Decisions loom on increasing law enforcement oversight in Sonoma County
With signature gathering for a ballot measure that would strengthen oversight of Sonoma County’s Sheriff’s Office stalled at the very moment calls to reform law enforcement are at a crescendo, the region’s largest Latino leadership group met this week to discuss a way forward.
Sonoma County supervisors will discuss next week whether to ask voters to decide if the county should give more funding and authority to the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, after signature gathering for a proposal to do so was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A key point Thursday night in a virtual panel discussion held by Latino leadership group Los Cien was whether to place the measure before voters as it exists now, or seek additional input and make modifications, an option sought by the independent office’s director, Karlene Navarro.
Supervisors face an Aug. 7 deadline to submit necessary paperwork if they want to put the ordinance, with or without changes, before voters.
Navarro, a former defense attorney and the sole auditor in the county’s law enforcement review office, agreed changes were needed in her department, which she described as being underfunded and over-tasked given its current resources.
But she said there is language in the proposed ordinance, championed by her predecessor, that should be modified or added to before it is adopted by the board or placed before voters.
For example, she proposed a change that would allow her office to recommend discipline to the Sheriff’s Office after her review of an investigation, a provision not currently included in the proposed initiative, called The Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance.
Navarro also argued more input from communities of color was needed before changes are made to the ordinance that founded her office in 2016, though the proposed initiative could serve as a starting point for those conversations.
“I am not talking about approaching the Sonoma County Black Coalition or the NAACP and asking them to sign ... a document that was written for them,” Navarro said. “I’m talking about bringing people of color into the conversation to speak for themselves and to lead for themselves and to have a part of the creation of the document.”
Navarro’s call for greater input from people of color comes at a time when thousands of protesters have marched and rallied in cities around Sonoma County to call for changes to law enforcement in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. The Minneapolis man was killed on Memorial Day when a police officer kneeled on his neck.
“Our community has been moved even further to think about law enforcement and a call for greater oversight,” said Lorez Bailey, the executive director of Chop’s Teen Club, who moderated the discussion. Bailey also is a member of the Community Advisory Council, which works with the auditor’s office, and a member of The Press Democrat's editorial board.
Navarro’s office itself was created in the aftermath of the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy who in 2013 was shot dead by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft gun for an assault rifle.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who sits on a two-person subcommittee formed in June to review the proposed ordinance and lead broader community discussions about police reform, was also a panelist during Thursday’s conversation.
Hopkins said she has heard an overwhelming amount of support for the proposed ordinance. She would rather see the ballot initiative placed before voters and then build on top of it as needed if it is passed, she said.
Voter-approved amendments to the ordinance would be “blessed by the public,” whereas amendments to the ordinance made by the current board of supervisors could be more easily changed or rescinded by a future board.
“I know that I come from government, but I’ll be honest, I don’t trust government,” Hopkins said. “Government is people, people are fallible and sometimes the dynamics change.”
Sylvia Lemus and Omar Paz, two members of a task force that paved the way for the creation of the county’s law enforcement auditor’s office following Lopez’s death, also weighed in on the discussion.
As written, the initiative would give the county’s law enforcement watchdog the ability to subpoena records and interviews during audits of alleged police misconduct investigations.
It would also tie the auditing office’s annual budget to at least 1% of the Sonoma County Sheriff Office’s budget, a change that would have more than tripled the office’s annual budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, among other changes.
The initiative was crafted by a group of local activists last fall in response to an unwillingness by county leaders to update the defective ordinance, which needs more resources to carry out its various missions, said Paz, a former campaign organizer for the proposed initiative.
The group’s efforts to garner enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, though the initiative has gained new attention in the wake of recent anti-police brutality marches.
“Community transparency and oversight can’t be accomplished without some of these core changes and support for this office,” Paz said.
Lemus said she had unanswered questions about the proposed ordinance, such as whether the group who authored it conducted countywide polling to gauge its popularity and whether the board of supervisors would revisit the topic if the measure were to fail in the November election.
“We have a lot of momentum right now but I’m trying to see what’s the best way to move this forward because we all want a better, stronger IOLERO,” Lemus said.
On Tuesday, Hopkins and the rest of the board of supervisors will decide how to move forward with the proposal, with options including placing the ordinance on the November ballot with or without any modifications, or adopting all or some of the proposed changes through board-approved amendments to the original ordinance that established the office.
The board could also choose to invest $40,000 in general funds to launch an outreach and engagement effort to gather additional input about the auditor’s office before making any changes to the ordinance.
The Community Advisory Council will also hold a virtual meeting Monday afternoon to talk about strengthening Navarro’s office.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nashellytweets.