Sonoma County sheriff candidates support transparency in police records, split on state bill

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California law prevents the public from learning about instances of serious on-duty misconduct by peace officers, barring the disclosure of personnel records that other states release.

A bill working its way through state Legislature would change that, but only one candidate for Sonoma County sheriff, retired Los Angeles police captain John Mutz, has expressed full support of the measure.

All three candidates in this year’s race, including Sonoma County Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick and Santa Rosa Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant, say on-duty misconduct by law enforcement should be subject to greater public transparency.

Essick and Olivares said the pending legislation, Senate Bill 1421, is a good starting point but needs changes.

Introduced by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, it would bring police personnel records on sustained allegations of sexual assault, perjury, excessive force and other misconduct into public view. California currently has among the strongest laws nationwide barring such record disclosures, a shield supported by peace officer unions.

Mutz said those blanket provisions are outdated and undermine public confidence in law enforcement agencies.

“Without transparency we can’t elevate our level of trust with the community,” he said.

He supported a failed 2016 bill that would have gone further, opening up all records on alleged misconduct by police officers and deputies even where no wrongdoing was found.

Essick, the lone internal candidate still in the June 5 election, said he supports creating more transparency in law enforcement, but said his main problem with SB 1421 is it offers insufficient protection to whistleblowers within agencies who report misconduct by their colleagues.

About half of all misconduct complaints are made by Sheriff’s Office employees, Essick said. The identity of those employees would become public under the bill’s current language, he said.

“I’m a concerned that it may stifle whistleblowing,” Essick said.

He said he is hopeful the issue will be worked out as the bill makes its way through the Legislature.

Olivares said the complete confidentiality of misconduct records for police officers and deputies has created suspicion and has eroded public trust.

“Change has to happen,” Olivares said. “It’s what the public is asking for.”

He said he had not yet read Skinner’s bill, but said it signaled that police unions should be ready “to sit down at the table and be a part of the conversation.”

The influential Peace Officers Research Association of California, the largest statewide public safety officers group, was instrumental in defeating the 2016 bill introduced by former Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

The association opposes the current legislation, but will try to work with Skinner to see “if some type of agreement is possible,” according to the group’s website.

Whoever is elected sheriff will have to work with Jerry Threet, the director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. He has said the confidentiality of misconduct investigations has hampered his ability to address public concerns.

In the annual report released last August, Threet reported that two deputies lost their jobs because of excessive force from January 2016 to July 2017. He said he was prohibited under state law from disclosing details on the events and the deputies involved.

Personnel records remain unavailable, for example, in the case of Scott Thorne, the former Sonoma County deputy who was fired two weeks after he responded to a neighbor’s 911 call reporting a domestic disturbance in late September 2016 at a Sonoma Valley home.

Thorne kicked in a bedroom door and encountered an uncooperative man, Fernando Del Valle, who refused to get out of bed. Thorne shot him with a Taser and beat him with a baton.

He was tried on felony assault for his actions but jurors in the case deadlocked 8-4 in favor of his acquittal last month and the judge declared a mistrial. Prosecutors subsequently dismissed their case against Thorne, electing not to seek a second trial.

Under SB 1421, now-confidential details of such excessive force incidents would be part of the public record going forward.

Campaign-trail pledges by sheriff’s candidates on public transparency may sway voters, but unless state law changes, the next sheriff would not be able to take independent action on a local level, said David Snyder, a lawyer and executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.

“If we have any chance to finally open up a sliver of light into the unfortunately dark areas, this year is it,” Snyder said. “The pressure is more intense than in many years before.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.

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