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California AG slaps Santa Clara sheriff with civil rights probe

Recent inmate deaths and pricey settlements of lawsuits tied to Santa Clara County jails have drawn the scrutiny of California's top cop.

(CN) — Concerned with in-custody deaths and allegations of deplorable inmate conditions, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched a civil rights investigation Wednesday into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

The probe was spurred by a rash of complaints from local officials, community groups and news reports about the mistreatment of incarcerated people at the county’s jail facilities. Bonta says the so-called “pattern or practice” investigation could take months but will ultimately serve to restore Silicon Valley’s faith in the embattled sheriff’s office.  

“There is a deficit of trust in Santa Clara County,” Bonta told reporters. “There are deeply concerning allegations around potentially pervasive misconduct within the sheriff’s office.”

Santa Clara County, population of 2 million and home to the city of San Jose, is the latest to attract the scrutiny of the California Department of Justice.

The justice department recently concluded an excessive force probe into the Bakersfield Police Department and another into the nearby Kern County Sheriff’s Department. The investigations resulted in both agencies agreeing to major reforms, including new officer use-of-force guidelines and updated training.

In addition, Bonta’s department is independently reviewing or assisting in probes of other law enforcement agencies including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as well as Vallejo and San Francisco police departments.  

“We keep our ear to the ground statewide on all law enforcement agencies,” Bonta said of the myriad investigations.

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest high-profile problem for longtime Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith and her struggling law enforcement agency.   

Last month a civil grand jury accused Smith, who became sheriff in 1998, of unlawfully accepting tickets to San Jose Sharks hockey games and of granting concealed firearms permits to her campaign donors.   

After an inmate suffered catastrophic brain injury while being transported between facilities in 2018, the county settled with the man and his family for $10 million. County supervisors were so disturbed by the case — not to mention a 2019 incident in which an inmate ran head first into a cell door — they publicly called on Bonta and the grand jury to investigate the problematic county jail conditions.  

In a statement, Smith said her office will fully cooperate with the investigation.

“I have always welcomed any external review of the sheriff’s office and we will immediately open all records. I have great confidence in the Attorney General’s Office and I believe they will provide the expertise for a fair and impartial investigation," Smith said.

Meanwhile San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has called for Smith to step down in light of the settlements and inmate injuries. Smith, who is up for reelection, has until March to officially declare whether she will seek a seventh term.  

“As a former deputy district attorney in this county, my experience with Sheriff Smith’s poor leadership of her department convinced me years ago to repeatedly decline to endorse her reelection,” Liccardo said last summer. “But Sheriff Smith’s repeated mismanagement of the jail has destroyed lives, violating the most basic of civil rights of its inmates.”

While Bonta declined to specify the individual incidents prompting the new investigation, he acknowledged the long list of problems at the county jail figured prominently in the decision.   

“There have been deaths and injuries in custody, we’ll be looking at all of those including the use of force as well as the potential lack of appropriate treatment for people with mental illness,” Bonta said. “Those are broad buckets of areas of interest for the investigation.”

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