A former Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who could face trial on a felony charge of assaulting a Sonoma Valley man he was trying to detain five months ago was hired by the county despite his checkered and limited job history with two other law enforcement agencies, a Press Democrat investigation has found.
Scott Thorne, 40, was arrested and charged in January with felony assault by an officer, marking an exceptionally rare case in Sonoma County involving prosecution of a law enforcement officer for an on-duty incident.
Thorne, a Walnut Creek resident, left the Sheriff’s Office within weeks of the Sept. 24 altercation, where prosecutors say he used a stun gun on the Boyes Hot Springs man as he lay in his own bed, then struck the man with his baton.
Thorne, who has pleaded not guilty, began his career in law enforcement 15 years ago, but before he joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2015, his work history as a sworn officer totaled less than two years, employment records obtained by the Press Democrat show.
His first policing job, in Richmond, ended after 10 months in 2002 while he was the subject of three complaints and a civil rights lawsuit. That case, also involving two other Richmond officers, resulted in a $172,500 settlement for the plaintiff, who accused Thorne of using excessive force on a domestic call.
In subsequent years, he held a state license to work as an armed security guard, and his jobs included a stint with an El Dorado County fire district.
He landed a job as a correctional deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department in 2007, but he was dismissed a year later, records show.
Thorne was studying at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco when he was started as an unpaid reserve deputy in Sonoma County two years ago. He became a full-time, paid deputy in April.
His arrest and prosecution in connection with the Boyes Hot Springs incident, which resulted from a domestic violence call, could represent an unprecedented move in Sonoma County. Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said there’s been no similar case in recent memory involving criminal prosecution of an officer for an on-duty incident.
Hiring practices at issue
The newspaper’s investigation into Thorne’s employment background raises questions about the county’s hiring standards at a time when the Sheriff’s Office has stepped-up recruitment efforts to address a multi-year staffing shortage. The case also reflects the secrecy of records pertaining to law enforcement performance and misconduct, information tightly sealed from the public under California law.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas declined to answer questions about Thorne’s employment with the county, his office’s hiring of Thorne, “or anything related” to the pending criminal case, according to a department spokesman.
But Lt. Darin Dougherty defended the department’s hiring standards, describing an exhaustive process for vetting candidates involving written tests, two psychological examinations and a thorough background investigation including interviews with former job supervisors.
“There’s not an exact science when you’re dealing with humans, unfortunately,” Dougherty said. “The last thing we want to do is put someone out on the street who will be harmful to the public.”