is elected and enjoys a lot of autonomy. Huntsman can only present his findings and recommend reforms.

So far he's gotten a warm welcome and promises of cooperation but it's early.

"They really, really want to respond to all these problems," says Huntsman, "as they should. I mean, there are federal indictments on the table, there's talk of a federal consent decree, or a memorandum of understanding."

Just after those indictments were announced, Sheriff Lee Baca, who had held the post since 1998, abruptly retired. There is currently an interim sheriff, and for the first time in decades, there's also a competitive campaign for his replacement. The race routinely makes headlines. Huntsman says all this publicity is to his advantage this is the moment to start changing things.

He, too, is no stranger to the TV cameras. While deputy district attorney here, he built his career on high-profile public corruption trials, including prosecuting town leaders in Bell, Calif.

"Every single political corruption case I've ever done has been fundamentally a problem of the public not knowing what's going on, and not being engaged," he says.

But remember, Huntsman can't prosecute anyone in his new role. And another challenge? The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is a massive bureaucracy. It runs the largest municipal jail system in the U.S., and has 20,000 employees, including 10,000 sworn deputies.

"I think it'd be a mistake to say: Can Mr. Huntsman be the silver bullet to reform the sheriff's department? I don't think anybody, or any entity, can," says Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. His group wrote a damning report in 2011 that first detailed widespread corruption and civil rights abuses inside the jails. He says that for too long, problems festering within the department were ignored, not just by higher-ups in the sheriff's department, but also by county leaders.

"And as a result we have a national embarrassment for the county of Los Angeles that's costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year in verdicts against the Sheriff's Department; it's got the Department of Justice breathing down the sheriff department's neck," Eliasberg says.

There have been calls for the creation of an independent commission in addition to the new inspector general to oversee the sheriff. Observers like Eliasberg say that if Max Huntsman is the man for now, his success will depend on how aggressive he is.

For his part, Huntsman is reluctant to point fingers, and he's taking the long view. He says the federal indictments will help weed out a few bad apples, but constant monitoring over the long haul is the only way to bring about true reforms.

"If we think we can fix this problem and walk away, and a year from now just ignore how things operate, we're going to end up with the same problems again down the road."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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