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Serious Reforms for a Serious Problem : Sheriff Block Offers Important New Anti-Corruption Programs

June 24, 1990

This has been a difficult year for Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and his more than 7,000 deputies. However, in the wake of a new reform agreement between the department and the unions representing its deputies, the outlook for the department has begun to brighten.

The problems afflicting the sheriff's department include a series of incidents in which deputies were found to have used excessive force in the course of arrests. But the most damaging scandal arose from allegations that officers assigned to narcotics units have been skimming money seized from drug dealers. Ten of the deputies involved--seven of them members of a single elite unit--have been named in a 27-count federal indictment. Altogether, the department has suspended 26 deputies assigned to drug units.

All of this has raised serious questions about Block's management of the department and about the Board of Supervisors' ability to exercise appropriate oversight of its activities. The agreement, which ratifies a proposal by Block, is a welcome first step toward resolution of these concerns.

Under the terms of the agreement, which still must be approved by the supervisors, deputies would be limited to five years service in all vice and special investigations units. Members of special weapons teams would serve seven years. At least half the indicted deputies had been in their narcotics unit for more than five years.

According to reports, negotiators for the department and its unions have yet to reach an accord on the second of Block's reform proposals, which would require financial disclosure by officers posted to sensitive assignments--including narcotics--as well as by their spouses. The indicted deputies are alleged to have been living well beyond their legal means, and knowledge of that fact would have helped sound an early warning that there were problems.

The deputies' union opposes such disclosure, however, and its members are said to object strongly to the imposition of disclosure on spouses. Clearly, delicate questions are involved. But, since 1986, federal courts have upheld the right of police agencies to require financial disclosure by certain officers. In a community property state like California, it is difficult to see how such a requirement could not extend to spouses.

Restoring ruptured bonds of trust is never an easy or pleasant process. The first step is admitting that trust, in fact, has been shattered. Sheriff Block's new proposals represent such an admission and they ought to be given a chance to prove their worth.

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