Close to Home: Out of control and no end in sight

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Well, that disappeared from the news quickly — the alleged beatings of 10 prisoners in the Sonoma County jail. The broken bodies and the lawsuit dollars stack up. People pay with their lives or their health, and we pay with our taxes. And nothing changes in the Sheriff’s Office, as more than 50 percent of the Sonoma County general fund is allocated to “justice services” — a broken system run by people who are out of control.

We are writing this on Oct. 22, the National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality and the second anniversary of the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy. And nothing changes.

The newly-created Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach will fix all that, right? Judge LaDoris Cordell, who ran a similar office in San Jose for five years, spoke of all the recommendations accepted by the police chief there (“County gets advice on watchdog’s role,” Oct. 21). What’s missing is the information that a police chief can be fired. Our sheriff cannot, and he knows it. There are no repercussions for Sheriff Steve Freitas if he ignores every recommendation. Cordell is a compelling figure, but she worked in a different system.

Residents believe they have control over the sheriff because the position is elected. But the candidate is selected behind closed doors by law enforcement and placed as the only “choice” on the ballot. There hasn’t actually been a choice for sheriff in a quarter of a century. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, we were told that, in communist countries, citizens were given a pre-selected candidate to vote for. and that wasn’t democracy. If it didn’t represent democracy in the Soviet Union, maybe it’s not democracy in Sonoma County.

The word “oversight” was stricken from the office title because Freitas appeared before the Board of Supervisors and reminded them that they have no oversight of him. He’s beholden only to the people — except for that little Catch-22 that he’s the only one we can vote for. Overwhelming public opinion might force this guy’s hand, but they will have to speak.

And does “independent” have any meaning in Sonoma County? District Attorney Jill Ravitch hired William Lewinski to do an independent investigation into the killing of Andy Lopez. But she failed to tell you that Lewinski wrote many of the procedures, and he is known for finding in favor of law enforcement. Did she know this before she hired him? What do you think?

In our “opportunity for all” society, people have the notion that law enforcement is here to protect us all. So they ignore that the poor get significantly less protection. That the killing of minorities and the poor has been going on forever is understood mostly by those on the receiving end.

Residents want to believe that Sonoma County is an exception to the brutality taking place nationwide. It’s not. Richmond law enforcement kills a smaller percentage of its citizens than law enforcement in bucolic Sonoma County. The apparent goal of our Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office and Board of Supervisors is to make sure the wine flows, the hotels and restaurants are full and no one has to look at homeless eyesores.

When we think of democracy, we think of law enforcement under the control and oversight of the citizens. When your sheriff thinks of law enforcement, he seems to think of the citizens as under his control.

So what should people do? First, understand how it all really works. Then, be loud. Be very loud.

Then insist that your supervisors be very loud, as well. We must rein in the Sheriff’s Office. It will require massive public pressure. We’re asking you to help.

Susan Lamont, a resident of Santa Rosa, and Marni Wroth, a resident of Forestville, have attended many Sonoma County Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force meetings.

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