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