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Annual IOLERO report finds holes in Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office internal misconduct investigations

Included in IOLERO’s audits of misconduct investigations were a deputy’s “blatantly racist, anti-Semitic and extreme” social media posts.|

IOLERO 2020-2021 Report Findings

Audit Trends:

A large share of Sheriff’s Office internal investigations into allegations of misconduct are incomplete. In some, deputies should have been disciplined for issues such as excessive force but were not.

Five audits showed problems with medical and mental health treatment at the jail. In one, the person in custody was not properly monitored and died by suicide.

Sonoma County isn’t fully monitoring its medical contractor, Wellpath/CFMG, for patterns, policies, customs or practices of providing ineffective or incompetent care. The company was involved in a number of the complaints at the jail audited in the report.

In several instances, people experiencing mental health crises were arrested and jailed. A better response would be Sonoma County’s planned Mobile Support Team and Behavioral Health Care Unit, whose operations are restricted for budgetary reasons.

27 recommendations include:

Eliminate or modify use of the prone restraint, which can cause suffocation

Address the high cost of phone calls in jail

Remedial training for K9 handlers and dogs

Consider adopting a policy disavowing white supremacy and extremism and prohibiting employee speech and association that promotes racist or extremist ideology

Remind deputies of their duty to intercede in another officer’s excessive force or misconduct

Adopt a welfare check policy that does not treat the subject as a suspect of a crime

Uphold their duty to monitor the patterns and practices of their contracted medical providers in jail

Consider optics in hiring deputies with records of use of force at other departments

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office mishandled more than a third of its internal investigations into employees’ alleged misconduct — including a case in which a deputy was accused of sharing antisemitic and racist posts on social media — according to the county’s law enforcement oversight office.

The findings were outlined in a 76-page annual report by the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, also known by the acronym IOLERO, which looked into complaints against the Sheriff’s Office going back to August 2020. The report was published Nov. 21.

While the agency’s review found holes in numerous internal investigations and other cases of misconduct within the Sheriff’s Office, it has no power to impose any kind of change — punitive or otherwise.

Its report, instead, makes suggestions "for institutional improvement“ and stops short of recommending disciplinary action for instances of proven misconduct — a power Sonoma County voters granted IOLERO last year, but which has since been struck down in a legal challenge by law enforcement interest groups.

Sonoma County has appealed that decision.

“The power of (IOLERO) is in its function to cast sunlight on strengths and deficiencies within the Sheriff’s Office,” said Jim Duffy, a civilian advocate on Sonoma County’s Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force. “Then it’s really up to the people at election time.”

Sheriff Mark Essick, who will not be running for reelection next year, decides if any department personnel will be disciplined or whether his office will adopt any of IOLERO’s proposed departmental reforms.

IOLERO is among a rising number of watchdog entities formed in jurisdictions across California in the wake of locally and nationally publicized cases of police brutality.

Many of these agencies, including Sonoma County’s, are butting up against the legal limitations of oversight on Sheriff’s Offices as police unions argue that vesting civilian bodies with power over sheriffs defies the state Constitution.

Some of the criticisms and recommendations in this year’s IOLERO report are nearly identical to ones made in years prior.

Most notably, IOLERO calls at least nine — more than a third — of the Sheriff’s Office’s investigations into misconduct from the period of review “incomplete,” citing unanswered questions, parts of complaints ignored and deputies let off the hook for malpractice. It is a critique of the Sheriff’s Office that is mentioned in all four of IOLERO’s annual reports since the agency’s creation in 2016.

“It seems the Sheriff’s Office investigations are still lacking in completeness; and that, as a result of (its) incomplete investigations, they are often clearing deputies of wrongdoing in many cases where IOLERO found discipline should have been imposed,” said Evan Zelig, a local defense attorney who chairs the Community Advisory Council, which works closely with IOLERO on its recommendations to the Sheriff’s Office.

“In several cases within the IOLERO audits, the director found that use of force was excessive where the Sheriff’s Office cleared the officer following a hastily done investigation,” Zelig added.

Essick referred questions to his agency’s spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia, who wrote in an email to The Press Democrat that the office’s internal affairs investigations are conducted “in accordance with state case law while managing limited resources.”

According to Valencia, internal affairs investigations use different standards to determine whether misconduct has occurred. If the majority of the evidence points to wrongdoing, then the allegation is sustained. This is aligned with state law.

Past IOLERO reports have also found fault with internal Sheriff’s Office investigations. In 2018, then-IOLERO Director Jerry Threet published a stand-alone report entirely on recommendations to improve internal affairs investigations at the law enforcement agency, having found pervasive shortfalls in its processes.

“Overall, I think IOLERO did a very good job on the audits. It identified trends going on since IOLERO began, particularly deficiencies in investigations,” Threet told The Press Democrat a day after the 2021 report was released. “Those are things that should have been taken care of a long time ago.”

