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Shaking off complacency

April 3, 2014

Lucy Jones' visibility has increased but her earthquake mantra remains the same: be prepared.

Like countless Angelenos, I’ve been a Lucy Jones fan for years.

When it comes to earthquakes, no one conveys information more accessibly—or calms rattled nerves more quickly—than the plain-talking seismic scientist from Caltech. I can still vividly remember the way my family was glued to Jones’ televised briefings in the wake of the deadly Northridge earthquake, which had delivered a powerful jolt to our house and psyches.

In recent days, you’ve probably seen a lot of Jones, more than at any time since that 1994 temblor. She’s been called upon by news organizations here and abroad to put into perspective our recent earthquakes, including last Friday’s magnitude 5.1 near La Habra. As she told The New York Times the other day: “The last 17 years has been the quietest time we’ve seen. Maybe we’re starting to turn back to more normal levels.”

I suspect that for many of you in the post-Northridge generation, this is probably the first time you’ve really felt the earth shake and looked to Jones for answers and reassurance. In fact, Jones became an overnight sensation last weekend after opening her @DrLucyJones Twitter account  largely because of followers who were likely still in grade school, or not even born yet, when the Northridge quake hit.

Intrigued by front page headlines like this one in the Los Angeles Daily News—“Scientist charms the Twittersphere”—I scrolled through her Twitter postings to see what insights she was offering her new generation of followers in the space of 144 characters. Of course, she was right on message, as this exchange of tweets showed:

@Joolsthebest: “Are we going to have a bigger earthquake…?

@DrLucyJones: “If I could tell you when the next EQ was going to be, I’d be a lot richer than I am. You need to be ready all the time.”

Jones has rightly seized on our recent spate of earthquakes as a teachable moment in her crusade to shake the public (especially you younger folks) of denial and complacency. The time to prepare, she preaches to all who’ll listen, is now—before we’re walloped by a far more destructive seismic event.

Her suggestions are simple. First, she recommends visiting the website of the Earthquake County Alliance, which offers suggestions on how to prepare, survive and recover from an earthquake. Among the proactive measures she says you can take today: secure moveable items; create a disaster plan and decide how you’ll communicate; organize disaster supplies in convenient locations, and minimize financial hardships by organizing important documents and strengthening property.

From personal experience I’d also highly recommend keeping a pair of slippers by the bed. After the Northridge quake, our young, barefoot daughter was lucky not to cut her feet on the shattered glass strewn throughout the house as she came running into our bedroom.

And, remember, when the quake strikes, “drop, cover and hold on.”

That’s exactly what KTLA news anchors Chris Schauble and Megan Henderson did on the morning of March 17, when a 4.1 quake struck on the Westside. As the studio shook, both ducked under their desk. “Earthquake, we’re having an earthquake,” Schauble exclaimed while taking cover.

In the hours and days that followed, Schauble took a beating. His reaction and facial expressions were ridiculed across the Web; a YouTube clip of the incident has been viewed more than 14 million times. But leave it to Jones to cut through the uncharitable chatter. For her, this was another teachable moment. At a press conference on the quake, she said she was “very proud” of the anchors for protecting themselves. “That is absolutely the right thing to do.”

These days, Jones’ responsibilities have moved well beyond her job at Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently tapped her for a year-long appointment as a special advisor to draw up an earthquake preparedness plan for the city. And I’ve recruited her as an unpaid consultant for Metro on seismic issues relating to subway tunneling under Beverly Hills.

But thanks to social media, she’s now reaching a vast new audience with her message of individual disaster readiness—and reconnecting with some appreciative fans from earlier times.

“Thank you for always putting my mind at scientific ease after quakes,” one young woman posted on Jones’ Facebook page. “ I have been listening to your advice since I was a child, I even quoted you in science reports!”

Here’s hoping that, like me, you’re following that advice, too.

