New turf for the sheriff’s watchdog
July 7, 2010
Veteran civil rights lawyer Michael Gennaco has focused for nearly a decade on one job: keeping an eye on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
As chief attorney of the respected Office of Independent Review, Gennaco has built a model oversight unit, investigating everything from on-duty shootings to off-duty drunkenness. Although not beloved by the rank-and-file, the unit has the support of Sheriff Lee Baca and has been credited with improving the department’s training and discipline.
Now Gennaco finds himself on a new mission, one that has put him and his team front-and-center in one of Los Angeles County’s most vexing and embarrassing controversies. The Office of Independent Review, or OIR, has been recruited by the Board of Supervisors to help restore accountability and integrity to another one of the county’s criminal justice agencies—the scandal-plagued Probation Department.
It’s a new challenge—“a whole new world,” Gennaco says—but also the natural extension of his work monitoring the Sheriff’s Department and his earlier career as a widely praised federal prosecutor specializing in law enforcement misconduct and civil rights violations.
“I have a world vision in which police officers obey the law, a vision that is supported in most cases,” Gennaco says. “But there are times when they abuse their power. The victims of police misconduct don’t have power and authority and the ability to get redress. They’re not the people in Malibu.”
In the weeks ahead, Gennaco’s team of six lawyers will be expanded to eight. He’ll send a pair of them to the Probation Department with orders to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of internal discipline. The OIR lawyers will work hand-in-hand with the agency’s new chief, Donald Blevins, who has vowed to crack down on misbehavior and rebuild the department’s management ranks.
Although the details of the arrangement are still being worked out, Gennaco says he believes that “the expertise we have from the Sheriff’s Department will transfer over effectively.” And, the supervisors hope, quickly.
In recent weeks, the reputation of the 6,000-person department has come under withering assault amid disclosures of institutional failings and individual misconduct.
Staffers have been accused of, among other things, using department credit cards to buy electronic goods and of allowing juvenile charges to engage in video-taped brawls in probation camp classrooms. The department’s managers, meanwhile, have drawn the ire of the Board of Supervisors for being unable to fully account for $79 million that had been allocated to comply with federal mandates to improve conditions in the department’s network of juvenile camps and halls.
As county Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka put it at a recent board meeting: “The depth of the problems in this department are shocking.”
By then, Gennaco and his team of OIR lawyers had thrown their own fuel on the fire. In a report requested by the supervisors and released last month, OIR disclosed that breakdowns in the Probation Department’s internal affairs operation had allowed dozens of employees accused of misconduct—some of it serious—to escape discipline because the investigations ran too long.
The 60-page report concluded by calling for “the establishment of a permanent independent oversight group”—a job that would promptly be added to OIR’s portfolio.
Gennaco says he’s optimistic change will come. He says the department offered “no resistance” while his team spent three months assessing the internal affairs operation and that the agency’s brass already has adopted some of his team’s 34 recommendations.
Asked whether the rank-and-file might resist his efforts, given the insular nature of law enforcement agencies, Gennaco said simply: “I don’t know.” But he added that swift, accurate investigations are in everyone’s interest, including employees who could be exonerated of wrongdoing.
On a personal level, Gennaco says, he’s “more energized than worried” about the high expectations that have been placed on him because he’s a true believer in the mission that’s been entrusted to him.
Raised in a multi-ethnic household, the son of an Italian-American dad and a Latina mom, Gennaco says his interest in civil rights started young. Two of his early heroes were Robert F. Kennedy and Thurgood Marshall. After graduating from Dartmouth College, he attended Stanford University law school and clerked for U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Tang, the first Chinese-American on the federal bench.
In 1984, Tang encouraged an uncertain Gennaco to join the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, despite concerns that the unit’s work ranked low on the Reagan agenda. “Judge Tang told me if there’s any time when they need good people, it’s now,” Gennaco recalls.
From his post in Washington, Gennaco prosecuted civil rights cases across 20 states, particularly in the South, and began to hone his skills on police misconduct cases. One of those cases gave him his first taste of police culture in Los Angeles when, in 1992, he successfully prosecuted a white LAPD officer assigned to the San Fernando Valley who beat a Latino teenager so severely with a baton that he sustained permanent brain injuries.
In 1994, Gennaco joined the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, where he established its first civil-rights unit and was credited with expanding the number of investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct and hate crimes. Among his most high profile cases was the prosecution of neo-Nazi Buford O. Furrow Jr., who opened fire at a Jewish day care center in the San Fernando Valley, wounding five. Furrow later shot and killed a Filipino postman.
In 2001, with the LAPD embroiled in a scandal over rogue cops selling drugs and covering up unprovoked shootings, Sheriff Baca surprised the national law enforcement community by calling for the creation of a civilian oversight unit that the sheriff hoped would provide credibility to the department’s internal investigations.
For Gennaco, the timing was perfect. After 16 years of prosecuting individual cops, he was frustrated. He had come to believe that law enforcement agencies effectively bred large-scale misconduct by failing to stamp out small-scale misbehavior early.
“When this [OIR] opportunity popped up, I thought ‘Here’s a chance’” to attack the root of the problem at one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies. Gennaco applied for the job and was unanimously picked by the Board of Supervisors, he says, from among 200 candidates.
Since then, Gennaco has earned a reputation as a steady and determined steward of OIR. The unit has produced dozens of reports across a wide array of issues that focus not only on the conduct of individual deputies but also on the practices and policies of the institution itself.
One, for example, led to changes in weapons training after OIR examined a high number of shootings in which deputies were firing multiple rounds. Another, more recently, led to changes in hiring standards, which OIR concluded had been loosened in a rush to increase the department’s ranks and that had resulted in the hiring of recruits with questionable backgrounds. Yet another OIR effort helped create better training for deputies assigned to the jails so they could reduce the number of suicides and homicides among inmates.
Asked for OIR’s biggest success, however, Gennaco had one word—transparency.
“Before we got here, the public had almost no information coming from the department about what kind of conduct was being alleged,” says Gennaco, who lives in Hermosa Beach with his wife of 18 months.
“There are people [in the Sheriff’s Department] who chafe a little whenever we come out with a report,” he says. “But we have to be critical of the department when we have reasons…We have a responsibility to shine a light and that’s uncomfortable.”
Perhaps the most important lesson he’s learned over the years is that civilian oversight, to be effective, must be sustained over time.
“It’s not as if you can fix the department and just go away,” he says—a conviction the Probation Department is about to experience up close.