PD Editorial: Measure P: Oversight promotes accountability

Measure P can be boiled down to a single word: accountability.

Elected officials, government agencies and public employees must be accountable to the taxpayers. Sheriffs and their deputies are no exception.

Sonoma County spent $6.6 million on legal settlements involving sheriff’s personnel in the past year. Attorney fees added another $2.5 million to the taxpayers’ tab, and liability insurance premiums for the Sheriff’s Office shot up 46% to $5.9 million a year. That’s $15 million altogether.

A loss of public confidence can’t be measured in dollars.

Measure P on the Nov. 3 ballot would modestly increase citizen oversight of the Sheriff’s Office with a goal of identifying problem deputies before a fatal incident or costly blunder.

Sonoma County introduced citizen oversight of the Sheriff’s Office on a limited based in 2016, acting on recommendations from a blue-ribbon commission appointed after a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 13-year-old boy carrying a toy gun.

But with just two employees, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach has been understaffed for even its narrow purview — auditing internal investigations of misconduct complaints against sheriff’s personnel and making policy recommendations.

Sonoma County supervisors recently funded two more staff lawyers for IOLERO, as the office is commonly called, and Measure P would set a budget threshold for the agency of 1% of the Sheriff’s Office $184 million budget, or $1.8 million.

Measure P would expand IOLERO’s jurisdiction to reviewing complaints involving excessive force, sexual harassment or assault, bias in policing or corrections and violations of constitutional rights, as well as incidents resulting in civil lawsuits. IOLERO also would be authorized to accept whistleblower complaints.

To facilitate more robust oversight, IOLERO would gain access to investigative files and witnesses and the authority to subpoena records and testimony.

Not surprisingly, the primary opponents of Measure P are the people who would be subject to additional oversight: deputies and correctional officers at the jail.

The unions representing deputies and correctional officers filed complaints with the state Public Employees Relations Board, arguing that Measure P is a violation of their collective bargaining rights. A hearing before an administrative law judge is set for next week, but this issue almost certainly won’t be resolved before the election.

The unions also argue — disingenuously — that Measure P would mandate a spending cut for public safety programs. Nothing in Measure P requires the supervisors to cut the sheriff’s budget, and at about $400,000 a year, the mandated increase for IOLERO is a tiny fraction of the county’s 1.9 billion budget.

Sheriff Mark Essick has been more transparent than his predecessors and held deputies more accountable their behavior. But he says Measure P grants too much access to sensitive information. That’s a legitimate concern, but it can be addressed in court without invalidating the rest of Measure P.

Essick says it would have been better for the supervisors to stick with their initial plan to appoint a committee to consider changes to the oversight program, adding that a collaborative approach might have headed off legal challenges to the ballot measure.

He’s right about the supervisors rushing this measure to the ballot, but law enforcement unions have consistently resisted reform measures in California and across the country, and it seems unlikely that they would endorse any significant changes here.

For voters, the question is this: Would expanding IOLERO’s reach to cases involving excessive force, bias and civil rights violations increase accountability for the Sheriff’s Office and benefit justice in Sonoma County? We believe that it would. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure P.

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