Petaluma defense attorney selected as new Sonoma County law enforcement watchdog

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A defense attorney from Petaluma with a background as a public defender and appellate lawyer has been named Sonoma County’s next independent law enforcement watchdog, an appointment that requires final approval by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Karlene Navarro is poised to oversee the county office responsible for auditing allegations of misconduct within the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, as well as deputy use-of-force and shooting investigations. The two-employee office, with an annual budget of about $564,300, was created in response to the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old shot in 2013 by a sheriff’s deputy who mistook the teen’s airsoft pellet gun for an assault rifle.

Navarro will step in at a critical time for the watchdog agency. Its first director, Jerry Threet, left at the end of February amid conflicts between his office and Sheriff’s Office leadership. Threet cited health concerns as his reason for leaving.

Tension between the two offices and their leaders re-emerged in public in December, when Threet and then-Sheriff Rob Giordano aired opposing viewpoints before the Board of Supervisors on how the auditor’s office should be run.

Supervisors are set to vote Tuesday on Navarro’s appointment to lead the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. The salary for her position is roughly $141,700, plus benefits, according to county documents.

From 2014 to 2018, Navarro maintained a private practice where she handled cases involving serious and violent felonies, according to the county. She also has worked as a law professor at the University of San Francisco, where she taught a legal research, writing and analysis program last fall.

She was an appellate attorney from 2016 to 2018, and previously worked in Solano County as a deputy public defender. She has practiced law since 2007.

Navarro said she was unavailable Thursday for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions by deadline.

Her husband, Christopher M. Honigsberg, was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in February 2018 to serve as a Sonoma County judge, ending his nine-year tenure as a prosecutor with the Sonoma County’s District Attorney’s Office.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt called Navarro’s appointment all but certain Thursday, adding that he was most interested in Navarro’s ability to complete audits of investigations into alleged misconduct by Sheriff’s Office employees, what he views as the watchdog office’s primary role.

“She has a great resume in terms of what she’s done and what she can bring to the office,” Rabbitt said. “Like all things, I think (the office) will evolve and improve with time.”

Rabbitt, along with Supervisor Shirlee Zane, criticized Threet in a September 2017 meeting for what they described as an overly proactive role in policymaking rather than completing reviews of internal investigations.

Sheriff Mark Essick, who sat on an interview panel for candidates looking to take the director job, said he was impressed with Navarro’s confidence and experience as a defense attorney. During her interview, Navarro said she understood there was a breakdown between the two agencies and stressed her primary goal was to rebuild those relationships, Essick said.

“I was impressed with her demeanor and outlook as to the direction she wants to take the office,” Essick said. “I’m excited to work with her.”

Another interview panelist, Evelyn Cheatham, chairwoman of a community advisory council for the watchdog office, said she liked that Navarro lived locally, which may have helped her deliver well-composed answers to the panel’s questions.

“She grasped a lot that maybe someone coming in from another county wouldn’t know or be familiar with,” Cheatham said. “She had roots with the community.”

Navarro will succeed Threet, 58, who opened the office in April 2016. In his tenure, Threet released two annual reports outlining his work, including information about nearly 50 investigations into alleged deputy misconduct he audited.

A separate report published in September noted “persistent deficiencies” in how the Sheriff’s Office conducted internal investigations into complaints of misconduct and excessive force. The Sheriff’s Office defended such investigations, saying the department already follows several of Threet’s recommendations.

Threet also urged the Sheriff’s Office to restrict its cooperation with federal immigration authorities within the county’s jail in March 2017. The agency announced it would do so five months later.

Threet, a former deputy city attorney in San Francisco, announced he would resign from the post last summer. His last day in the post was at the end of February.

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