Posted 4/3/14

Exposing a mountain of deceit

March 12, 2014

Opponents of a plan that would protect the Santa Monica mountains for generations to come have launched a misinformation campaign to advance their own vested interests.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors adopted a widely-hailed, landmark plan to preserve one of our region’s most precious natural resources—the Santa Monica Mountains. Under this blueprint for environmental stewardship, streams would be protected from pollution, ridgelines would be spared the scars of unrestrained development, historic groves of native oaks would be saved from the ax and a public in need of recreational opportunities would forever find a serene haven in the hills above Los Angeles.

This plan—known as a Local Coastal Program, or LCP—resulted from the work of an unprecedented coalition of groups and individuals, including the Sierra Club,  Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, the California Coastal Protection Network, State Senator Fran Pavley, Assemblyman Richard Bloom and a broad cross-section of the equestrian community. The Board of Supervisors approved the LCP by a 4-1 vote amid an outpouring of support.

But now, as the California Coastal Commission prepares to consider the plan, a disinformation campaign has been launched by a small army of lawyers and lobbyists, representing developer clients who do not want to play by the rules. They are shamelessly placing their self-interest above the public interest. And they are advancing this agenda not by stepping forward themselves. They are hiding behind a smokescreen they created by falsely generating fears among equestrians, backyard gardeners and others that the plan would rob them of the things they hold dear.

Make no mistake, these big-moneyed real-estate interests have one thing in mind: to derail the LCP so they can profit from an environmental jewel that, in the process, would be destroyed and lost to us all.

I encourage you to read the plan yourself here. In the meantime, here is the truth behind the more blatantly false misrepresentations that have surfaced in recent days:

 

FICTION: The LCP bans the riding, boarding and training of horses in Malibu.

FACT: The proposed plan specifically supports the riding, boarding and training of horses in the Santa Monica Mountains. It calls for a substantial increase in the current areas where such activities are permitted and would allow homeowners in unincorporated areas to board horses in their backyards, which is now prohibited by county codes. What’s more, the plan encourages the establishment of equestrian-friendly trailhead parking and staging areas to promote low-cost public access to trails. The plan clearly states that it seeks to preserve the equestrian traditions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

FICTION: The LCP was sprung on an unsuspecting public.

FACT: For months, the county and my office engaged hundreds of individuals and groups during the preparation of the LCP, resulting in the unprecedented coalition that coalesced behind the plan. Indeed, many of the plan’s provisions are the result of the thorough and constructive input we received from residential, environmental and equestrian stakeholders. Moreover, for six weeks before the Board of Supervisors’ vote, the LCP was posted online and placed in local libraries and government offices. It was also presented to more than 30 homeowner organizations, the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council, equestrians, environmental organizations, representatives of neighboring cities and counties, and numerous other organizations.

 

FICTION: The LCP would commercialize the rural character of the Santa Monica Mountains.

FACT: The LCP’s guiding principle is that “resource protection has priority over development.” To that end, the plan would cut by nearly two-thirds the area zoned for commercial development under the plan. In fact, less than one percent of the Coastal Zone is slated for commercial use. Among other things, the LCP prohibits: ridgeline development, long access roads that carve-up natural hillsides, the blocking of streams, commercial vineyards and the destruction of oaks, sycamores and other native woodlands. It also strictly limits grading and imposes lighting restrictions to preserve the night sky. In addition, thanks in large part to the efforts of the county, state and other public partners, more than half of the Coastal Zone has already been acquired as public parkland on which development is restricted.

 

FICTION: The LCP would turn the City of Malibu into another resort town ridden with chain stores, severing the town’s connection to its rural origins.

FACT: The LCP does not in any way govern land use or business within the City of Malibu. It addresses the roughly 50,000 acres of unincorporated territory within the Coastal Zone north of the City of Malibu, between Ventura County and the City of Los Angeles. The City of Malibu has its own LCP, which governs land use inside the city. Land use decisions in the City of Malibu are made by the Malibu City Council. Land use decisions in the unincorporated county are governed by the Board of Supervisors. Neither agency has jurisdiction over the other.

