UCLA in the Community

Law students assist community coalition trying to halt jail violence in L.A.

A report by UCLA law students recommends a civilian panel with the power to hire, fire and oversee an independent inspector general

jail bars and an inmate

A small group of law students from UCLA has helped community advocates add their voice to the debate in the current controversy over who should oversee the investigation of reports of inmate abuse and monitor what goes on in L.A. county jails.

Four students in UCLA School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic recently represented a community-based coalition of citizen advocates seeking reform of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and its handling of complaints of misconduct by deputies in the county jails. A federal investigation into civil rights abuses and corruption is underway and has already resulted in numerous arrests. After probing deputy corruption and the use of excessive force for several years, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed former prosecutor Max Huntsman last December to a newly created Office of Inspector General (OIG) to provide new oversight of the problem. In January, Sheriff Lee Baca resigned.   

Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow E. Tendayi Achiume (left) and recent law graduate Amanda Werner

The current debate about what role citizen advocates should have in the review process and what powers they should be given was recently ratcheted up by a report researched and written by the law students, who represented the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A Jails, a nonprofit started a year and a half ago by Patrisse Cullors, who says her brother was the target of abuse in the county jail 14 years ago.

“Their assistance was invaluable,” Cullors said of the students. “We came to them with a lot of ideas. For the last 18 months, we had hosted 50-75 public workshops across Los Angeles County specifically around civilian oversight. We looked at different forms of civilian oversight and asked people about the pros and cons of what it should look like. The students had to filter through all these ideas.”

After numerous meetings with advocates to clarify and synthesize their recommendations, followed by extensive legal research into the structure of 30-40 existing civilian oversight boards across the country and consultation with local civil rights attorneys about police misconduct, the students produced a report that was unveiled May 23.

The coalition, through the students’ report, is calling for a civilian board that would oversee and direct the work of the new Office of Inspector General. As an independent watchdog, the nine-member board, made up of citizen representatives, would be empowered to root out misconduct in the largest jail system in the world, which is run by the largest sheriff’s department in the country. 

The students argued that establishing a civilian oversight board with subpoena power and the authority to direct and work through the Office of Inspector General would ensure transparency and provide “cohesive and vigilant community-based leadership in regard to the implementation of reform,” according to the report.

So far, the county Board of Supervisors has not officially responded to the seven-page report, which the students backed up with a 40-page memo summarizing their research. But the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board praised the report and its case for a civilian panel with the power to hire, fire and oversee an independent inspector general, “in contrast to the one who currently reports to the Board of Supervisors — and who is subject to the board’s limited attention span, political orientation and focus on legal liability rather than inmate rights.

“The board should consider the proposal carefully instead of jealously guarding its direct but so far ineffective oversight,” the Times board advised.

While it was exciting for the law students to undertake an emotionally charged issue that has been front-page news for a long time, “it was also scary for them,” said their instructor, E. Tendayi Achiume, Binder Clinical Teaching Fellow, who teaches the yearlong clinic at the UCLA School of Law. The deadline was tight — all of their work focused on meeting a four-month deadline. And working with many constituents simultaneously, together with other factors, made it a tough challenge.

“We were a little bit skeptical about taking such a huge project on,” admitted Amanda Werner, who was on the project team. She has since graduated from law school  and is working as a legal research fellow for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “We asked ourselves: ‘Could we handle all this with just four people?’ But what Patrisse told us was just so compelling and so passionate that we had to say, ‘We don’t know how we’re going to get this all done, but we’re going to do our best.’”

In addition to researching what legal scholars were saying about the structure of civilian oversight boards, Werner and other classmates also heard from Huntsman,  who came to class to discuss his ideas about civilian oversight.

The entire process, said Werner, points to the value of participating in UCLA’s law clinics to get a real-world “feel” of practicing law, something that no textbook can convey.

“Just hearing from people who were directly affected by jail violence … is something that you rarely get to do in a law school class,” Werner said, “especially meeting with people who have been involved in such traumatic events.”

“This was really a multifaceted process that allowed students to have some very unique experiences,” Achiume said. “They were basically the lawyers on this particular project and had to take the lead. They interviewed people, incorporated this feedback into their work, and they had to deal with a client that wanted a thousand things when all we had time to give them was five.

“As an instructor, it’s often difficult to come up with simulated exercises that really convey the challenges that arise in a legal practice,” said Achiume. “Legal reasoning is just a small fraction of it. The great thing about this project is that it allowed students to think about what it means to be a lawyer, a counselor and all the various roles you take on when you’re giving your client legal advice.”

For the coalition, the students helped “legitimize our work,” Cullors said. While the coalition has done a good job of making its own case for civilian oversight, the students were able to frame the group’s argument in very clear and concise recommendations, backed up by research.

“That gave it a stamp of approval,” the community activist said.  

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