Law enforcement watchdog urges Sonoma County supervisors to make Sheriff’s Office more cooperative

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The county’s independent law enforcement watchdog will urge county leaders Tuesday to bolster his office’s access to the internal investigative files of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and make cooperation mandatory between his office and sheriff’s department employees.

Jerry Threet, outgoing director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, said mounting tension with the Sheriff’s Office has made it increasingly difficult to do his job.

Conflicts have escalated to the point the Sheriff’s Office has said the watchdog role is “fundamentally flawed” and needs to be changed. Threet, who is retiring from the position as soon as county officials hire his replacement, Tuesday will discuss his concerns with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and present to them his annual report outlining his review of the sheriff’s internal investigations of alleged deputy misconduct incidents from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018.

Threet’s presentation will likely bring to a head the clash between him and the Sheriff’s Office. He was hired 2½ years ago to bring greater transparency and accountability to the county’s largest law enforcement agency and one unaccustomed to independent oversight. The auditor position was created in April 2016, three years after the fatal 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy. Several in Sonoma County, including many in the Latino community, rallied for change and more transparency from law enforcement.

Threet is expected to propose to the supervisors changes to the county’s 2016 ordinance that established what his office can do as the law enforcement watchdog.

His proposed changes would ensure the Sheriff’s Office cooperates with the independent law enforcement review office, regardless of ongoing disagreements between the two. Now the ordinance only requires the independent watchdog to cooperate with the sheriff’s office, while the sheriff’s cooperation is voluntary, Threet said in his annual report dated Nov. 16.

“If they cooperate and how much they cooperate is entirely their choice at this point,” Threet said in a recent interview. “I believe that creates an imbalance between the two agencies.”

Also, his proposals would give the auditor’s office broader access to sheriff’s files when reviewing investigations into alleged excessive force and deputy misconduct violations. Currently, the auditor has restricted access to some of the evidence an internal affairs investigator reviews while investigating a complaint against a deputy, Threet said.

In its written reply to Threet’s annual report, the Sheriff’s Office said it was “extremely disappointed” with Threet and his findings, calling the review a personal attack on the agency and the people who work there.

The success of Threet’s work “depends, at least in part, on the perceived failure or shortcomings of the Sheriff’s Office,” according to the reply.

Sheriff’s officials acknowledged the need for an independent auditor, but recommended county leaders instead consider using a contract auditor to review their internal affairs investigations. Doing so would reduce the chance of “bias developing in the auditor” and could mean the department gets a greater variety of perspectives, the reply said. For example, Santa Rosa has a contract police auditor.

Outgoing County Sheriff Robert Giordano declined to be interviewed for this story.

Threet has audited close to 50 investigations of alleged deputy misconduct in his time as an auditor, successfully urged the county Sheriff’s Office to restrict its cooperation between federal immigration authorities and published two annual reports outlining his audit findings and recommendations.

In the most recent report, Threet disagreed with internal affairs investigators’ findings in 10 of the 19 cases involving complaints against sheriff’s deputies he audited during the fiscal year, a spike from a year ago.

Both Threet and the sheriff are soon leaving their positions. Sheriff Capt. Mark Essick, a longtime Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy who won his bid for sheriff during the midterm elections, will take control of the agency in January. He’ll replace Giordano, who was appointed to the post in August 2017 after the early retirement of then-Sheriff Steve Freitas.

Essick repeated his support for the independent watchdog’s office in an interview last week, as he did during his campaign for sheriff. But he expressed concern over Threet’s proposed changes to the ordinance outlining the watchdog’s responsibilities, saying he would need to consult the sheriff’s legal staff to see if any of the proposals could undermine the sheriff’s legal authority. While county supervisors control the budget for the Sheriff’s Office, they can’t control how he or she manages the office.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, vice chair of the supervisors, Monday called Threet’s proposed changes to the county ordinance governing the law enforcement watchdog’s office premature.

Additional community discussions and supervisors’ meetings would be needed before changes, if any, would be enacted.

"Those are the considerations of an outgoing director," Rabbitt said of Threet’s proposals. "I love to hear from Jerry, and I like to have his suggestions, but that’s just one piece of research that we’ll consider looking forward."

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