 

FICTION: The LCP prohibits backyard fruit and vegetable gardens and bans vineyards.

FACT: The LCP explicitly protects the right of all new and existing homeowners—as well as schools and other community uses—to maintain fruit and vegetable gardens. At the urging of many environmental leaders, the LCP would prohibit new commercial vineyards because of their serious impact on water quality in our streams, beaches and the Santa Monica Bay. The policy prohibiting new vineyards would also prevent the loss of sensitive habitat and avoid concerns over the industrial spraying of pesticides near homes and the areas where tens of thousands of visitors come each year to enjoy the region’s beauty and recreational opportunities. Nevertheless, out of fairness to existing vineyard owners, legally established vineyards that currently exist would be allowed to remain under the LCP.

 

FICTION: The LCP will take away your dogs.

FACT: This is patently—and ridiculously—false. The LCP maintains the same rules for dogs as we have in the county code today.

 

FICTION: The LCP will add fees and costs.

FACT: The LCP would save the average property owner seeking permits thousands of dollars. Under the status quo, homeowners who want to build within the Santa Monica Mountains Coastal Zone must first go to the county to get an “approval in concept.” Once they finish the county process, they must proceed to the Coastal Commission for a public hearing, further review and more fees. Once the LCP is certified by the Coastal Commission, however, property owners will have a one-stop shop at the County of Los Angeles and they will no longer have to go to the Coastal Commission, pay a second set of fees and go through a second layer of governmental review.

 

So, there you have it. Those are the simple facts, which I urge you to verify for yourself.

The Santa Monica Mountains LCP is the product of years of meticulous analysis and negotiation. Its opponents want to delay and ultimately kill this important plan.  And they are using deceitful tactics—including dishonesty—to try to achieve those goals. This cannot be allowed to happen.

The Santa Monica Mountains represent one of the largest remaining unspoiled coastal resources in Southern California.  Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to seize this opportunity.

Posted 3/12/14

 

 

The beauty is in the details

February 20, 2014

New rules will preserve the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains for the ages. Photo/Pedro Szeke

There are moments in my job—special moments—when I know I’m representing not only the interests of people today but also the needs of generations to come. One of those occasions, I’m delighted to say, came this week with a historic vote by the Board of Supervisors to protect one of our region’s most precious environmental and recreational treasures.

On Tuesday, the board approved a Local Coastal Program (LCP) for an 80-square-mile area of the Santa Monica Mountains. Years in the making, this far-reaching document—required by the state and endorsed by a broad coalition—establishes rigorous new restrictions for development in the mountains that rise along Los Angeles County’s northern edge.

Among other things, the LCP will ban construction in the most fragile habitat areas to help ensure the survival of animal and plant life, including our oak woodlands. Natural streams will be allowed to flow without alterations or barriers. Certain deadly rodent poisons will be outlawed to protect mountain lions and other vulnerable creatures. Stars in the night sky will remain visible thanks to tough rules on outdoor lighting.

What’s more, development will be prohibited on all significant ridgelines to prevent scars that would ruin this magnificent landscape and undermine the outdoor experience for hikers, equestrians and others who’ve found refuge just minutes away from our urban sprawl.

Where development is allowed, zoning will be dramatically reduced from an average of one house per acre to as low as one per 40 acres. For grading that exceeds 5,000 cubic yards, a discretionary permit will be necessary, as well as environmental and public hearings. The current threshold for such actions is 100,000 cubic yards.

The board’s passage of the Local Coastal Program, which now goes to the California Coastal Commission for certification, also represents a dramatic shift in the stewardship of the Santa Monica Mountains.

