Supervisors unanimously approve former Petaluma attorney as county’s new law enforcement watchdog
Former local defense attorney Karlene Navarro was officially appointed Tuesday as Sonoma County’s law enforcement auditor.
Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approved the move, allowing Navarro, 43, to immediately begin work as the new director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. The office was created by county leaders in 2015 after persistent calls for greater transparency within the Sheriff’s Office following the 2013 death of Andy Lopez, 13, who was shot by a deputy who mistook the teen’s airsoft pellet gun for an assault rifle.
Navarro was joined by her husband, Sonoma County Superior Court judge and former local prosecutor, Christopher M. Honigsberg, during the meeting, where the county’s top politicians welcomed her to the job.
“We’re very excited with this appointment,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman.
The two-person office operates on an annual budget of about $564,300. It’s tasked with auditing complaints of deputy misconduct within the Sheriff’s Office, reviewing department policies and bridging gaps between the community and the county’s largest law enforcement agency.
Navarro will be paid an annual salary of $141,700, plus benefits.
She was unavailable for an interview after the board’s appointment Tuesday. However, she said in an email last week her main priorities include reaching out to community groups to educate them about the auditing office and develop a better understanding of their perceptions of the Sheriff’s Office. Navarro also planned to meet with Sheriff’s Office employees to establish a relationship between the two agencies.
“This work with (the auditor office) felt like a tangible, direct contribution I could make to the community where I live, and I found that compelling,” Navarro said in an email.
Navarro’s experience was among her most impressive qualifications, Rabbitt said, adding that her understanding of criminal proceedings will be an asset in her new role.
Navarro was admitted to the California State Bar in 2007 and began working as a deputy public defender in Fresno. She was tapped to work as an assistant attorney on two high-profile cases for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in 2009, and was then hired to work as a public defender in Solano County a year later.
Navarro’s most recent work was as a criminal defense attorney in Petaluma, in which she mainly represented clients accused of serious and violent felonies, she said. Her practice included work in Sonoma County as a conflict attorney — a lawyer who is appointed when a conflict of interest arises between a defendant and their attorney.
County supervisors considered whether Navarro’s work in the community, as well as her marriage to a Sonoma County Superior Court judge, could pose a conflict of interest if she were selected for the job, but they found it unlikely, Rabbitt said.
Jerry Threet, the former director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, agreed, saying he never encountered a conflict of interest during his three years as auditor. Navarro and Honigsberg’s jobs are likely removed enough to avoid a conflict of interest, he said.
“I think that’s going to be relatively rare,” Threet said. “If her husband was a correctional deputy or deputy in the Sheriff’s Office, I think the conflict is more apparent.”
Susan Hutson, a chairwoman for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and a police monitor for New Orleans, said auditors can see conflicts of interest when an audit involves complaints made by a former legal client, or someone they may have prosecuted in a prior case.
“Anything that could make it look like you could be partial to someone, it could hurt your independence,” Hutson said.
Rabbitt said the county would seek a contract auditor to review audits if Navarro could not do so because of a conflict of interest. Such conflicts would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on the “applicable law and facts and circumstances of each individual case,” Navarro said.
Honigsberg referred questions to Gary Nadler, Sonoma County’s acting presiding judge, who said all judges are trained to recuse themselves when met with conflicts of interest.
You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.