Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office watchdog under scrutiny by the Board of Supervisors

The director of the oversight office is slated for a closely watched appearance before the Board of Supervisors, where two veteran members have signaled they want to re-balance the agency's roles.|

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.”

Differing priorities

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.

Zane said the watchdog office has a role in such discussions, particularly around immigration, but so long as it isn’t creating policy itself. She did not offer any case where she thought Threet had overstepped.

“I can’t give specific examples,” Zane said. “But I think we’re going to have a discussion about how policy gets developed in the Sheriff’s Office, and I think it does have to come from within - with assistance from Mr. Threet’s office - but the policy development has to come from within, with the sheriff.”

Rabbitt echoed similar concerns in an interview last week.

“The priority, in my mind, was on the audits first,” Rabbitt said. “If you found evidence that dictated if you needed to have a policy review, that would come out of the audits, and the outreach was something that you let people know there was an independent entity available to take complaints.”

Threet said in an email Friday that he saw the board hearing on his office’s annual report as a good opportunity to discuss “how things are going” and possible areas for improvement.

“Certainly it is entirely appropriate for members of the board to ask the hard questions and I am happy to address any questions or concerns they may have,” said Threet, who declined requests for an interview. “Overall, I am happy with our progress during our first year or so.”

Building trust

Another implicit critique Zane has lodged was that Threet’s agency may not be trusted by the Sheriff’s Office and its employees, questioning a relationship she said was critical for the oversight agency to be effective.

During the June budget hearing, Zane said the “greatest disadvantage” faced by Threet was his lack of experience in law enforcement. She told Threet it would be “almost impossible” for him to do his job if he did not have trust from the Sheriff’s Office, something she asked him to work on moving forward.

Threet pushed back on that notion, telling the board he believed the Sheriff’s Office did, in fact, trust the work of the oversight agency. He noted, however, that tension did sometimes arise between the Sheriff’s Office and members of the watchdog’s appointed Community Advisory Council, which he described as natural.

Any claim of mistrust emerging from the Sheriff’s Office toward Threet likely stems from a May 1 letter then-Sheriff Steve Freitas sent the watchdog regarding changes in immigration policy at the county jail, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum, a spokesman for the office. Freitas, an elected official, did not want the letter - on official letterhead, to another government agency - to be made public, Crum said. Freitas was displeased when Threet did just that, Crum said.

Crum called the incident a “bump in the road,” but said it no way represented a breakdown in relations between the two offices. Zane, he said, “might be holding onto something that isn’t an issue.”

Zane, for her part, said her understanding of how Threet and his office were viewed by law enforcement was a result of her “conversations with the sheriff’s department and others.” She declined to elaborate.

“We want him to develop a trustworthy relationship with the sheriff and the sheriff’s department - we understand that he cannot do his role of increasing accountability and transparency and improvements without that,” Zane said. “It’s a tough bridge to cross, but we feel that Mr. Threet is working really hard at getting that trust built.”

Threet works with the head of the sheriff’s professional standards unit on a daily basis, and they have a strong working relationship, Crum said. Current Sheriff Rob Giordano, who supervisors appointed to the top job in August after Freitas retired for health reasons, is set to make an appearance during the board meeting to respond to the watchdog’s annual report, according to Crum.

“Rob is adamant that he does trust Jerry Threet,” Crum said. “That will be the first thing out of his mouth on Tuesday.”

Debate over outreach

The oversight office also has focused on building public trust through direct engagement with residents, including a February meting in the Sonoma Valley with more than 50 immigrant community members. Threet billed that gathering as a major success.

Yet Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, who was on the public task force created after Lopez’s death and supported establishment of a law enforcement auditor, questioned the agency’s community outreach role.

Speaking as a candidate for sheriff and not on behalf of the department, Essick said he sees a “huge benefit” to the watchdog’s audit efforts but pointed to the Sheriff’s Office’s new community engagement liaison, Misti Harris, who was hired in March.

The oversight office’s community outreach focus “might be redundant with what we’re already doing,” Essick said.

He questioned if Threet’s community engagement efforts were to get community feedback or to find more complaints against sheriff’s deputies.

But for some immigrant advocates, including Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman, the Sheriff’s Office’s internal community engagement officer is not sufficient.

“Misti Harris is not doing the job that IOLERO is doing,” Roman said referring to Threet’s office by its acronym. “She has a totally different agenda.”

Roman is the former chairwoman of the agency’s Community Advisory Council.

Gorin, who has been supportive of the watchdog’s current efforts, said she could envision the agency doing more on the community engagement front.

“I think there are a number of issues that they could be grappling with and providing a sounding board for the community and to … continue to build a better relationship with the sheriff’s department,” Gorin said. “I would be supportive of more community outreach efforts.”

Success and support

Supporters of the oversight office point to the announced shift in Sheriff’s Office immigration enforcement this summer as exactly the type of internal change that Threet’s agency can help spur.

“Just look at the sheriff changing immigration policy at the jail,” said Jim Duffy, a member of the office’s Community Advisory Council. “That never would have happened if IOLERO wasn’t doing policy reviews on top of audits.”

Freitas, in his May letter, said he wouldn’t accept all of Threet’s recommendations, but would stop responding to every notification request for the date and time of an inmate’s release by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Giordano instituted the policy change Aug. 18. Now jail officials will only respond to ICE if an inmate has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor outlined in California’s Trust Act, as well as one of about 12 additional misdemeanors selected by both Freitas and Giordano.

Threet, meanwhile, has enjoyed solid backing from a majority of the Board of Supervisors.

Gore said he was “very supportive” of the office’s work so far, though he was sympathetic to some of the issues raised by Zane and Rabbitt.

“I don’t share the same level of concerns, but I do understand the question about making sure that the audits are getting done and getting reviewed,” Gore said. “I see this more as an ability to have a good conversation rather than a desire to attack the functioning of an office.”

Hopkins, the lone supervisor not on the board when the agency was created, said she is “fully committed” to maintaining the office’s current direction.

“Its ability to review sheriff’s policy and make recommendations is essential to maintaining trust,” Hopkins said, noting that review and outreach are each noted in the ordinance that created the oversight agency. “Both sides are equally important to the mission.”

Gore also indicated he was pleased with Threet’s job performance so far.

“He’s in a very difficult position, just like all of us. He’s done exemplary things and he’s made mistakes, just like me,” Gore said. “But he’s a good man and he’s working his tail off and he has a great vision and he’s humble and he’s trying to do a good job.”

Despite the public pressure, the office’s future appears secure for now. Zane said she heard some speculation the board might try to eliminate the watchdog agency, a claim she called “ridiculous.”

“Whatever happens with that office is going to be done in public with five supervisors discussing that,” she said. “But I don’t see any danger.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter ?@thejdmorris. You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter?@nrahaim.

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