The Press Democrat Editorial Board published the following editorial on October 15th, 2020:
Measure P can be boiled down to a single word: accountability.
Elected officials, government agencies and public employees must be accountable to the taxpayers. Sheriffs and their deputies are no exception.
Sonoma County spent $6.6 million on legal settlements involving sheriff’s personnel in the past year. Attorney fees added another $2.5 million to the taxpayers’ tab, and liability insurance premiums for the Sheriff’s Office shot up 46% to $5.9 million a year. That’s $15 million altogether.
A loss of public confidence can’t be measured in dollars.
Measure P on the Nov. 3 ballot would modestly increase citizen oversight of the Sheriff’s Office with a goal of identifying problem deputies before a fatal incident or costly blunder. Sonoma County introduced citizen oversight of the Sheriff’s Office on a limited based in 2016, acting on recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission appointed after a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 13-year-old boy carrying a toy gun.
But with just two employees, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach has been understaffed for even its narrow purview — auditing internal investigations of misconduct complaints against sheriff’s personnel and making policy recommendations.
Sonoma County supervisors recently funded two more staff lawyers for IOLERO, as the office is commonly called, and Measure P would set a budget threshold for the agency of 1% of the Sheriff’s Office $184 million budget, or $1.8 million.
Measure P would expand IOLERO’s jurisdiction to reviewing complaints involving excessive force, sexual harassment or assault, bias in policing or corrections and violations of constitutional rights, as well as incidents resulting in civil lawsuits. IOLERO also would be authorized to accept whistleblower complaints.
To facilitate more robust oversight, IOLERO would gain access to investigative files and witnesses and the authority to subpoena records and testimony.
Not surprisingly, the primary opponents of Measure P are the people who would be subject to additional oversight: deputies and correctional officers at the jail.
The unions representing deputies and correctional officers filed complaints with the state Public Employees Relations Board, arguing that Measure P is a violation of their collective bargaining rights. A hearing before an administrative law judge is set for next week, but this issue almost certainly won’t be resolved before the election.
The unions also argue — disingenuously — that Measure P would mandate a spending cut for public safety programs. Nothing in Measure P requires the supervisors to cut the sheriff’s budget, and at about $400,000 a year, the mandated increase for IOLERO is a tiny fraction of the county’s 1.9 billion budget.
Sheriff Mark Essick has been more transparent than his predecessors and held deputies more accountable their behavior. But he says Measure P grants too much access to sensitive information. That’s a legitimate concern, but it can be addressed in court without invalidating the rest of Measure P.
Essick says it would have been better for the supervisors to stick with their initial plan to appoint a committee to consider changes to the oversight program, adding that a collaborative approach might have headed off legal challenges to the ballot measure.He’s right about the supervisors rushing this measure to the ballot, but law enforcement unions have consistently resisted reform measures in California and across the country, and it seems unlikely that they would endorse any significant changes here.
For voters, the question is this: Would expanding IOLERO’s reach to cases involving excessive force, bias and civil rights violations increase accountability for the Sheriff’s Office and benefit justice in Sonoma County? We believe that it would. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure P.
Read the original editorial here on the Press Democrat's website.
"Four years after the creation of IOLERO, its mission remains unfulfilled for lack of money, inadequate staffing and the Sheriff’s Office withholding access to information.
Both the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing have established core principles for creating law enforcement agencies which make everyone safer. Sonoma County deserves a Sheriff’s Office based upon those principles.
Evidence shows that collaborative, informed civilian oversight facilitates transparency and accountability that benefits both law enforcement professionals and the citizens they have sworn to protect and serve. NACOLE recommends independence from political interference, sufficient funding, unfettered access to law enforcement records and staff, clear and ample authority, policy and pattern analysis, community engagement and support, cooperation, public reporting, and transparency.
Last year, concerned community members and IOLERO’s first director came together to work to improve the effectiveness of IOLERO, based upon these NACOLE recommendations. Retired Director Jerry Threet used his three years experience in IOLERO to identify the shortcomings of the office.
Today, all over the United States, communities are recognizing that one of the best tools for keeping our First Responders and communities safe is independent, effective, civilian oversight. It has been twenty years since that U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report. It is time for Sonoma County to make effective oversight a reality."
"Joanne Brown, a former member of the Community Advisory Council, the community arm of Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog, and a past Superior Court Commissioner in Alameda County, spoke second.
Brown is one of the leading proponents of the proposed ballot measure, which among several changes would increase funding for the auditing office by fixing its budget at 1% of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office budget, widen the scope of complaints that can be investigated by the independent auditor and grant the office subpoena powers.
Only two local governments — Santa Rosa and Sonoma County — have independent oversight of their law enforcement agencies. Both hired auditors in early 2016, though the Santa Rosa contract auditor position is currently vacant. Karlene Navarro, a former local defense attorney, replaced Sonoma County’s first-ever auditor, Jerry Threet, in March of last year.
[John] Alden [Executive Director, Oakland Community Police Review Agency] also pointed to recent changes in state laws that have expanded the level of public oversight into both police and sheriff’s departments statewide. They include SB 1421, a law enacted just over a year ago that unsealed internal affairs investigations in cases including in- custody deaths, or when an officer is found guilty of lying. Another law, AB 748, took effect last summer and requires California law enforcement agencies to make public videos of critical incidents such as police shootings.
“I think we’re in a watershed moment,” Alden said after the forum. “California law about oversight has been largely the same for about 30 years and has dramatically changed in just the last two or three. I think that shows a hunger in California for greater transparency and accountability from law enforcement.”
