Los Angeles County residents granted subpoena power to a watchdog civilian commission monitoring the Sheriff's Department by supporting a measure on Tuesday's primary election ballot.
Measure R, or the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission Ordinance, which will give the panel the authority to conduct its own investigations of the sheriff's department, rather than working through the Office of Inspector General, was strongly backed by voters. The measure includes granting subpoena power to the nine-member commission.
The measure only required a simple majority to pass and well exceeded that threshold. "Yes" votes were leading early Wednesday with 71 percent of the tally.
The Board of Supervisors recently gave the commission power to compel documents and records indirectly through the OIG, over the objections of Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Measure R would go a step further, with backers saying it would ensure the authority is not subject to political whims.
The county and the OIG have battled with the sheriff in and out of court, first over his rehiring of a deputy who had been fired over allegations of domestic violence and then over what the OIG called repeated failures to turn over documents critical to investigators.
"Measure R will mean accountability, transparency and fairness is brought back to L.A.'s criminal justice system," according to the Yes on R website.
Proponents included JusticeLA, the American Civil Liberties Union and the L.A. County Democratic Party, and the measure was been endorsed by members of the Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Compton city councils, among others.
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Villanueva had warned that granting subpoena power will result in expensive legal wrangling and maintains that the department has turned over all documents it is legally entitled to release.
"Measure R will open the floodgates for many more ill-advised lawsuits designed to seek documents that are not legally available for public release. This is simply weaponizing oversight as a way to politically bash the LASD," Villanueva said in a statement to Ballotpedia. "The Board of Supervisors, the Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission would better serve the community by working collaboratively with the sheriff's department."
Measure R also requires that the county develop a plan to reduce the county jail population and provide alternatives to incarceration, reinvesting jail dollars into community-based prevention and mental health treatment for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
Reform L.A. Jails and other backers of Measure R pointed out that the county's jails amount to the largest mental health hospital in the nation, and even the sheriff agrees that the system is ill-equipped to provide effective treatment. Spending money on prevention and treatment programs would be less expensive than incarceration in the long run, advocates argue, noting that many inmates cycle in and out of jail, county emergency rooms and homelessness.
Patrisse Cullors, founder and chair of Yes on R and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told City News Service the measure represents 15 years of activism and offers an opportunity to truly change the lives of some of Los Angeles County's most vulnerable residents.
"It's a watershed moment," Cullors said of the vote, adding that she hopes change here will drive reforms across the country. "Its passage is both a hyperlocal issue … and also a national issue."