News Details

A Civilian Review Panel Deserves Board Approval

April 17, 2007

A free society should have as much oversight of its government as possible. That's why in larger communities in California, police agencies typically are monitored by a civilian oversight panel that can review allegations of official misconduct and assure that internal investigations are thorough. This level of independent review can benefit the agency and deputies themselves, as it can bolster confidence in the criminal justice system, and in those who enforce the laws.

Unfortunately, Orange County doesn't have such a panel. The Board of Supervisors, however, today was to begin considering a proposal by Supervisor John Moorlach to establish a civilian review panel.

Supervisor Moorlach was motivated in part by the beating death last October of inmate John Chamberlain by a group of inmates at the county jail. A Register investigation found that Deputy Kevin Taylor was watching television during the melee, and one inmate involved in the beating, Jared Petrovich, alleges that Mr. Taylor instigated the attack, something Mr. Taylor denies. That story has sparked widespread allegations of mistreatment within the jail.

Moorlach's proposed review board not only would look at jail problems, but at any allegations of abuse and excessive force. The panel would apply only to the Sheriff's Department, and not to city police departments within the county. Its creation would signal a step forward.

Regarding the Chamberlain case, the Register reported that after the beating death deputies added an entry to the jail log stating that Mr. Taylor had been concerned about Mr. Chamberlain's safety. After Mr. Moorlach's staff visited the jail, they found that the TV Mr. Taylor had been watching had been removed. On Saturday, the Register reported that Mr. Petrovich demanded a lie-detector test. Deputies told him one would be forthcoming, but he hadn't received one.

Sheriff Mike Carona has been adamantly opposed to independent, civilian oversight. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formed an oversight panel in 2001 at the urging of Sheriff Lee Baca. In 2004, the panel released an investigation of five deaths in the county jail. While it found some improper procedures and lapses by jail staff, it found no "malicious intent" by deputies, and the report proposed useful systemic reforms. There's nothing for the sheriff or deputies' union to fear from properly constituted independent review boards.

In California, a Peace Officers' Bill of Rights and the state Supreme Court's Copley decision shield all disciplinary records about deputies, police officers and jail guards from the public. Only in the rarest instance do district attorneys pursue such cases. There's a need for more public information and oversight.

Such panels are not without their problems, usually stemming from accusations of political meddling, in that members typically are selected by elected officials. But who can argue that, in a free society, the public should not have more tools to oversee the behavior of the government?