"Done well, the benefits of community involvement and review could make the Sheriff’s Office stronger and more popular with the community it serves, Cozine says. One possible benefit could be saving the county money from lawsuit settlements. “I really think that [increased spending on oversight] would be saved by the county in spending on lawsuits,” Cozine told the Bohemian. “If you have a strong and robust oversight office, you are going to have a well-functioning and best-practicing law enforcement organization.”
In 2018, the county agreed to pay a $3 million settlement to Andy Lopez’s family after years of fighting a case that ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Charlies Blount, the deputy who attempted a carotid hold on Ward in November, reportedly has a legal history of his own. In 2015, the county settled a court case about a 2011 excessive force case involving Blount and other deputies for $375,000, according to KQED. Another attorney told KQED that her client settled a 2016 case involving Blount for a “low monetary amount.” Of course, settlement amounts do not include the cost of county staff time and outside legal fees."
Daily Breeze — 1/28/2020 "Aiming to increase law-enforcement transparency in Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors handed expanded authority to civilian watchdogs overseeing the county Sheriff’s and probation departments at an often-heated meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the newly created Probation Oversight Commission will be given subpoena power, despite a defiant sheriff’s pushback on the issue.
“This is about citizen involvement … it is about transparency,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the lead author of the action, whose office called the new power a “game-changer.” Previously, the boards have acted as watchdogs — but without the authority to issue and serve subpoenas. That means they have not had vital access to documents or testimony related to their investigations. Those probes are carried out by the commissions’ investigative arm — the Office of the Inspector General.
Over time, as noted by Commissioner Brian Williams, he and his colleagues had more questions than answers as department issues emerged and the commission matured. Williams and his fellow commissioners said they would use the subpoena power not as as a “weapon” but as a “tool” to compel vital information, whether it was probing an officer-involved shooting or in serving as a voice on developing department policy, such as on officer-worn cameras. To this point, the commission has relied much on cooperation in their oversight efforts. But “when that doesn’t work, you need to compel information. That is where our commission is really lacking,” said Sean Kennedy, a commissioner."
CBS SF — 12/20/2019 "A stunning video recorded on a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy’s bodycam was released Friday of a fatal confrontation with carjacking victim David Ward, who was forcibly dragged through the window of his vehicle last month when he was mistaken for the thief and died after being choked during his apprehension.
The sheriff’s office initially delayed releasing the video following a public records act request from The Press Democrat to disclose it. According to the sheriff’s office, the video was held because disclosing it earlier would interfere with the ongoing internal investigation."
“If you watched the body-worn video closely, you may be concerned about what you saw. So was I,” Sheriff Essick said. “The way Deputy Blount handles the entire situation is extremely troubling. As a result, I’ve served Deputy Blount a notice of termination,” Essick said. A second deputy, Jason Little, has been placed on administrative leave.
The Sheriff’s Office is conducting an investigation while the Santa Rosa Police Department conducts an independent criminal probe of Ward’s death. Essick said Blount will remain on leave until the investigation of the death is completed and all potential appeals have taken place."
Link to Full Article & Video (Warning: Graphic violence & language in video)
Press Democrat — 12/18/2018 "The agreement brings to a close to the county’s most prominent civil rights lawsuit — over a shooting that became a searing flashpoint for police-community relations and public debate about law enforcement practices. The settlement amount is the largest paid out by Sonoma County in cases involving officer use of force, according to county figures. The lawsuit was filed by Lopez’s parents on Nov. 4, 2013, almost two weeks after then-deputy Erick Gelhaus shot the teen, who was walking down the street carrying an airsoft BB gun that resembled an assault rifle.
Both the Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department adopted the use of body-worn cameras on their sworn personnel in the aftermath of shooting. The county and Santa Rosa also created independent oversight programs for internal investigations into police shootings, use of force and complaints. The county’s program is an independent office; Santa Rosa’s is a contracted auditor.
Ana Salgado, a Santa Rosa resident who became a key community activist in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting...stayed in touch with Lopez’s parents in the years that followed. “I know it wasn’t easy to come to all this after 5 years,” Salgado said “They’ve suffered and the community has suffered too.” The fatal shooting brought much of the Latino community together and served as a platform for local youth to voice their opinions, she said.
“This case was a call for action,” Salgado said."
Voice of OC — 10/1/2019 "Police officers “have extraordinary power and some of the most power than anyone in government. Having a system of checks and balances and having oversight is incredibly important,” said Jennifer Rojas, a policy advocate and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California. “Especially when police have the power to put people in jail, arrest people, and even take someone’s life,” she said.
Anaheim is the first city in Orange County to have a civilian police review board, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster, who described the city’s police department as the “largest municipal police department in the county.” Lyster said board members also “hear from the public,” and that board meetings “are one more opportunity, in addition to going straight to the police department or straight to the city, for somebody to share a concern, question or really any type of information regarding policing in Anaheim.” Board members also review and make recommendations on potential policy changes, as well as hear about police training and practices, Lyster said.
Rojas said some of the main components police oversight boards should have are independence from the police department — “meaning that no former or current law enforcement should serve as members” — and that the boards should have “the power to investigate independently.” “So having an oversight body investigate complaints … having independent funding from the city to hire investigators and full-time paid staff. Ultimately, the point of oversight is that police should not be the ones to investigate themselves,” Rojas said. “Part of what comes from having investigatory powers are full, unfettered access to police department records and having the resources to conduct investigations.”