Recommendations from this year’s report have yet to be reviewed and decided on by the Sheriff’s Office, according to Valencia and Zelig. Valencia said the agency did not plan to produce a written response to IOLERO’s audit report like it has at least once before.

“The Sheriff’s Office was provided the report on Nov. 1, 2021, with a deadline to review and comment by Nov. 4, 2021. Unfortunately, that was not a reasonable time frame,” Valencia said.

“The Sheriff’s Office takes into account the office’s role, community expectations, case law, and state law when evaluating IOLERO’s recommendations,” he added.

Karlene Navarro, the former IOLERO director who oversaw the 2021 report’s audits, could not be reached for comment.

An automated reply to a Press Democrat email indicated her last day with the agency was Nov. 19, nine days after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Navarro’s appointment to the Sonoma County Superior Court judicial bench and two days before the report became public.

IOLERO’s main line rang unanswered Monday, and a county official said she could not redirect inquiries to another official filling in for Navarro because she had “not been given any information on that at this time.”

Complaints include 'violent, extreme’ social media posts

IOLERO’s report reviewed three categories of complaints against Sheriff’s Office employees that were first investigated internally: those in which sheriff’s investigators found wrongdoing, ones in which deputies were exonerated and others they said were unfounded.

In the five cases where the Sheriff’s Office initially found wrongdoing, IOLERO agreed with the findings.

A handful of the 20 other complaints the Sheriff’s Office originally exonerated or dismissed involved cases of officer violence that IOLERO, upon its review, said were excessive.

In one complaint, a deputy stunned a man who tried to run after he was found illegally camping on private property. The Sheriff’s Office contended the action was necessary to keep the man from escaping arrest. IOLERO countered that department policy bars use of a stun gun to stop “mere flight from a pursuing deputy.”

In another, a deputy conducting a welfare check approached a man sleeping in his car. The deputy ordered the man to exit the car and the man began to comply, but before he could fully stand the deputy tried to place him in cuffs and took him to the ground, cutting the man’s face and breaking his teeth.

The Sheriff’s Office reviewed footage from the deputy’s body camera and determined the man “was resisting the deputy’s efforts to control him.” It determined the takedown was within department protocol. IOLERO disagreed, saying the deputy needlessly escalated the situation.

Finally, IOLERO audited a previously unpublicized incident involving a deputy who posted “violent, extreme content” against Black and Jewish people on social media. The audit does not describe the posts explicitly.

The revelation is particularly notable in light of the recent public disagreement between Essick and Threet.

In a post on the Sheriff Office’s official Facebook account earlier this month, the sheriff openly accused Threet of racism for using the phrase “not all skin folk are kinfolk” in a social media post Threet made about Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, who is Black.

Engram is Essick’s hopeful successor in the next election.

According to the audit, when he was confronted, the deputy who posted the antisemitic and racist content explained away his comments. The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that the deputy violated policy, but took his word on his intent, ultimately concluding only that the posts had “strong racial undertones.”

However, IOLERO investigators recommended the Sheriff’s Office reopen the case, determining “the deputy’s explanations were not believable,” and urged a review of the deputy’s prior arrests for instances of bias or civil rights violations. The report added the Sheriff’s Office not only had an ability under the First Amendment, but a duty, to control employees’ words and actions for public interest.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Valencia said the deputy involved used his personal social media page and was not on duty at the time of the posts. He was disciplined and has not returned to work since, Valencia said, but did not elaborate on the discipline or whether the deputy was fired.

“The Sheriff’s Office does not tolerate racism. State law does not allow us to disclose more information about this complaint,” Valencia said.

IOLERO’s Community Advisory Council will discuss the report’s findings and recommendations, as well as Sheriff’s Office social media use and policies, in a public meeting on Dec. 6.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

IOLERO 2020-2021 Report Findings

Audit Trends:

A large share of Sheriff’s Office internal investigations into allegations of misconduct are incomplete. In some, deputies should have been disciplined for issues such as excessive force but were not.

Five audits showed problems with medical and mental health treatment at the jail. In one, the person in custody was not properly monitored and died by suicide.

Sonoma County isn’t fully monitoring its medical contractor, Wellpath/CFMG, for patterns, policies, customs or practices of providing ineffective or incompetent care. The company was involved in a number of the complaints at the jail audited in the report.

In several instances, people experiencing mental health crises were arrested and jailed. A better response would be Sonoma County’s planned Mobile Support Team and Behavioral Health Care Unit, whose operations are restricted for budgetary reasons.

27 recommendations include:

Eliminate or modify use of the prone restraint, which can cause suffocation

Address the high cost of phone calls in jail

Remedial training for K9 handlers and dogs

Consider adopting a policy disavowing white supremacy and extremism and prohibiting employee speech and association that promotes racist or extremist ideology

Remind deputies of their duty to intercede in another officer’s excessive force or misconduct

Adopt a welfare check policy that does not treat the subject as a suspect of a crime

Uphold their duty to monitor the patterns and practices of their contracted medical providers in jail

Consider optics in hiring deputies with records of use of force at other departments

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