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Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog partners with SSU for research projects on Sheriff’s Office

Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog is launching two research projects with students and staff at Sonoma State University that will compare the Sheriff’s Office to similar agencies around the state and evaluate some of its policies.

The first project will review use-of-force and de-escalation policies at ?58 sheriff’s departments across California. The information will be examined by four students from SSU’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies Department who will begin 180-hour internships Thursday, said Karlene Navarro, the county’s independent law enforcement auditor and director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

The community arm of Navarro’s office, the Community Advisory Council, will oversee the interns’ work. They will lean on the findings to guide future recommendations to the Sheriff’s Office over how deputies should defuse dangerous situations and which compliance tools and techniques should be adopted, changed or discarded to improve the safety of deputies and the public.

Navarro hopes the research will boost the validity of any future recommendations on use-of-force and de-escalation polices in the eyes of the Sheriff’s Office, which has largely declined to adopt the council’s suggestions on de-escalation and force in the past, she said.

Its reasons have included concerns that restricting or removing use-of-force policies could impact deputies’ safety. It has also critiqued prior recommendations that drew on research about city police agencies, such as those in Berkeley and Seattle, rather than sheriff’s departments that work in mostly rural settings.

“Right now, the end goal is to forge a relationship with the Sheriff’s Office so we’re working together on this project, so it’s a project they want to be involved in,” Navarro said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office participation with the community council is entirely voluntary. “It’s to get community recommendations and community input into the Sheriff’s Office.”

Emily Asencio, a SSU criminal justice professor who runs the department’s internship program and has prior experience with conducting independent research, will help students organize and present the data for the project.

The collaboration between SSU and Navarro emerged earlier this year, when Navarro reached out to the university’s criminology department about her office’s work, Asencio said. The research will provide an additional avenue for students to complete a 180-hour internship, credit they must earn to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from the department.

“They’re getting a different perspective on law enforcement that they probably wouldn’t be getting if they were doing a cadet program,” Asencio said of the students’ upcoming work. “They’re looking at the actions that result from the different policies.”

Asencio and other SSU staff will also be integral to the second project, which will survey the community on the effectiveness and frequency of community-oriented policing by the Sheriff’s Office, or policing that focuses on building ties with the community, Navarro said.

That project is expected to materialize later this summer and will lean on the professors’ experience with grant writing and survey work. It will likely take place in several phases over many months, Navarro said.

She hopes the project will give her a better understanding of how well community members know the deputies patrolling their area and how they are treated when they call for deputies’ help, Navarro said.

“From what I’ve gathered, there’s no real metric to understand if (community-oriented policing is) happening, ” Navarro said.

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

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