Latest report of Sonoma County sheriff watchdog found policy violations in 4 cases
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’s excessive use of force in 2020 while responding to a reported stabbing, including actions so troubling the watchdog agency concluded he should have been fired.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.