For years, in the absence of a detailed LCP, applicants for development permits have needed approval from both the county and the coastal commission. This has added needless uncertainty, delays and costs to the process. The coastal commission, for example, currently requires a full hearing for nearly every permit. Under the county’s LCP, however, an administrative permit would be issued to people who want to build such basic structures as single-family homes or room additions that comply with the plan’s development standards.

So now the rules will be clear to all, and the elected Board of Supervisors finally will have responsibility for managing a priceless resource that draws tens of thousands of visitors to its trails and vistas each year.

In fact, the LCP itself reflects the views and priorities of a wide collection of groups and individuals who have a stake in the mountains and a passion for their continuing preservation as a rural outpost for Los Angeles. Among them are the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation and the majority of local equestrians, whose interests are specifically addressed in the LCP. I thank them all for their heartfelt participation.

I also want to thank the county’s Department of Regional Planning and my deputy Ben Saltsman. Together, they shepherded this monumental effort, demonstrating how government can, indeed, build consensus and serve the public’s lasting interests. This plan sends a very clear message: In the Santa Monica Mountains, concerns for the environment will dictate development, not the other way around.

For more on the Santa Monica Mountains and their place in L.A., check out our video below. 

YouTube Preview Image

Posted 2/20/14

Not just a local hero

February 6, 2014

Rep. Henry Waxman, who's retiring this year, is a once-in-a-generation congressional leader.

For 40 years, Rep. Henry Waxman has represented a wide swath of Los Angeles’ Westside. But the truth is that no single member of Congress has had a more far-reaching impact on the health and well-being of the entire nation than Waxman.

He championed legislation that led to cleaner air and water not only in L.A. but also in polluted cities across America. He was the driving force behind bills that restricted the use of pesticides and required food manufacturers to put those now-familiar nutrition labels on their products. He made sure that children in lower-income families had access to health insurance. He wrote the law that created the generic drug industry, saving consumers countless millions on their prescriptions.

And remember back in the mid-1990s, when the heads of the nation’s tobacco companies were collectively summoned to Washington for a televised hearing, during which they denied that their product was addictive? That landmark session was convened by Waxman, and it represented a turning point in the long and ultimately successful efforts to give the federal government more power to regulate tobacco.

Although Waxman is a proud liberal Democrat, a good number of those bills—and many others—were signed into law by Republican presidents, a testament to his mastery of the legislative process and his ability to build respect and consensus on both sides of the aisle.

With that legacy of accomplishment, it’s no wonder that, in recent days, there’s been an outpouring of praise for my friend and role model, the 20-term congressman. Last week, Waxman, surprised us all when he announced that he’d be retiring at the end of this year. At 74, he explained, it was time to begin the next chapter of his life. I can certainly understand that desire on the part of someone who has devoted his entire adult life to elective office. But I wish it wasn’t so.

Waxman’s departure will leave a huge void in Congress. Among many other things, his has been a powerful voice for the positive role government can play, especially in protecting the public health, whether you’re among the most fortunate of us or those struggling at the lower rungs of the economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his legislative work has saved millions of lives. He will surely be remembered as a huge idealist, but one with an unparalleled pragmatic capacity to turn those ideals into reality.

He also has been a great friend to Los Angeles County. In the mid-1990s, for example, when the county was confronting bankruptcy and the collapse of its health care system, Waxman stepped in to help secure the Clinton Administration’s help. In 2008, when federal officials wanted to sell off the Veterans Administration properties in Westwood, where so many deserving men and women have received assistance, Waxman again came to the rescue.

On a personal note, no public servant has taught me more about what it takes to bring about positive change in our society. Through his example, Waxman showed me that it’s not enough to have a vision. You must be willing to stay in the ring despite the long odds you may face. And when you’re knocked down, you get up and keep fighting for what you believe in.
As one of his longtime constituents, I’m grateful for his unmatched advocacy.

He’s going out a champion.

Waxman's tobacco hearings represented a turning point in bringing greater regulation to the industry.

