Sonoma County task force readies proposal for civilian oversight of Sheriff’s Office

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Upcoming Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force presentations:

Monday: Sonoma and Petaluma city councils

April 14: Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park city councils

April 20: Healdsburg City Council

For more information, click here.

On the crest of a national movement to scrutinize police practices, Sonoma County is poised to create a form of civilian oversight for law enforcement.

The Board of Supervisors could soon start to fill in the details of a broad-brush proposal that would help open a window into policing practices and complaint investigations. A community task force has spent a year studying the successes and weaknesses of more than 200 such programs nationwide and will continue to gather community input as it hammers out the final recommendation it will give to the board, slated for next month.

Calls for civilian oversight of law enforcement are not new to Sonoma County, but the demands were renewed with the Oct. 22, 2013, shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a deputy. Lopez was carrying an airsoft BB gun resembling an assault rifle as he walked to a friend’s house in his Moorland Avenue neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s outskirts.

The deputy called out for him to drop the gun, but the boy instead turned.

Lopez’ death triggered a broad set of reactions from the community including an instinctive recoil by people who have had troubling interactions with law enforcement. People — including hundreds of middle and high school-aged youth — took to the streets in repeated protests to demand that something change.

The auditor program could potentially provide the most tangible result.

“Talk to just about any adult of color in this county; you’ll find they’ve had a negative experience with law enforcement,” said professional chef Evelyn Cheatham, who is part of the task force that drafted the auditor plan. “Bringing an auditor office like this into the county shines a light on things, opens up the doors.”

The program has the potential to cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it could also provide an avenue for scrutiny of Sheriff’s Office practices from outside law enforcement that was not in place in 2013 when Lopez was killed. And it could create a forum for the public to air concerns and learn about law enforcement practices, one that didn’t exist when hundreds of schoolchildren left class and took to the streets to protest Lopez’s death.

While there are about 18,000 local law enforcement agencies nationwide, only about 200 have adopted civilian oversight. Some of the first were established decades ago amid the civil rights movement, and their impact varies widely.

Brian Buchner, president of the nonprofit National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which advocates for oversight and advises how to do so, said that some of the most effective oversight programs actively dig into policing strategies and make recommendations.

“Are they identifying broken systems in the police department? Are their recommendations bringing about policy changes? What are the impact of the policy changes? How actively is the agency communicating information to the public?” Buchner said.

Since 2013, San Jose police officers have been documenting every time someone is temporarily detained, for example, when they are asked to sit on a curb and possibly put in handcuffs but then not arrested. Police began documenting temporary detentions in 2013, two years after the city’s police auditor recommended they start tracking the practice to get to the bottom of recurring community complaints of racial bias.

Similarly, BART’s police auditor and the police chief are collaborating this year to create a set of guidelines for how officers should interact with transgender people, including instructing officers to use the individual’s preferred pronoun regardless of the person’s appearance.


Upcoming Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force presentations:

Monday: Sonoma and Petaluma city councils

April 14: Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park city councils

April 20: Healdsburg City Council

For more information, click here.

But other agencies have been less productive, have run into problems or struggled to assert themselves.

In Washington, King County’s first Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director resigned after three years on the job amid allegations of personality conflicts and harassment and filed a $1 million claim against the county.

Sausalito’s citizens’ advisory review board on police matters hasn’t met for at least a year. Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission built up a massive backlog of complaint investigations and, according to local news reports, did not make a recommendation to the Police Department from 2007 until 2012.

Police commissions, auditors, citizen review boards, inspector generals, civilian monitors and other formats have varying levels of power. Some are empowered by legal authority, while others use political influence to get things done.

After more than a year of sometimes-contentious public meetings, the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force formed after Lopez’s death will go before the Board of Supervisors and propose an Office of Independent Auditor that would review policies and internal complaint investigations against Sheriff’s Office personnel, probation officers and correctional officers. The auditor would serve as an ombudsman for police-community relations. Citizen and youth advisory boards would foster community involvement.

The draft proposal also asks that the Sheriff’s Office hand its completed internal investigations into officer-involved shootings, jail deaths and other critical incidents to the auditor’s office to review “for completeness and accuracy.” The task force’s proposal does not address what role, if any, the auditor would have in the criminal investigation that takes place after an officer-involved shooting.

“For this community, the discussion of oversight was focused by the death of Andy Lopez, but as we’ve seen since then, the issue is national,” said Eric Koenigshofer, a former county supervisor and member of the task force who leads its Law Enforcement Accountability subcommittee.

Last year, President Barack Obama joined the call to improve police-community relationships, which surged from communities reeling from a series of killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement. The call also came amid public backlash for local agencies’ increasing use of military-style equipment and tactics.

In response, the president formed the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, and asked the group to investigate how policing can reduce crime while building public trust. The group came back in March and civilian oversight was on a long list of recommendations on how to build transparency and trust.

But the president’s task force also pointed out that there’s no authoritative study of what types of oversight work.

Buchner, who also is a special investigator with the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, said the most successful models have one common element.

“Unfettered access to records,” he said.

In Sonoma County, access to complaint investigations and other internal documents hinges on the sheriff’s willingness to hand them over. The sheriff is elected, and the Board of Supervisors controls the Sheriff’s Office budget but not its operations. It cannot require the sheriff to participate in a civilian oversight process.

