Saturday, November 26, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Push on for sheriff oversight, reform in California counties

While many Californians want to see watchdogs looking into the activities of county sheriff's departments, getting them set up and doing effective oversight is another story.


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.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Urban Peace Movement director Sandy Valenciano said she hopes Sanchez will improve the office’s transparency.

“Even simple things we have rights to, such as requests filed under the Public Records Act, have been an extreme challenge,” Valenciano said. After 90 in-custody deaths under Ahern — 59 of them since 2014 — Valenciano said “we haven't had any response and really transparency in what led to those deaths.”

Valenciano said she hopes that any oversight agency created will be led by community members, not law enforcement, and have the authority to investigate and hold the sheriff accountable.

Other counties wrestle with the same demands for oversight.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors has been pushed to create an oversight board for years. A civil grand jury report on June 15 urged supervisors to act given the sheriff's history of treatment of Black residents in unincorporated Marin City. The report is based on years of accusations of racial bias by the sheriff and officers and concerns about RIPA data reflecting higher traffic stops among Black and Latino residents. 

Tensions culminated in heated Board of Supervisors meetings this past spring. In February, many callers demanded the board establish an oversight body, accusing Sheriff Robert Doyle’s office of racism and lack of transparency.

At that meeting, Supervisor Stephanie Moulton Peters, representing Marin City, supported creating an oversight body with subpoena power. In an email this week, she said the board will take up the issue this year, and a county budget through 2024 approved last week includes $150,000 for outreach and support of an oversight board.

“The grand jury report highlighted issues and incidents in Marin City that have occurred involving law enforcement; some have occurred recently and many are longstanding issues," Moulton-Peters said. "All of these issues need a full vetting and constructive resolution."

In a phone interview, Sheriff Doyle said he is “tired of talking about this” and thinks “most of the (grand jury) findings are factually incorrect” — including that he had authority to stop a caravan of Trump supporters he maintains were “lawfully traveling” through Marin City during the 2020 election. He said he does not agree with focusing the report on the city's residents, which has 3,000 of 70,000 unincorporated Marin residents — of which 22% are Black. 

Doyle claims the grand jury “didn’t ask me for any information about anything," but then clarified: “They did ask questions of me and other people, but those answers we gave aren't in the report.”

He added that if Marin County creates an oversight body, “People have to understand that it’s going to be adversarial. Other locations that have done this, the body thinks they have more authority than they do. Nowhere does it say they have supervisor power over the sheriff.” 

Jamie Scardina, who will take over when Doyle retires this week, said in a phone interview he was disappointed that the jury did not print everything his staff said about community outreach efforts in Marin City. But he said if the Board of Supervisors creates an oversight agency, “I will be a participant and we will show up when we need to be. We’ll be a good partner, we’re always looking for ways to make the office a better place.”

In Southern California, attempts at sheriff's department oversight have had mixed results. 

Orange County has an Office of Independent Review, which last year published a scathing report on the sheriff's department’s use-of-force policies, risks to public safety and endorsements of bias and violence. However, these were the first substantial reports in years from the watchdog, which has been criticized as ineffective and maintaining too close a relationship with the sheriff's department. 

Sheriff Don Barnes said in an emailed statement that in two years, his department has responded to more than 400 requests for information from the oversight office and made changes to policies and use-of-force procedures.

“We are committed to transparency and welcome recommendations that are in keeping with law enforcement best practices,” Barnes said. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva comments on the investigation of the shooting of two deputies during a news conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 17, 2020. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The largest county in the nation by population, Los Angeles, has an active oversight commission created by the county Board of Supervisors in 2016. The nine-person board has conducted investigations such as the current probe into rogue deputy gangs, under attorney Brian Williams. 

Williams said a commission on jail violence existed before the oversight commission, but “people had been screaming that cry for the need for oversight for decades."

He said he thinks a growth of interest in oversight is due to “a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability many community members have seen from law enforcement for decades.”

Williams also said of AB 1185, “I think it’s a work in progress. There still has to be some political will by the local community to establish one (an oversight agency).” 

He said oversight bodies need sufficient authority, staff and budget. His staff of eight has $1 million to hold accountable a sheriff with more than 18,000 employees and a $3 billion budget.

“These commissions aren’t just here to throw fiery darts at the department,” he said. “They’re also there to try to increase transparency, to strengthen the bonds between the community and the department, but also to make the department better for everyone involved.”

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva's relationship with the watchdog has been contentious and litigious: In 2020, the commission called for Villanueva's resignation and the following year Villanueva took the commission to court to quash its subpoena to testify about the rogue gangs under oath.

This past April, an LA County judge ordered Villanueva to testify before the commission under oath about the deputy gangs. "Let the truth come out," the judge said.

In an emailed statement, Villanueva said he "values and appreciates the role oversight can play in improving the LASD.  That potential is lost when advisors devolve into activists pursuing a political agenda."

Villanueva managed to nab just 31% of the vote in the 2022 primary, meaning he will face former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna in the November general election.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...