Posted 2/6/14

After Baca, a new start

January 16, 2014

On January 7, Sheriff Baca announced he'd be leaving the department after 48 years.

When Lee Baca announced his retirement from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, I was relieved but not surprised. As a colleague and friend, I knew he was hurting.

While preparing to seek a fifth term as sheriff, Baca had become the public face of a department rocked by scandal, including the recent federal indictments of 18 members of his force for alleged brutality, corruption and obstruction of justice. With each passing day, as his campaign opponents honed their attacks, it wasn’t only the sheriff’s re-election prospects that were taking a hit but also the department to which he’d dedicated nearly 50 years of his life.

So Baca did the right thing—the courageous thing—for himself and the agency. His voice cracking, he told a packed news conference that he was stepping aside at the end of this month. “I don’t see myself as the future,” he said. “I see myself as part of the past.” Los Angeles County voters will now have a rare opportunity to elect a sheriff without an incumbent on the ballot.

Although Baca may have removed himself as the campaign’s lightning rod, he has presented those of us on the Board of Supervisors with a huge responsibility for the department’s uncertain future. It’s now our job to appoint an interim sheriff who’ll serve until December when the newly-elected sheriff is sworn in.

To be sure, conditions within the Los Angeles County jail system have improved since allegations of excessive deputy violence began escalating several years ago, leading to the creation of a citizen’s commission that blamed top management for many of the problems. By all accounts, the use of serious force is down significantly. Still, big challenges confront the department, including how to humanely—and constitutionally—deal with the thousands of inmates entrusted to our custody, especially those suffering from mental health problems.

In the days ahead, our interviews with candidates for the interim sheriff position will begin. And I can tell you this much for sure: We should not be putting a caretaker in charge. We need a reformer who’ll build on the momentum the department has achieved since the blue-ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence concluded its widely-praised work. We need a proven leader who can resist the potential bureaucratic backsliding that can occur in an institution where change comes hard.

And we need someone who won’t be entering the growing field of candidates competing for the top job. This historic moment of transition is too important for an interim sheriff to have his or her attention diverted by a tough campaign or to think it’s necessary to build political alliances within the department’s ranks.

An interim sheriff must give his elected successor every opportunity to hit the ground running to swiftly restore the department’s reputation and repair the morale of the thousands of hard-working men and women who’ve been unjustly tarnished.

Every crisis presents an opportunity. And the voters of Los Angeles County now have precisely that—an opportunity to put their imprint on the future of the Sheriff’s Department, casting a vote for leadership that can clean house and offer a new beginning.

Posted 1/16/14

The day I met Mandela

December 10, 2013

Mandela's 1990 Los Angeles visit took place just a few months after his release from prison.

Los Angeles City Hall has played host over the years to heads of state, visiting dignitaries and many of the world’s great and near-great.

But one visit on June, 29, 1990 by a smiling septuagenarian fresh out of a South African prison stands in a class of its own.

Crowds waited hours in the sun to see Nelson Mandela, the living embodiment of the struggle against apartheid, as he came through our city on what all of us sensed was a march of destiny for his country and the world.

Mandela was introduced by Gregory Peck, embraced by Sidney Poitier and lauded as a hero by Mayor Tom Bradley. Harry Belafonte was there that day with his video camera. I’d brought mine from home, too, and we ended up videotaping each other.

The atmosphere was electric as thousands waited for a glimpse of Mandela. Some climbed trees, craning to get a better look.

Just five years earlier, while Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island, I had as a Los Angeles city councilman helped lead divestiture efforts that prompted withdrawal of city deposits from banks doing business in South Africa and halted some pension fund investments in companies with connections there.

Now, here was Mandela himself, paying tribute to those actions and many others that were bringing inexorable pressure to the fight to end the inhumanity of apartheid.

“Thank you for supporting us when we needed you most,” Mandela told us that day. “Thank you for remembering us even though we were incarcerated in prison dungeons thousands of miles away from here. Thank you for caring. We are on freedom road, and nothing is going to stop us from reaching our destination.”

