The Sonoma County grand jury is ill-suited to act as a civilian review board investigating police handling of critical incidents, say two members of the jury.
The panelists cite what they describe as the grand jury's lack of transparency, diversity and expertise reviewing fatal or otherwise serious incidents involving law enforcement.
"I think this is not the appropriate body for civilian review," said Cheryl Davey of Santa Rosa, the jury forewoman.
The comments, offered in public forums and in interviews this month, add to an ongoing debate spurred by calls for stronger law enforcement oversight in the wake of the shooting death last fall of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy.
They also act as an indirect rebuttal to prior statements by Sheriff Steve Freitas that the grand jury was a capable, independent oversight body for law enforcement.
Freitas spoke in the aftermath of the shooting of Lopez in October and in the face of a campaign by critics and activists who have questioned whether the Santa Rosa Police Department, which investigated the shooting, and the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office are capable of objectively determining whether the boy's death was justified or a criminal act.
The grand jury, which has subpoena powers, provides a review by "people totally independent from law enforcement . . . who are open to criticizing law enforcement in an open and transparent way," Freitas said at the time.
But last week he said he would not dispute the grand jurors' assessment, adding that he would reserve judgment on an alternative model until the details are spelled out.
"I'm open to the idea of citizen review," Freitas said.
Davey, the jury forewoman, and Martin Jones, another grand jury member, raised their concerns at a March 3 meeting of a subcommittee of the 21-member community task force established by the county in the wake of Lopez's death. The task force is charged with reviewing options and ultimately recommending a model for an "independent citizen review body."
Use of the grand jury as it is, or with variations, was cited as one of the options to be considered.
But the grand jury, at least in its current structure, shouldn't be on that list, the two jury members said in interviews last week.
They said the panel's $77,000 annual budget can't support the hiring of outside experts. Also, the jury's final report is its only public statement, its deliberations by legal requirement are entirely secret and its recommendations have no legal force.
"A civil grand jury is not the place to conduct review of critical incidents," said Jones, a Santa Rosa wine industry management consultant.
The panel's lack of diversity is another key problem, Jones and Davey said. Members are volunteers who are interviewed and screened by a Superior Court judge and then selected by drawing.
Jones said his demographic profile of the current grand jury showed that the average age of the 18 jurors is 65 and only two are younger than 60; 17 are white, one is African-American and they all are retired, work part time or are self-employed. One jury slot is vacant.
The jury is "not representative of a cross-section of the community," Jones said.
A civilian review board ought to include young and old, people of color and members of law enforcement, Davey said.