Opinion: Another Step in Improving Public Safety Is Fixing the Public Safety Commission

As noted in an editorial yesterday, the West Hollywood City Council needs to push for the ouster of Alex Villanueva as Sheriff of Los Angeles County if it really is committed to reforming policing like it says it is.

But the City Council also needs to take a look at its own Public Safety Commission. It’s the Public Safety Department that manages the day-by-day relationship between the city and the Sheriff’s Department and its West Hollywood Station and with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. And it’s the Public Safety Commission that is supposed to listen to what residents have to say about public safety issues, ensure the Sheriff’s Department maintains good relations with the city’s diverse communities, and monitor trends in complaints regarding law enforcement;

In recent years, the Public Safety Commission has stepped up its game. But it still has a long way to go.

For example, other than reading off a list of all law enforcement officers across the United States who have died in the last month (and taking an occasional angry snipe at Public Safety Director Kristin Cook), Commissioner Desiree Sol still just sits there in silence. Marcy Norton, who has been on the Commission for ages, also rarely has anything to say. In recent years, Commissioner Jeffrey Waack has asked a couple of questions at the monthly meetings. But mostly those commissioners just sit and listen as representatives from the Sheriff’s Station, the Fire Department and the Block by Block security ambassadors read out their monthly reports and, rarely, a local resident shows up to raise an issue.

However, Commissioner Tory Berger, to the consternation of some of his fellow commissioners, does dig deep and ask questions about how law enforcement is responding to homelessness and crime. So does relatively new Commissioner Kerri Balbone, and Commission Chair Amanda Laflen.

One challenge the commissioners seem to face is reacting to information they get from the Public Safety Department. For example, the latest quarterly report from  the Los Angeles County Office of the Inspector General says there were six complaints of misconduct by officers stationed at the Sheriff’s Department’s West Hollywood Station in the first three months of this year.  If your job is to keep an eye on our local Sheriff’s Station’s performance and its interaction with the residents of West Hollywood, wouldn’t you want to ask what those complaints were about?  Wouldn’t you be asking about issues mentioned in emails from the Public Safety Department about reports by the Inspector General and the LA County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission meetings?  Wouldn’t you be asking questions about why Sheriff Villanueva wants to expand the availability of concealed carry gun permits by 400%, and what impact that might have on West Hollywood?

Yes, Public Safety Commission meetings have been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they will resume soon as virtual meetings, and let’s hope some of these items are on the agenda.

Let’s hope Commission members ask questions about the Inspector General’s 2015 report that some guns handed out to deputies were vulnerable to “unintended discharge” (i.e. shooting a bullet when you didn’t mean to) Inspector General Max Huntsman said a study “found a sharp increase in unintended tactical discharges putting officers and the public at risk.” At the time, WEHOville asked then-Lt. David Smith how many of those risky weapons were in use at the West Hollywood Station. His response? “No idea.”

Members of the Public Safety Commission also should be asking about the status of the investigation into the death of Jonathan Peña in 2015. Peña, a 27-year-old  employee of the Holloway Motel, was killed while walking on the sidewalk on Santa Monica Boulevard when a patrol car driven a local deputy spun out of control. The California Highway Patrol was asked to investigate that.  Maybe Public Safety Commissioners should also be curious why the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t delivered, 514 days later, information requested  by WEHOville regarding possible discipline of deputies involved in the 2014 killing of one innocent young man and the serious wounding of another at 939 Palm Ave.

Commissioners also should call out that they should have been given some time to take a look at the city’s five-year contract for services with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which expired on June 30, 2019, before it was renewed for another five years. Or even asked to comment on the $20.5 million for Sheriff’s Department services in the annual budget approved at the last City Council meeting. That would give Commissioners a chance to ask questions local residents are asking, like why there aren’t more feet on the streets? Why do we keep hearing about incidents like the one the other day, when three vehicles and six deputies responded to a complaint about a grumpy old homeless woman misbehaving at the Conservatory (she was allowed to walk away toward Joey’s diner, where a server turned her away from an outdoor diner without having to dial 911). And is it true that, while the Sheriff’s captain does assign deputies to patrol busy bar areas during holidays such as New Year’s Eve, those deputies who’d rather spend that holiday at home with the wife and kids can simply and often do decline?

Another question that has never been asked is how does the city make its Public Safety Department work given that, in response to complaints from Kristin Cook’s staff about her allegedly abusive behavior, Cook was put in her own office above the Koontz Hardware store on Santa Monica Boulevard. Her three staff members remain at City Hall, and she and they are not allowed to communicate with one another, which anyone who has run a business would certainly find quite strange.

So there is work to do, and a good start would be for Marcy Norton and Desiree Sol to resign their seats on the Commission and be replaced by residents who aren’t afraid to ask questions. Then the Commission should respond at its public meetings to regular updates about reports from the Inspector General and Civilian Oversight Commission about the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and management that might affect West Hollywood. And the Commissioners might consider staging their own quarterly “Coffee with a Cop” meeting with local residents and law enforcement officers, but doing it on a weekend rather than 8 a.m. on a weekday, when no one shows up.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial said that Public Safety Director Kristin Cook did not keep members of the Public Safety Commission informed about reports from the L.A. County Inspector General and the county’s Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission. In fact, Cook does alert Commission members regularly about such reports. WEHOville regrets the error and has corrected the editorial.

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Larry Block
Larry Block
2 months ago

Term limits for commissioners, give new residents a chance to serve and allow dedicated public servants the opportunity to term out and move to another commission/ so they too can be ready to run for city council w experience.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  Larry Block

Too bad other City Council candidates won’t put in their two cents.

Vigilant
Vigilant
2 months ago
Reply to  Larry Block

Do you mean “play date” experience or first round public auditions for future positions?

Alan Strasburg
Alan Strasburg
2 months ago

The problem is that WeHo commissions are mostly window dressing combined with the same imperiousness that permeates much of city hall. That tone is set by a regal student council perched in its grand chambers from which there is little regard for the day-to-day quality of life issues that residents care about and that matter. That tone is set by pompous mayoral coronations.

West
West
2 months ago

The Commission would ideally serve as a civilian oversight board. Failing that, it still should cover some basic functions; -Meaningful reporting back from the LA oversight commission. -Persuing health strategies as they relate to public safety like harm reduction access and sanitation for unhoused people. -Challenging problematic policing policies like broken windows policing, profiling of sex workers and other “undesirables”. -Setting a tone of accountability for our Sherriff’s dept, NOT giving them trophies at annual awards ceremonies. Lastly, why are there no people on the board that are part of the communities that are most heavily policed? Desiree is the… Read more »

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
2 months ago
Reply to  West

Your points are well taken but the City Council does not want the Commission to function as anything other than to provide cover for the status quo. As long as City Hall and the Commission continue as mindless cheer leaders for the status quo in law enforcement, there will be a lack of accountability and we will remain dependent upon who leads the WeHo station for the level service we receive. While Capt. Ramirez has stepped up the Department’s game in WeHo, the next captain may be just another unimaginative hack. We can do better.

Jerome Cleary
Jerome Cleary
2 months ago

I emailed recently the city council and Kristen Cook about a deputy not wearing a mask and no one ever emailed me back? WHY?