OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Two years after a bill OK'ing independent oversight of county sheriffs passed the California Legislature, more residents are clamoring for reform that has already led to results and new leadership across the Golden State.
Assembly Bill 1185 by Sacramento area Democrat Kevin McCarty cleared the way for oversight of county sheriffs via a watchdog committee or inspector general. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill in 2020 after protests of killings and abuses at the hands of law enforcement.
At least 25 California cities have some form of police department oversight, but oversight of county sheriffs is less common.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern has faced demands for oversight for years amid findings of mistreatment, harmful conditions and wrongful deaths at Santa Rita Jail, and is under a federal judge's decree to reform conditions at the jail. A new Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report this month found a high number of factors indicating mistreatment of detainees and gave a large number of recommendations to audit the facility. The report indicated dangerous conditions such as high-risk safety code violations and inconsistent cleanliness; lax monitoring resulting in contraband flowing in and out of the facility; and failures to properly screen for COVID-19, require all staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19, increase detainee vaccination levels and enforce mask wearing policies.
Voters stepped in this past month and gave Ahern the boot, electing Yesenia Sanchez as the county's first new sheriff since 2006. One of California’s first Latina sheriffs, Sanchez says she embraces the necessity for reform and oversight of the department.
Sanchez recalled how securing an entry-level job with the sheriff's department at age 18 pulled her from a life working three jobs while sleeping in her car. Despite previous encounters with police “that impacted me very deeply,” she said she quickly saw different forms of law enforcement in a new light.
She called her April 2020 reassignment to Santa Rita Jail “eye opening” — witnessing “inadequate” mental health services and dangerous conditions. It motivated her to run for office.
“The jail has been long ignored,” Sanchez said. “It was never valued, it was never a focus of the current administration to make sure the organization was healthy.”
Sanchez wants jail staff replenished and held accountable, with a department website making records like the budget and in-custody death statistics more easily accessed by the public. She also promises to reform the system for investigating employees. Rather than allegations of misconduct going through the chain of command, Sanchez says she will ensure that Internal Affairs investigates and reports all complaints to her office "so there’s no way for leadership to influence whether someone gets investigated or not.”
The Hayward native acknowledged the community wants more accountability and transparency. She said she will make sure the county Board of Supervisors knows she will work with any oversight body if one is created
“It’s really a call for more information, to stop hiding behind government codes, that say we can’t provide this or that," Sanchez said. "While there are some protections for information due to investigations, there is a level of information we can provide and we shouldn't be hiding behind government codes to release it.”
Richard Speiglman, chair of Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails, said in a phone interview that he was not surprised by Sanchez’s win. He added he hopes her experience will root out known and unreported inhumane treatment and wrongful deaths.
“I think it will be a tough job to work on that from the sheriff’s position,” he said. “I don't want to see more money going to this jail. I want to see fewer people in there with fewer mental health and behavioral health problems, so that the staffing the jail has is adequate and maybe can be reduced.”