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Supervisors: Increased collaboration, clear priorities needed to ensure county law enforcement watchdog’s success

Sonoma County supervisors reaffirmed their support for the county’s independent auditor Tuesday, but said mounting tensions between sheriff’s officials and the auditor’s office pointed to needed changes to ensure the future success of the watchdog entity.

Supervisors offered no clear direction on how to resolve the problem, only saying the topic should be discussed at a later date.

The two men leading the opposing offices, outgoing Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano and Jerry Threet, director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, publicly aired their grievances with the auditing process at Tuesday’s meeting, where Threet presented an annual report and proposed changes to the ordinance that established his office.

Their clashing personalities and differing opinions about what’s expected from their respective offices during the auditing process have eroded relationships between the ?two agencies, said Giordano, who apologized to the outgoing auditor for the tension.

“The most frustrating thing for me was the breakdown in communication and that was the underpinning problem here,” Giordano said at the meeting. “I can’t pull any punches. I’m not saying it was his fault. I’m saying I’m sorry.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said those fundamental differences were obvious from reading the annual report, published by Threet on Nov. 16.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office issued a written response to the report. With new leaders expected to soon take control of each office, it was important that county leaders look for ways to avoid future conflicts and encourage increased collaboration between the two agencies, she said.

Giordano will step down as the county’s top cop at the end of the year, making way for incoming Sheriff Mark Essick. Threet will retire as the county’s first-ever independent auditor, a position created after the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a deputy in 2013, as soon as county leaders hire his replacement. Threet said health concerns prompted his decision to leave the auditor post.

“We really need to work on establishing clear priories for the office, clear standards for engagement in terms of what we expect, and have a conversation, hopefully with all of us … to really sit down and makes sure we don’t set the next office up to fail,” Hopkins said.

Among the biggest points of contention between Giordano and Threet was what each expected from the other’s office during the internal investigation and subsequent audit.

Threet argued that, in some cases, deputies weren’t casting a wide enough net when collecting evidence during alleged misconduct complaints, resulting in incomplete investigations. For example, he said, investigators failed to interview all witnesses and deputies accused of wrongdoing, or did not collect third-party evidence that could’ve been relevant in a case, such as phone records.

Giordano said internal affairs investigators aren’t expected to meet Threet’s standards, which more closely resemble that of a criminal case. Instead, investigators only need to review the most compelling evidence to make a finding. More extensive internal affairs investigations would require additional resources that the Sheriff’s Office does not have, Giordano said.

Threet asked for more money to hire additional staff, as well as greater access to the Sheriff’s Office files such as dispatch records and body-worn camera footage to more thoroughly complete his audits.

Giordano said the office already has provided Threet an unprecedented level of access to files, and that maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of crime victims and his employees was a priority.

Supervisor Susan Gorin expressed strong support for the auditor’s office, saying she wanted to expand its funding in the future and calling the board’s decision to not secure more money in the last budget cycle a mistake. Her comment won applause from a few community members in the audience.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane agreed with Threet’s recommendation to boost diversity at the Sheriff’s Office, for example, by hiring more women. However, she faulted Threet for not doing enough to engage the Sheriff’s Office before presenting his recommendations to the board.

“A better approach to policy is to be creative - with everyone at the table,” she said during the three-hour discussion.

More than 30 residents attended the meeting, and several, including Eric Koenigshofer, addressed the board to express their support for the auditor’s office.

Koenigshofer served on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, a group formed following the Lopez shooting, and recommended the formation of the auditor’s office. On Tuesday, he urged supervisors to provide additional funding for the auditor’s office and highlighted the importance of Tuesday’s meeting, calling it an important piece of public discourse.

“That in and of itself is a very significant thing, and I thank and commend you for making that possible,” he said.

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

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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