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Watchdog report: Sonoma County sheriff agrees to policy changes

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to vastly expand training on implicit bias and crisis intervention, create and adopt an overarching deescalation policy and launch an investigation into the accuracy of dispatch reports after a sheriff’s deputy killed a man following a police pursuit.

The measures, relayed to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday as part of the county law enforcement watchdog’s annual report, mark the most significant changes to Sheriff’s Office policy since Sheriff Mark Essick banned the carotid hold in June amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.

The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach audited 12 cases between June 2019 and July 2020, including that of David Ward, who was killed Nov. 27 during a traffic stop by deputies and police officers. And IOLERO Director Karlene Navarro indicated more could be done in the coming year, as she plans to add staff as soon as February.

In those cases, a pattern emerged showing incomplete or problematic internal affairs investigations, communications problems with dispatch and ongoing problems with deescalation, Navarro told the Board of Supervisors.

Although the Sheriff’s Office had its say within the confines of the 71-page annual report, where it agreed with some of Navarro’s recommendations, an invitation for Essick to attend Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting came too late, county staff and the sheriff said.

“The IOLERO Annual Report shows the collaborative relationship between IOLERO and the Sheriff’s Office,” Essick said in a written statement. “We sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work with Director Navarro and have our comments included in the report. We look forward to continuing to work with Director Navarro in the future.”

Amid a slew of recommendations, Navarro acknowledged her office, which serves as the county’s official law enforcement monitoring agency, continues to be faced with a mounting backlog of cases — more than 30 now — even as efforts are underway to boost staffing.

Navarro said the ongoing backlog forces her to make critical decisions about her office’s priorities, and she chose to focus on the Ward case.

“I had to make a decision about whether I was going to complete the rest of the audits, or did I want to take on the David Ward audit so it could be completed for the annual report,” Navarro said.

That review, which took Navarro a little more than four months to complete, brought about five key recommendations, including incorporating procedures like the high-risk felony stop procedure into the Sheriff’s Office’s policy manual; investigating conflicting information from dispatch; and increasing training related to biased policing and crisis intervention.

Essick’s office pushed back only on the recommendation to modify the department’s vehicle pursuit policy.

Supervisor David Rabbitt praised the report, as well as law enforcement generally.

“It’s gotta be one of the tougher jobs in the world to be a law enforcement officer, and I think it gets tougher every year,” Rabbitt said. “My hat’s off to all of those who protect and serve.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, citing conversations with deputies in the past, said many in law enforcement want greater access to training.

Essick agreed with Navarro’s recommendation to bolster training, made in her report on the Ward incident. The Bloomfield man’s death, which led his family to file a lawsuit against the county that remains active, was ruled a homicide by the Marin County Coroner’s Office.

After an internal review, Essick moved to fire Charles Blount, a deputy who applied a neck hold to Ward, but Blount resigned before his firing was completed. Essick suggested in his response to Navarro’s recommendations that the county review labor rules or contracts that allow employees to retire with full benefits before they are fired.

Although the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office exceeds state standards in most training areas, it reaches minimum requirements when it comes to training on crisis intervention and implicit bias, which seeks to deter deputies from letting perceptions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other factors influence how they do their jobs.

Instead of 32 hours over the course of a career for crisis intervention training and two hours every five years for implicit bias, deputies will now receive training on each quarterly. Both can be done with video trainings offered free by the state training authority.

“This, to me, is very encouraging,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It’s tragic that it takes another tragic death to get there. But it’s so essential to give our law enforcement officers the training they not only need, but that they have actually requested over the years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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