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Cooley, Baca at Odds Over Independent Review Panel

Politics: The D.A. opposes sheriff's plan to hire outside attorneys to lead internal investigations.

April 24, 2001|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's plan to hire outside attorneys to oversee internal affairs investigations was proceeding on the fast track.

Baca had convinced the department's top brass to support the idea. He had worked out a key political angle: persuading the Board of Supervisors to sign on to the plan and to pay for it as well. He had won over a cadre of civil rights attorneys and community activists concerned with the ability of law enforcement agencies to police themselves. Baca even told reporters that an announcement on the hiring of the lead attorney for the office was imminent.

That was nine weeks ago. Since then, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has sought to derail the sheriff's plan nearly single-handedly.

Cooley argues that private attorneys should not play any role in determining whether criminal cases should be filed against law enforcement officers.

Over the last two months, the county counsel's office has attempted to work out a compromise between Cooley and Baca. Negotiations continue. (One county lawyer has compared his role to that of Henry Kissinger conducting shuttle diplomacy.)

Cooley and Baca have not spoken directly. Moreover, Cooley has met with only one member of the Board of Supervisors, Mike Antonovich.

At this point, a majority of the supervisors say they have had enough and plan to vote today to appoint a chief attorney for the new office. The supervisors have interviewed three attorneys and are expected to announce their choice at the meeting.

Supervisors say that if Baca and Cooley cannot reach an accord on how the new office will function, Cooley could still bring his concerns before the board.

The office of independent review, a creation of the sheriff's largely in response to the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal, is intended to add credence and confidence in the department's internal investigations. A chief attorney will oversee five others in directing investigations, making disciplinary recommendations and reporting to the supervisors on significant cases.

The Sheriff's Department would be the largest law enforcement agency in the country with this type of independent review system.

The attorneys "are a second set of eyes and minds when it comes to criminal and possible criminal investigations," Baca said. "They basically are ensuring we are getting the job done correctly and that we are not culturally seeing things from our own point of view."

Cooley views the office quite differently. He says the idea that outside attorneys would review cases before prosecutors strikes him as potentially unconstitutional. He also worries about potential conflicts between his prosecutors and these outside attorneys rolling out to deputy-involved shootings and other serious incidents.

Constitutional Questions Raised

"It's too expansive and quite honestly, there are some serious constitutional issues," Cooley said recently. "There weren't clear lines. . . . The sheriff is constitutionally empowered to investigate crimes, the district attorney is constitutionally empowered to prosecute crimes. There shouldn't be anything that interferes with that."

The district attorney's "authority can't be usurped by essentially a private lawyer working for the Board of Supervisors," Cooley said.

It is unclear whether Baca innocently or intentionally neglected to discuss his plan with the district attorney. Baca, however, says that he never intended to slight the district attorney and that he believes prosecutors are likely to receive more--not fewer--cases from his department.

"The office of independent review strengthens the system, as I see it," Baca said. "To me, the office of independent review ensures that the sheriff . . . does not overly rely on his own individual discretion."

Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the supervisors overseeing reforms in the Sheriff's Department, said he believes the outside attorneys should be involved in internal investigations. If a case isn't criminal the attorneys could help determine whether policies were violated or whether training should be modified, Bobb said. Further, they could help determine whether administrative discipline should be imposed, said Bobb, who helped design the concept for the new office.

A majority of the supervisors said that although they welcome the district attorney's input, they don't want to interfere with Baca's plans.

"At the end of the day, the sheriff wants an office of independent review and 'independent' is the operative word," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "That means independent of the sheriff, the district attorney and the Board of Supervisors. . . . This is a very courageous act on the part of a law enforcement official. . . . The board should stand by him."

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