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Now, a Reform Blueprint for the Sheriff's Department : The Kolts Commission documents use-of-force problems and lax discipline

July 21, 1992

Is Los Angeles picking on its police? Certainly some police officers could be forgiven for wondering cynically whether policing the police is the sole function of government these days. Last year the monumental Christopher Commission report on the Los Angeles Police Department was issued. Now the county has before it the findings of the Kolts Commission--a wide-ranging probe of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Both reports, instead of "picking" on police, point the way toward increased public trust in both agencies, which will lead to greater public support.

THE CAUSE: Authorized by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in December and directed by retired Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts, the new report came about in response to alarm about costly court settlements against the Sheriff's Department--and to mounting concern about increasingly ugly use-of-force incidents in minority communities involving deputies. Meeting over a period of six months, conducting interviews and hearings, the panel sought to provide a measured and clear-eyed perspective on the Sheriff's Department. The panel's aim was not to indict an institution but to provide a thorough examination of the department's "policies, practices and procedures, including recruitment, training, job performance and evaluation, record-keeping and management practices as they related to excessive force, the community sensitivity of deputies and the department's citizen complaint procedure."

To this end the Kolts Commission's final report, issued Monday, found "deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline." For example, Kolts' team identifies 62 "problem officers" who have generated multiple use-of-force complaints. "Despite a history of questionable conduct, nearly all of the officers continue to patrol the streets," the report said. Worse, the report noted, some act as training officers, "imparting their 'street wisdom' to patrol deputies." The report also notes the generally cooperative stance of the department and Sheriff Sherman Block. And it makes the case that Sheriff's Department internal reforms sometimes went for naught not because of a lack of departmental will but a lack of county funding--and that inaction resulted not from departmental willfulness but from outside interference, such as from the county counsel's office, or disinterest, such as by the district attorney's office.

The panel also had the frankness to admit that some of its proposals are unrealistic unless the supervisors appropriate more funding, which could mean more taxes.

But even without more money, says the panel, this department must commence reform. The 360-page report reaches the principal conclusion that the department has serious problems with officers using too much force and often lacks the way, or the will, to discipline officers appropriately and speedily.

The panel believes that, Sheriff Block's nuanced managerial style notwithstanding, the department doesn't listen enough to the people it serves and as a result is guilty not only of occasional brutality but also of arrogance and even insolence. The panel argues that the Sheriff's Department needs to do much more internally to foster a working atmosphere that brings out the best in all deputies, and that it must root out any so-called deputy gangs or informal macho groups that foster antisocial, anti-women or anti-minority attitudes.

THE CURE: Among its recommendations are a wholesale move toward community policing (akin to what the Christopher Commission recommended for the LAPD); the establishment of clear canine program guidelines that would specify when it is appropriate to use police dogs in apprehending suspects, and a radical change of its dangerously loose "head-strike" policy.

The commission recommends that the department institute new citizen complaint procedures, strengthen its internal affairs probes, cease intimidating citizen complainants, implement an independent appeals process by which denied complaints can be reviewed, stop allowing deputies to refuse to identify themselves to citizens, stop stonewalling or even destroying citizen-complaint files, and institute a departmentwide tracking system to identify those deputies whose actions repeatedly lead to citizen complaints or incidents.

The Kolts Commission leaves little doubt that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, though troubled, is reformable. It has talented deputies and an elected sheriff who has shown in the past that he is amenable to suggestion and aware of the need for continued change. These are great pluses as the department faces the '90s. So is this helpful, fair and thorough report. Now both major law enforcement institutions in Los Angeles have before them sensible and serious blueprints for reform.

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