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Law enforcement oversight forum draws crowd

Experts delved into the past, present and future of independent law enforcement oversight in Sonoma County and across California on Saturday, a conversation that came as local activists push for a ballot measure that would vastly expand the powers of the county’s law enforcement watchdog.

The forum, hosted by the Sonoma County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union at Santa Rosa’s Glaser Center, included two presentations, the first by John Alden, the executive director of the Oakland _Community Police Review Agency, an independent office that investigates complaints of alleged officer wrongdoing and can recommend disciplinary action.

Joanne Brown, a former member of the Community Advisory Council, the community arm of Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog, and a past Superior Court Commissioner in Alameda County, spoke second.

Brown is one of the leading proponents of the proposed ballot measure, which among several changes would increase funding for the auditing office by fixing its budget at 1% of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office budget, widen the scope of complaints that can be investigated by the independent auditor and grant the office subpoena powers.

The law enforcement auditor’s office, created by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2015 in the aftermath of the fatal 2013 shooting of Santa Rosa teen Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy, reviews internal affairs investigations by the Sheriff’s Office into certain complaints alleging wrongdoing, such as excessive uses of force and unlawful arrests.

The proposed ballot measure drew strong opposition from Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick, who argued the changes would divert critical county dollars away from the county’s general fund and argued components of the proposed ordinance contradict state law and legal precedent.

“For a beginning framework, I think it was a good start,” Brown said during the forum, referring to the ordinance that founded Sonoma County’s auditing office. “But that was what it was. A start.”

About 16 people, including members of the local ACLU chapter, which has sponsored the proposed ballot measure, attended Saturday’s event. The forum began with Alden’s presentation, which gave an overview of the different oversight models that exist in California today.

He emphasized that city police departments have been much quicker to adopt independent oversight than sheriff’s offices, which are led by elected officials who have more autonomy over how they run their agencies.

Only two local governments - Santa Rosa and Sonoma County - have independent oversight of their law enforcement agencies. Both hired auditors in early 2016, though the Santa Rosa contract auditor position is currently vacant. Karlene Navarro, a former local defense attorney, replaced Sonoma County’s first-ever auditor, Jerry Threet, in March of last year.

Alden also pointed to recent changes in state laws that have expanded the level of public oversight into both police and sheriff’s departments statewide. They include SB 1421, a law enacted just over a year ago that unsealed internal affairs investigations in cases including in-?custody deaths, or when an officer is found guilty of lying. Another law, AB 748, took effect last summer and requires California law enforcement agencies to make public videos of critical incidents such as police shootings.

“I think we’re in a watershed moment,” Alden said after the forum. “California law about oversight has been largely the same for about 30 years and has dramatically changed in just the last two or three. I think that shows a hunger in California for greater transparency and accountability from law enforcement.”

Proponents of the ballot measure will need to collect upward of 21,000 signatures by late spring to make it onto the November 2020 ballot, unless county supervisors approve the ordinance changes first, Brown said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com.

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