After the speeches, at a reception hosted by the mayor, I had a chance to shake Mandela’s hand and exchange a few words with him. There was so much I wanted to say about my admiration for him, but with the crush of people all around us, there was only time to exchange a few casual pleasantries. Still, it was an opportunity I treasure to this day.

Not just because it was a chance to meet a personal hero, someone I’d admired from afar since my own early days as a human rights activist. But also because of what he showed the world following his release after 27 long years in prison. It was inspiring and remarkable to me that when he came out, retribution was not on his agenda—reconciliation was. When he went on to lead South Africa as its president, he was inclusive. Healing his beloved country would take working together, and no one showed the power of a collaborative spirit more than Mandela.

He set an enduring example of cooperation and selflessness that’s not often seen in public life these days.

As Mandela was memorialized after his death last week at the age of 95 by leaders including President Barack Obama in Johannesburg, I found myself thinking about the power of individuals to change the world—the importance of taking a public stand against injustice, and of lending our vocal and moral support to those, like Mandela, who put their necks on the line for a cause greater than themselves.

Every generation has its heroes—those all-too-rare individuals who stand up and make a difference. In our times, they’ve included the late Andrei Sakharov, the “voice of conscience” against human rights abuses in the Soviet Union and the inspiring Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. But no one, I would argue, had the impact and experience of Mandela, who paid such a profound price in terms of the years of solitary confinement, yet emerged from behind bars to see the comparatively swift demise of the apartheid system he fought so effectively against.

He stands alone. And those of us fortunate enough to have even once crossed his path will always stand in awe.

Posted 12/10/13

Remembering JFK

November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy's official presidential portrait by artist Aaron Shikler was posthumously unveiled in 1970.

It was the fall of 1960, just two months before the presidential election, and John Kennedy was making a swing through Los Angeles for a rally at the Shrine Auditorium. I was 11, and I was determined to be there.

Kennedy already was my hero. When he challenged us with his youthful energy to give more of ourselves in the service of others, he sparked a political flame in me. So I begged my dad to take me to the Shrine. Before we jumped into our Plymouth for the drive downtown from our Fairfax home, I grabbed a stick in the backyard and taped a Kennedy bumper sticker to it.

When we arrived at the Shrine, the place was mobbed. We couldn’t get inside but, because I was small, we snaked and jostled our way through the thick forest of excited grown-ups to the very front of a walkway where Kennedy would pass to enter the auditorium. As my striding hero approached, I shouted and waved that stick so wildly that he had to step back to keep from getting whacked.

Inside the auditorium, the candidate would speak on the weighty matters of the day—the tightening tensions between democracy and communism, survival in a difficult and dangerous world, racial and religious bigotry. As I sit here now, I suspect most of those policy points would have gone over my head. But the promise of a New Frontier that Kennedy carried into L.A. and across the nation certainly didn’t miss the mark with my heart.

In recent days, we’ve seen stories of every sort and slant on Kennedy and his administration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Scholarly debates over the impact of his presidency will persist for decades to come. So too, I imagine, will the lingering conspiracy theories that swirl around the rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.

But in my circle of friends, we’ve found ourselves talking less about the details and what-ifs of JFK’s presidency and more about his personal impact on the course of our lives during such formative ages. Truth is, many of us have never gotten over Kennedy’s death. It was so sudden, so personal. In that sense, it reminded me of the grief of my mom’s passing just four years earlier.

During Kennedy’s tenure, we were still too young to be skeptical or, worse, cynical from the experience of some earlier political disappointment. When John Kennedy said anything was possible, we believed. When he told us we could make a difference, we acted—even if it was in our own, youthful ways.

