Sonoma County Sheriff’s watchdog gets support and criticism from Board of Supervisors
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors largely agreed Tuesday with how the county’s independent law enforcement watchdog has approached its role over the past year and a half, even amid some lingering critiques that surfaced following the release last month of the agency’s first annual report.
While the board signaled support for Jerry Threet, who runs the nascent agency set up to review the Sheriff’s Office, two supervisors, Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, repeated their calls for the watchdog to keep its top focus on one of its roles - audits of internal sheriff’s department investigations.
“The audits continue to be the highest priority, and I think are going to be the most helpful in terms of the Sheriff’s Office as well,” Zane, the board chairwoman, told Threet during his appearance.
Going into Tuesday’s discussion Zane and Rabbitt had questioned whether the office was giving perhaps too much attention to its other board-defined roles, including its say in policymaking and conducting community outreach.
Rabbitt on Tuesday said he accepted the office’s work in those areas as long as it did not come at the expense of audits. Such reviews evaluate internal investigations into deputies’ use of force, employee misconduct or complaints that originate from inside the department or the public.
Threet’s audits are withheld from the public because of a state law that shields law enforcement personnel from disclosures including their identities and disciplinary records, but his findings are summarized annually in a detailed public report.
“To me, the most important thing that the office carries out is the audits, going through the audit, the complaints, answering those complaints to the public and either upholding them, sustaining them or absolving the (Sheriff’s Office). I think that goes to build trust as well,” Rabbit said. “I don’t have a problem with looking at the policy recommendations as long as the audit doesn’t slip by the wayside.”
Zane, for her part, made it clear she sees a constrained policymaking role for the watchdog agency, though it was influential earlier this year in pushing a change in jail policy that now limits sheriff’s department communication with federal immigration authorities.
“Neither your office nor this board have the legal authority to set policies for the Sheriff’s Office,” she said.
“The Sheriff is an independent elected position. We have to respect that.”
The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach was the most high-profile byproduct of a public process spurred by community outcry in the aftermath of a sheriff’s deputy fatally shooting 13-year old Andy Lopez in 2013 as he walked down a street carrying an airsoft gun resembling an assault rifle.
The review agency was intended to help restore fractured public trust and transparency into Sheriff’s Office operations.
Tuesday’s board discussion came about three months after a budget hearing in which Zane and Rabbitt were strongly critical of Threet, citing a backlog in his office of 14 audits internal law enforcement investigations that awaited completion.
Just two audits remain uncompleted, pending a response with more information from the Sheriff’s Office, according to Threet, who also said his agency now plans to present more frequent updates of its auditing activity online and to its Community Advisory Council.
“There have been, frankly, a lot of challenges along the way. It’s not been easy,” said Threet, a former deputy city attorney in San Francisco.
“This is, I’d say, the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve had some hard assignments in my career.”
Supervisors took no action Tuesday on the oversight office, which has an annual budget of about $600,000 and just one staff member aside from Threet.
The board was scheduled only to hear and receive the agency’s annual report, along with related presentations from Sheriff Rob Giordano and the department’s community engagement liaison, Misti Harris.
Still, Zane, the longest-serving current board member, used Tuesday’s lengthy public hearing to air two additional critiques of the Sheriff’s Office and its relationship with the watchdog.
First, she took aim at the amount of access law enforcement has afforded Threet, who has typically worked with the head of the sheriff’s professional standards unit. Zane said it was a “huge mistake” to funnel Threet through a single “point person” and stressed that proper collaboration between the agencies could only occur if Threet was granted total access to rank-and-file deputies.
Giordano was receptive to the suggestion.