Sheriff Steve Freitas has consistently said over the past year that he’s open to working with an auditor program as long as the program guarantees that certain confidential personnel information protected by California’s Police Officer Bill of Rights would not be made public. The vast majority of information about complaint, discipline and other personnel issues is confidential under state law and releasing that information would be a crime. That includes what form of discipline a deputy receives.

The task force addressed that hurdle by recommending the auditor office be staffed by lawyers who would be able to view confidential documents because, as county employees, they would be bound by attorney-client privilege not to release certain details.

“I want to be very confident legally I could give the auditor access to my records; I have to be, there are laws that govern it,” Freitas said.

Many oversight agencies handle those confidentiality rules by allowing oversight personnel to review confidential documents and discuss them in closed sessions, and only discuss limited aspects of them with the public.

Buchner argues there can be effective scrutiny of law enforcement even among oversight organizations that don’t have any legal authority, such as the right to subpoena witnesses and records, conduct investigations or even require that recommendations be followed.

In Berkeley, a nine-member police review commission filled by volunteers has the power to conduct investigations into citizen complaints.

Berkeley’s commission this year has repeatedly pressed police officials in the city of about 120,000 for more detailed documents with fewer redactions about a series of December protests during which police deployed tear gas, baton strikes and rubber bullets, tactics some in the community have called heavy-handed.

Although the San Jose auditor’s recommendations are nonbinding, a longtime Santa Clara Superior Court judge who has served as auditor since 2010 has widely been said to have built a strong relationship with the city’s Police Department. As a result, she’s succeeded in getting the department to change specific policies, such as the documentation of temporary police detentions.

“I can’t make the police department do anything,” San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell said. “But if the relationship is good, and if they know my motive is to make for a better department, we can get things done.”

Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, said that in his career reviewing and analyzing police effectiveness he hasn’t seen a department that “would not profit from having some form of civilian oversight or another.”

Bobb, who currently is serving as a court-appointed monitor of the Seattle Police Department, reviewed the Sonoma County task force proposal and said that it could get more specific about the working relationship between the sheriff and auditor offices.

He said that “carte blanche access to all books and records” should be given to any oversight agency and also said that the sheriff should be required or expected to respond to any recommendation and, in cases when it’s not followed, explain the reason.

In recent interviews, Sheriff Freitas said he supports the spirit of transparency and community involvement behind what he knows so far about the auditor proposal, but he declined to discuss details of the plan before it goes before the Board of Supervisors next month.

“That’s when we’ll really start working together,” Freitas said.

Lt. Mark Essick, who oversees internal investigations and represents the Sheriff’s Office on the task force that crafted the auditor plan, said the group took months honing in on a model that would work in Sonoma County given legal constraints currently in place. Essick said that if the program is established, it will take some time to understand how it should be evaluated.

“What are our measurements and milestones? If complaints are up, does that mean people are empowered to come forward? Or if complaints are down, does that mean deputies’ behavior is improving?” Essick said. “How do you measure confidence and satisfaction?”

Joe Dulworth, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said he has reservations about whether the auditor will be viewed by the public as a truly independent body.

“Are they going to be seen as independent if they’re employed by the county? What if what they say could be damaging to the county?” Dulworth said. “The conflicts are endless.”

Deputies have expressed concerns about proper protection of personnel files and how much the auditor program will cost, Dulworth said.

A common function of auditors is to suggest policy changes, like the one in San Jose that requires officers to document temporary detentions, but Dulworth pointed out that policy manuals are frequently edited to include changes prompted by court decisions.

Sonoma County Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi said her office can investigate police conduct complaints when it involves one of her office clients’ criminal case, and judges can review police personnel files in those instances.

An auditor would provide new insight for “those cases that don’t culminate in arrest that we don’t know about,” Pozzi said.

Most adult Californians said they felt the police were doing an excellent or good job in controlling crime in their communities, according to a January 2015 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. National polls reflect that confidence level.

But when asked whether blacks and other minorities receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system, more than half of Californians — 55 percent — said that those groups were not treated equally. Among African-American adults polled, 85 percent said treatment was unfair, as did 57 percent of Latinos.

That is obvious to people including Cheatham, who is black. She said she counts many law enforcement officers as friends but has also had multiple troubling experiences with local agencies.

“People who say there is no problem probably haven’t encountered a problem, but there are a lot of members of the public who have troubling encounters with law enforcement every day,” Cheatham said.

Task force member Amber Twitchell of Guerneville said it would be essential for an auditor to be the kind of person who can step in during times of community crisis and provide a venue for honest communication.

Twitchell said that after Lopez was killed, “nobody felt respected in this process” and said that she included both youth who protested in the street as well as law enforcement officers.

“We just sat around and let a bunch of kids get pissed off for a long time,” said Twitchell, who runs the nonprofit Voices, which provides services for youth aging out of the foster care system.

Jim Duffy, 50, of Rohnert Park is among a small but vocal group who has been attending most of the task force meetings. Twitchell has publicly credited him with providing research that helped the task force write some of their proposal.

Duffy said his son was just a few years younger than Lopez when the shooting occurred, and that it struck him deeply what it would be like to lose a child under such circumstances.

While some activists have demanded nothing short of the power to fire or criminally prosecute a deputy, Duffy said that is not the point.

“In my book the more important investigation is the administrative investigation. I don’t mean to sound crass, but once the kid’s dead, the kid is dead,” Duffy said. “The administrative investigation might point out some deficiencies in the system that we can fix so we don’t kill another kid.”

“Firing officers has no long-term impact,” Twitchell said. “We’re going for long-term impact.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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