News Details

The panel's details will be refined before final approval, but supervisors back it unanimously, over the protests of the sheriff and district attorney.

By CHRISTIAN BERTHELSEN
Times Staff Writer

May 23, 2007

May 23, 2007 Orange County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the creation of a civilian commission that would review misconduct complaints against county law enforcement.

The board agreed to spend two months fine-tuning details of the proposal before giving final approval, a concession to the sheriff, district attorney and some board members who criticized the current version.

Although the supervisors agreed in principle that a review board would be beneficial, they varied widely on its specifics. Supervisor Patricia Bates wondered whether it would be a "toothless tiger," while Supervisor Janet Nguyen said she thought it would be a conflict of interest for its members to be trained by the district attorney's office, which the commission would watch over.

The proposal would create the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, which would take citizen complaints and investigate all deaths and serious injuries involving peace officers and all deaths in custody. Its purview would extend to all of the county's law enforcement agencies, which include the district attorney's office and the probation and sheriffs departments.

The review board would have limited authority. The proposal says its role will be strictly advisory, with no management control of the agencies it reviews.

The proposal was introduced by Supervisor John Moorlach after Orange County's first jail inmate death in 17 years. John Chamberlain was beaten to death by inmates in October in an attack that lasted half an hour with no intervention from guards. Chamberlain's father has filed a $20-million claim against the county, alleging that guards instigated the attack by telling inmates, erroneously, that Chamberlain was a child molester.

Moorlach has noted that the county has paid $1.5 million since 2000 and faces 31 lawsuits stemming from the county jail system. He said the panel would give civilians confidence that their complaints were treated seriously and could help reduce the county's legal liability.

The proposal also comes as the board has been in drawn-out contract negotiations with the union representing sheriff's deputies. The deputies have been working without a contract since October, and talks with the board have turned bitter at times — particularly with Moorlach.

The board decided to move forward with the plan over fierce objection from Sheriff Michael S. Carona and Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who said it would damage law enforcement morale and create a bureaucracy where there is already enough oversight.

"This proposal puts suspicion in the mind of the public and a certain amount of distrust by the Board of Supervisors," said Carona, who added that the proposal appeared to have been "prepared hastily."

Under his initial proposal, Moorlach suggested that supervisors each nominate one member of the panel and the county's chief executive nominate two. But he agreed to reconsider after law enforcement officials said that would create a "political body" and may now seek candidates from the county's existing grand jury pool.

Another question was how much power the board would have to conduct investigations, such as issuing subpoenas. Rackauckas said he did not believe the board should have subpoena power; under the current version of the plan it would have to obtain its subpoenas through the Board of Supervisors.

"I want to do this with our public safety officers, not to them," Moorlachsaid.