In summary

One police reform bill on the governor’s desk can make a significant impact on the civilian oversight of sheriff departments.

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By Raphael J. Sonenshein, Special to CalMatters

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, He was executive director of the City of Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission.

The recent legislative session in Sacramento was not kind to a number of policing reforms. One bill that attracted little notice passed both houses and can make a significant impact on the civilian oversight of sheriff departments.  The governor should sign it.

Assembly Bill 1185 authorizes each of the 58 California counties to create civilian oversight bodies over their elected sheriffs and to vest them with the power of subpoena. Authored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, who first introduced it in 2017, the bill passed the Assembly last year, but failed to win a floor vote in the Senate.  With the winds of reform blowing stronger this year, it made all the way through.

If signed into law, AB 1185 would represent one of the only times that the state has weighed in on the side of reforming county law enforcement.  Progress will still be slow.  While AB 1185 enables counties to establish oversight bodies and grant them subpoena authority, the political will to do so may still be limited.

But in Los Angeles, where one-quarter of the state lives, AB 1185 would provide a major boost to the forces of civilian accountability  

The board of supervisors has been locked in a chronic struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Following the release of a scathing report by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence in 2012, the board established the Office of the Inspector General in 2014.  In 2016, the board created the Civilian Oversight Commission.   When Villanueva won an upset election in 2018, he came into almost immediate conflict with the supervisors by overturning a number of previous disciplinary decisions against sheriff deputies.  

In early 2020, after complaints from the Inspector General that the sheriff was being unresponsive to requests for information, the board granted the Civilian Oversight Commission the power to subpoena the sheriff’s office.  In addition, the board placed Measure R on the March primary ballot to more formally vest subpoena power in the commission.  It passed with more than 72% of the vote.

The sheriff responded that the voters had been wrong or confused, and that Measure R’s grant of subpoena authority was illegal and unconstitutional. Matters between the sheriff and civilian reformers have become even more contentious in previous days.  

Prior to the passage of AB 1185, the county’s authority to authorize subpoena power to civilian oversight agencies rested on a unanimous 1994 California Supreme Court decision in the case Dibb v. County of San Diego. In 1990, San Diego voters created in their county charter a civilian oversight commission vested with subpoena powers.   

The court rejected a legal challenge to the county by citing the powers of a charter county to vest the commission with subpoena power.  Thirty years later, San Diego County’s Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board continues to function under Section 606 of the county charter.  It is not under legal challenge.  Like San Diego, Los Angeles is one of the state’s 14 charter counties that together hold more than 69% of the state’s population.

In 1994, the court was cognizant that an oversight body might abuse its authority.  It made clear that a subpoena can only be enforced by a court, not by the oversight body itself.  If a subpoena comes before the court, the sheriff can challenge it as infringing on the office’s investigative role that is protected by the state Constitution.  The same process is provided in AB 1185.  

As the years go by, a 26-year-old court decision could invite protracted litigation over the legality of the subpoena authority itself.  AB 1185 brings things up to date, and adds the explicit legitimacy of state law.  It also extends beyond charter counties, to all 58 counties.  

The argument that the county’s grant of subpoena authority is either illegal or unconstitutional was never a very compelling one.  If AB 1185 becomes state law, it will likely settle the debate once and for all.


Raphael J. Sonenshein has also written about Los Angeles needing California’s help holding Sheriff Villanueva accountable.

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