James Kolts, the retired Superior Court judge plucked from obscurity last week to investigate allegations of brutality by sheriff's deputies, has a tough act to follow.
The respected but little-known jurist, who spent 20 years on the bench and 17 years in the district attorney's office, must labor in the long shadow of Warren Christopher, the prominent former statesman whose analysis of the Los Angeles Police Department earlier this year has come to be considered a law enforcement bible.
The beating of motorist Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers, captured on videotape by an amateur photographer, stunned the city and the nation. A horrified public demanded action and answers. And Christopher, the former deputy secretary of state who now heads one of the city's biggest law firms, provided both.
Kolts faces a similar mission--to investigate a law enforcement agency accused of widespread use of excessive force. But the circumstances and the men in charge are so different that some are questioning whether Kolts can meet the standard set by the Christopher Commission.
Kolts draws praise from defense lawyers and prosecutors--a quality that should serve him well as he tries to win the confidence of both law enforcement personnel and their accusers. "Experienced, level-headed, great presence, good sense of humor, sharp, articulate," is the way one former colleague described him.
But Kolts lacks Christopher's name recognition and his political influence. Missing as well is the sense of urgency that compelled more than 100 top-notch lawyers and accountants to donate a staggering 25,000 hours of their time to the Christopher panel.
"The shock and the emotions surrounding the Rodney King affair led to an outpouring of civic duty," said Mickey Kantor, a Christopher Commission member. "But that's in the past now."
Kolts' assignment is no less demanding. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the region's second-largest law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in 42 municipalities and all the county's unincorporated neighborhoods, stands accused of costing taxpayers millions of dollars in the settlement of lawsuits. Over the past four years, plaintiffs in suits against the Sheriff's Department have won more than $32 million--money that could be used to finance mental health programs, or other social services that have fallen victim to budget cuts.
Among the questions being raised: Will Kolts have the charisma, the independence and the financial backing from the Board of Supervisors to repeat Christopher's achievement? Will he get the cooperation he needs from Sheriff Sherman Block, who has already appointed his own citizens panel to investigate allegations of excessive force? And will he be able, as Christopher was, to remain above the fray, detached from the political bickering that will inevitably surround his work?
"One person, even if they have several staff, cannot possibly duplicate what the Christopher Commission did with over 100 lawyers," said Julian Nava, the former U. S. ambassador to Mexico who is now co-chairman of Block's citizens group. "In some ways, it's almost comical to appoint a one-person Christopher Commission."
Said Superior Court Judge Richard Byrne, who was presiding judge when Kolts retired in 1989: "It would be unfortunate if Judge Kolts were held to the same kind of standard of performance (as Christopher). Warren Christopher is the managing partner of a very large law firm and has at his disposal resources that are very difficult to match. But Judge Kolts is not affiliated with a law firm, he doesn't have that kind of support staff, so his work is going to be dictated to a great extent by what the Board of Supervisors gives him."
Kolts says he plans to hire five or six people who have experience either as prosecutors or working with police, although he acknowledged that his task is so immense that he will have to rely on some voluntary work, as did the Christopher Commission.
He also said he is well aware of the hurdles--both technical and political--that lie ahead.
"I feel that it's going to be very difficult to produce a product that is going to make very many people happy," he said. "The subjects we have to get into are calling for gut responses, and you have people at both ends of the spectrum feeling very strongly about these matters. To pick a course through the mine field will be almost impossible."
As was the case with the Los Angeles police, tensions between sheriff's deputies and members of the minority community are high. Emotions flared once again Friday, when a grand jury decided not to indict five sheriff's deputies in four fatal shootings that took place over the summer. Two county supervisors said the decision makes Kolts' work all the more necessary to restore public confidence.