I can still remember running for Boy’s League vice president in 9th grade at Bancroft Jr. High School in Hollywood after Kennedy’s election—my first political race. During a campaign “speech” to the students, I informed them that a special guest was there to offer support for my candidacy. I turned around and pulled on a Kennedy mask that I’d been hiding behind my back. I then swung around again and, in what I’d like to think was a pretty spot-on Kennedy impersonation, urged the now-cheering students to cast a ballot for Zev. I won, with 90 percent of the vote.

Today, I look back at my silly play-acting and know, on a deeper level, that I was identifying for the first time with a real-life political figure, an identification that has inspired me throughout my nearly 40 years in elective office. The political activism to which I’ve dedicated my life began with Kennedy.

During the past few days, amid all the news coverage, I’ve been asked the difficult question of how I think the Kennedy assassination is relevant to today’s younger generation. Why should they care?

Many historians have asserted that the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960s—which informs much of who we are today—began on that sad day in Dallas. The president’s killing set the stage for the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy and too many others, seemingly raising the nation’s tolerance for political violence.

But the reality is that for those of us of a certain age, our most visceral connection to the assassination is with the seared memories of where we were and how we felt when we heard the news. (I was in Spanish class, where my teacher dissolved into tears.) The gut-wrenching depth of that individual grief, multiplied by millions across a nation, can never truly be expressed to anyone who wasn’t there.

Maybe the most we can do to convey that trauma to the Millennial Generation is to note the impact the 9/11 attacks had on their lives. Ask any of them, and they can vividly tell you where they were when the towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down.

But, on a more positive note, I might also offer them a few words from the speech that candidate Kennedy delivered inside the Shrine Auditorium, as my dad and I worked our way back to the car—a reminder of the timeless relevance of his vision and of our responsibilities.

“If we measure up not only in the public sense,” Kennedy said, “but in the private sense to the opportunities that we have, if we recognize that…liberty calls for certain qualities of self-restraint and character which go with self-government, I am confident that the future can belong to those who believe in freedom.”

Posted 11/22/2013

A cop’s cop

October 31, 2013

You can learn a lot from a cop on a ride-along.

Daniel Sullivan wore his LAPD blues like the rest of the command staff, but he was definitely cut from a different cloth.

In an era when then-Chief Daryl F. Gates set a combative tone for the department, Sullivan, a deputy chief, refused to succumb to such them-against-us nonsense. That was evident in the unlikely relationship he and I forged.

Not long after my election to the Los Angeles City Council in the mid-1970s, I became the panel’s strongest critic of the department’s use of excessive force and its propensity for secretly building dossiers on perceived enemies, including me. Although Sullivan didn’t always agree with me, he said he respected my willingness to tackle the brass. And I, in turn, told him I respected the professional manner with which he and most of his colleagues performed their crucial and difficult responsibilities on behalf of the residents of Los Angeles.

With his jurisdiction stretching across my Westside district, Sullivan would become one of my “go-to” guys when I needed thoughtful and blunt guidance on a criminal justice issue. I’d go on ride-alongs with him until the wee hours to get his unique take on the city he patrolled. Then we’d compete on the racket ball court. He had a boyish, Irish grin straight out of Central Casting.

Many years ago, Sullivan and an LAPD colleague, Joe De Ladurantey, published a book called “Criminal Investigation Standards.” To this day, that volume sits on my shelf—a continuing reminder that you don’t have to be in lock-step with a person to form lasting professional and personal ties, if the relationship is grounded in mutual good will.

As you may have suspected, I’m writing about Sullivan because I learned last week that he passed away.

The last time I talked to him was not long after the 9/11 attacks, years after his retirement. He called me from, of all places, Pakistan. He said he’d been hired by the U.S. government for a border security and police modernization project to help that nation secure its borders. Then I lost touch; I heard he moved to Palm Desert and was easing his way into retirement.

One of the LAPD’s brightest stars, Sullivan had the policing and political skills to become chief of police one day. Only a quirk of timing and the lack of a vacancy prevented that from happening during his years within the department. What a shame. He was the closest friend I had in the LAPD, and I will miss him and what our friendship represented.

