Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office watchdog under scrutiny by the Board of Supervisors
Sonoma County’s independent law enforcement watchdog is confronting public pressure from two of the veteran politicians who hired him over how his year-old agency carries out its varied mission, setting the stage for what looks to be a crucial, closely watched appearance this week before the Board of Supervisors.
The agency led by Jerry Threet was set up by supervisors to monitor the Sheriff’s Office, participate in policymaking and perform outreach to the community.
Yet pushback of late from the two longest-serving board members, Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, has served to frame one side of a wider debate, taking in the Sheriff’s Office, community members and activists, over how broadly or narrowly the office carries out its many roles.
The agency, which recently released its first annual report, was formed after a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in 2013 shot and killed ?13-year old Andy Lopez as the Santa Rosa teen walked on a residential street carrying an airsoft gun resembling an assault rifle. Establishment of the office, through a nearly two-year public process, was arguably the most significant step the county took in the shooting’s aftermath to increase transparency into Sheriff’s Office operations and seek to repair fractured public trust, especially with the Latino community.
Yet in public comments and interviews, Zane and Rabbitt have indicated they feel Threet, a former deputy city attorney in San Francisco, has strayed somewhat from their understanding of his board-defined mission, playing perhaps too prominent and proactive a role in policymaking that governs the Sheriff’s Office. Instead, they’ve advocated for a tighter focus on auditing internal investigations of alleged wrongdoing in the Sheriff’s Office.
“You can’t really create policy as an outsider of a department - that’s got to come from the inside,” Zane, the board chairwoman, said in an interview Friday. “Law enforcement is a very distinct culture; it probably resonates closer to the military than any other culture, and I think that has to be respected and acknowledged … We’re hoping that this office is an important aide in maybe creating those discussions that might improve policy.”
The three other supervisors - Susan Gorin, James Gore and Lynda Hopkins - have to varying degrees been more supportive of the oversight office in its current form, with Threet carrying out policy work and community outreach as equal roles to audits.
“To me, it is imperative that this independent office, in order to be truly functioning here in our area well and to do its job, has to concurrently do audits and community outreach - it’s not one or the other,” Gore said. “I support what’s been done thus far and I look forward to having a good discussion.”
Threet’s public appearance Tuesday before the board comes about three months after a lively back-and-forth hearing with supervisors over the annual budget for his agency, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. At the time, Zane strongly indicated a desire to re-evaluate the watchdog’s mission and purpose when Threet returned to present his annual report.
“We’re going to have a good, robust public discussion based upon the report and really looking at this first year,” Zane said Friday about this week’s meeting. “We know it’s not easy to set up a new department, and we’re seeing some very positive things. We’re also seeing some things that we might want to discuss.”
A key area of disagreement over the watchdog’s role is whether Threet and his one employee - the office’s annual budget is about $600,000 - ought to dedicate more of their efforts to auditing internal Sheriff’s Office investigations. Such internal inquiries are prompted by public complaints or observed violation of department policy and take in all manner of public and office conduct.
During the June budget hearing, Zane cited “huge concerns” over what was then a backlog in audits, which she described as the most important duty of the office. Zane felt the office was focusing heavily on recommending policy for the Sheriff’s Office at the expense of completing audits in a timely manner.
Threet’s office in June had a backlog of 14 audits, but it heads into Tuesday’s meeting with just two uncompleted, awaiting information from the Sheriff’s Office.
Additionally, Zane indicated at the June meeting that she did not find it appropriate that Threet’s agency was “writing policy for law enforcement.”
But the office’s policy work has been among its most-praised public efforts, as many supporters see Threet’s analysis of the sheriff’s immigration policy at the county jail - and subsequent recommendations in the spring - as having pushed the county’s top lawman to further limit communication with immigration agents over the summer.