Latest report of Sonoma County sheriff watchdog found policy violations in 4 cases

Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach released its annual report recently. It includes audits of more than 30 internal investigations done by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.|

A new audit of three dozen Sheriff’s Office disciplinary cases by Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog found more than half the investigations were incomplete and faulted the punishments in four other cases as insufficient.

The findings are contained in the latest annual report, released in March, from the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) and covered instances where a Sheriff’s Office employee or employees violated department policy.

IOLERO is the county’s civilian-led law enforcement oversight agency, responsible for auditing the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations and for recommending, in certain cases, policy changes and personnel discipline.

Its recommendations are not binding on the Sheriff’s Office.

The four cases involve:

  • A deputy who was found to have broken rules barring close personal relationships with confidential informants in 2019.
  • A county jail correctional deputy's excessive use of force in 2019 against an inmate and failure by investigators to follow-up with a colleague who witnessed it and may have been obligated to report it.
  • A 2020 investigation into dispatchers transmitting inaccurate information to deputies. IOLERO’s audit found a dispatcher violated policy by creating an entry implying a husband involved in a domestic violence incident was violent “when there was no factual basis for that.”

The annual report is the first released under new IOLERO Director John Alden, who started in September 2022, and Sonoma County Sheriff Eddie Engram, who took office in January.

IOLERO was established after the 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy. In 2020, Sonoma County voters overwhelmingly backed Measure P, which granted the office new powers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing involving the Sheriff’s Office and to recommend discipline.

Incomplete investigations

For its latest report, IOLERO audited 36 internal investigations dating to 2017. Of those, the office determined that 19 were incomplete because investigators failed to preserve evidence or interview relevant witnesses, Alden said.

IOLERO Community Advisory Committee member Nancy Pemberton said the number of incomplete investigations was her biggest concern.

“And that’s been an ongoing problem going back to the first report by IOLERO,” she said.

Moving forward, Pemberton said, it’s integral for internal investigators to interview all witnesses, review all documents and consider any and all matters beyond an original complaint.

Engram, in an interview with The Press Democrat, said the number of incomplete investigations is so high because the Sheriff’s Office and IOLERO differ in how they define complete investigations.

While some internal investigations may look into secondary concerns that arise during an investigation — such as why another officer’s body camera was not activated in a timely manner — it is not always included in the report about the original cause for concern, Engram said.

“At the end of the day, we're both trying to do the same thing. It’s my job as sheriff to hold my people accountable, be as transparent as I can to the public. And, it's (John Alden’s) job to make sure that I'm holding our people accountable.” Sonoma County Sheriff Eddie Engram

He added that his department also needs to adjust to prepare reports for “the digestion of the general public,” rather than solely for internal use.

Engram said he and Alden have begun discussing how to define a complete investigation.

“I'm confident that, when the next report comes out, that the ratio of incomplete reports won't be the same,” Engram said.

Four cases of policy violation

The report highlighted four cases where the employee being investigated was determined by IOLERO to have violated Sheriff’s Office policy.

The most serious case involved excessive force by a deputy who detained and threatened to shoot a man who reported a fight and stabbing in Boyes Hot Springs on Oct. 31, 2020.

An internal investigation faulted Deputy Jose Vega for using excessive force; holding a Taser in one hand and a gun in the other hand with a flashlight in his armpit simultaneously; using inappropriate language and failing to “adequately” identify the detainee.

Though Vega was suspended, IOLERO concluded he should have been fired. It also recommended Spanish-speaking deputies be trained to give commands in Spanish when people don’t comply with directions in English.

A second case involved a confidential informant who claimed a deputy sexually harassed her and pursued a sexual relationship.

The report does not identify the deputy. Sheriff’s officials said state law prevented them from releasing specifics, including the name of the deputy, date of the incident and what discipline, if any, the deputy faced.

IOLERO concurred with the internal investigation that the deputy violated policies that prohibit “bringing discredit to the department” and personal relationships with confidential informants.

Where IOLERO diverged was its conclusion that the deputy also violated policy against soliciting a personal or sexual relationship through official capacity.

IOLERO officials wrote the deputy should’ve been disciplined “substantially more harshly,” including with possible termination, if the behavior continued.

David Loy, legal director at the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, said violations by law enforcement have to meet specific criteria and definitions under state law in order to compel departments to disclose records.

“The door is only open a crack. It’s not open all the way as it should be,” Loy said. “You could have very serious violations, but if they’re not covered by (Senate Bill) 1421 or SB16 the public will never know.”

The two laws, starting in 2019, created exceptions that allow for public release of police personnel records in cases of officer-involved shootings or great use of force leading to serious injury or death, sustained complaints of excessive force, sexual assault and dishonesty, prejudice or discrimination, and unlawful arrest or search.

In the third case, a correctional deputy, who served in that role for three years, was found to have used excessive force against an inmate on Jan. 11, 2019. The deputy was not disciplined and no longer works for the Sheriff’s Office, according to department spokesperson Misti Wood.

There was no doubt excessive force occurred and was not properly reported, according to the IOLERO report.

But IOLERO also found the investigation was incomplete because officials did not check whether another deputy, who witnessed the incident, was in violation of failing to report the excessive force.

It suggested medical records should be included in documentation of investigations involving in-custody injuries.

The last case involved an unspecified matter about dispatchers transmitting accurate information to deputies.

The report did not specify what triggered the investigation, but in the course of IOLERO’s audit, the agency found a dispatcher violated policy in one matter by creating an entry in the dispatch system describing a husband involved in a domestic violence incident as violent, “when there was no factual basis for that.”

No specifics were released.

No more backlog

The IOLERO report marked another significant benchmark: The agency has finally cleared years of backlogged investigations, positioning the six-member office to carry out one of its key responsibilities — auditing Sheriff’s Office internal investigations — more quickly.

The audit backlog had mounted since IOLERO’s 2015 creation, hampering the office’s ability to provide feedback on investigations and recommend disciplinary actions in a timely manner, said Alden, IOLERO’S director and a former prosecutor and police misconduct investigator.

“When we get cases from them that are from four or five years ago, it’s too late for them to do anything about that case,” he said.

Auditing cases more quickly will allow the office to identify patterns and problems before they become prevalent, Alden said.

A ‘fresh start’

After years dominated by a combative relationship between leadership of the Sheriff’s Office and IOLERO, the new report was put forward in March before the Board of Supervisors amid a vow by Alden and Engram to improve their shared work.

Former Sheriff Mark Essick and former IOLERO director Jerry Threet feuded publicly for years. In 2021 they clashed over a Threet Facebook post that Essick contended was racist in criticizing Engram, who is Black.

The two also were on opposite sides of the 2020 ballot measure that gave IOLERO additional power and funding. Threet, by then retired, campaigned for it; Essick marshaled the power of his office to oppose it. Voters passed it overwhelmingly.

Engram said he viewed the start of his tenure as sheriff coinciding with Alden’s start with IOLERO, as an opportunity for a “fresh start.”

“At the end of the day, we're both trying to do the same thing,” Engram said. “It’s my job as sheriff to hold my people accountable, be as transparent as I can to the public. And, it's his job to make sure that I'm holding our people accountable.”

Pemberton, the longtime IOLERO committee member, said the pledge of communication between Alden and Engram is a major step forward and a rarity in her past experience.

“I don’t expect them to see eye to eye, but I do expect them to communicate. And under (former) Sheriff Mark Essick, that was not happening,” she said.

Alden said he’s glad Engram is “open to talking.”

“I think the bottom line is Sheriff Engram and I are new to this role, and we believe in communication,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi

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