Posted 10/31/13

A time to stay the course

September 19, 2013

Jail Commission Chair Lourdes Baird with a final report urging the hiring of an inspector general.

After many years in office, I know how tempting it is for political bodies to jump into action when a problem is generating headlines or otherwise commanding public attention. But sometimes what sounds like a good idea may actually be counterproductive, falsely raising expectations at the precise moment when careful and dispassionate analysis should rule the day.

Such an issue surfaced this week at the Board of Supervisors, where my colleagues Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina introduced a motion calling for the permanent creation of a Sheriff’s Department Oversight Commission, whose members would be appointed by the board.

They argued that ongoing investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and continuing allegations of brutality by deputies in the jails proved that a new level of civilian oversight was needed—one that a busy Board of Supervisors alone cannot provide. A vote is scheduled for October 8.

I certainly share the proponents’ desire to tighten the reins on the Sheriff’s Department, but let me tell you why I’ll be among the “no” votes.

As many of you may know, I’ve spent a good deal of my public life holding our region’s two biggest law enforcement agencies accountable for unconstitutional behavior, from the political spying and excessive force of the Los Angeles Police Department back in the 1980s to the escalating brutality inflicted on L.A. County jail inmates by sheriff’s deputies in more recent times. In fact, I championed the establishment of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, whose esteemed members last year proposed more than 60 reforms for the Sheriff’s Department’s jail operation.

The lynchpin of those widely-praised recommendations was the creation of an Office of Inspector General to provide rigorous, independent oversight of the department, reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors. We will soon review candidates to lead this essential watchdog agency.

The blue-ribbon panel—whose members included former federal judges, a big-city police chief and a prominent south Los Angeles pastor—specifically considered whether to recommend the creation of a permanent civilian commission, like the one now being proposed. The answer: no.

“The Commission believes that a fully empowered and integrated Office of Inspector General reporting to an engaged Board of Supervisors can provide the necessary independent oversight of the Department to ensure that it implements meaningful and lasting reforms,” the panelists wrote in their final report. The creation of another civilian commission, they said, “was not necessary.”

And should anyone question the Board of Supervisors’ level of engagement, Tuesday’s meeting alone should have offered an answer. Besides the proposal for a new oversight body, our day was packed with reports and debate on the status of the earlier jail commission’s recommendations, the decreasing number of serious use-of-force cases, and methods of coping with thousands of new inmates now serving sentences in the county lockup rather state prison because of sweeping changes to California law.

The strongest argument against a new oversight commission is simply that it would be powerless to force changes within the Sheriff’s Department. And, despite the suggestions of the measure’s backers, the Los Angeles Police Department does not provide us with a model for civilian governance.

The sheriff is publicly elected, making him directly accountable to voters every four years. Although the Board of Supervisors holds the purse strings, state law expressly gives the sheriff here and in counties across the state wide control over the operations of their departments. The LAPD chief, on the other hand, is politically-appointed and, under the city charter, reports directly to a five-member Board of Police Commissioners, which governs the department.

In their final report, the jail commission pointedly noted the difference between the two law enforcement agencies, saying that “a civilian jail commission would not have any legal authority over the Sheriff’s Department absent enabling [state] legislation.”  The probability of getting such legislation is, at best, remote. In other words, the proposed commission would amount to little more than a soapbox for the panelists—and a disappointment for those of us committed to a top-to-bottom cultural change.

On Tuesday, my colleague, Don Knabe, called the proposal for a new commission “a bit premature.” I agree. The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, staffed by some of L.A.’s brightest criminal justice minds, offered us a detailed roadmap to reform. That includes allowing an inspector general—whose authority Sheriff Lee Baca has said he will accept—to hold the department accountable through meaningful oversight.

We shouldn’t now be looking for shortcuts that, in the end, would divert us from our destination.

Posted 9/19/13

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