Open and shut

Stark differences exist between sheriff’s candidates when it comes to transparency and public scrutiny

Sheriff’s candidate Capt. Scott Jones is promising transparency and openness in the department.

Sheriff’s candidate Capt. Scott Jones is promising transparency and openness in the department.

Photo By mike iredale

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For many Sacramento County voters, picking a new sheriff on June 8 will come down to picking a Democrat or a Republican, a black guy or a white guy.

Some may even judge the candidates on their distinct policy positions.

Capt. Scott Jones wants to figure out where services—like K-9 crews, SWAT teams and burglary units—can be consolidated with Sacramento city and the other jurisdictions. He told SN&R he’d invite former Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera to help with a top-to-bottom review of the department.

Capt. Jim Cooper has been campaigning on a “deputies first” platform, and hammering on the need for the department to be more aggressive about going after federal grants.

Cooper and Jones are the leading candidates, but there is a third. Long-shot Bret Daniels, a former deputy now in his fourth run for sheriff, says he wants to trim what he describes as a bloated management structure in the department.

Most of the media coverage of this race has focused on the baggage each brings with them. And there’s plenty, as stories in this paper and The Sacramento Bee have outlined.

But given the recent history of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, it’s worth asking how well the next sheriff—the most powerful elected official in the county—will tolerate, or better yet, support, policies of transparency and public scrutiny. In this regard, SN&R found the differences between the two leading candidates—Jones and Cooper—are significant.

Cooper is a Democrat, and is backed by such liberal lawmakers as state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assemblyman Dave Jones—who not that long ago crusaded for strong civilian oversight of the department—something then-Sheriff Lou Blanas scoffed at.

Ironically, it was Cooper who during those years banned SN&R reporters from the county jail because of stories critical about sheriff’s policy. And Cooper refused to be interviewed by SN&R for this story. His campaign representatives said they could not offer any explanation beyond “Mr. Cooper respectfully declines.”

Cooper was Blanas’ jail commander from 2001 to 2003, during a highly publicized string of inmate suicides. Around the same time, the department shelled out $15 million to settle a class-action suit against demeaning and illegal strip searches inside the jail.

And in 2005, graphic jailhouse video of apparent police brutality prompted calls for some sort of civilian oversight to monitor the department.

Capt. Jim Cooper is already taking the same media strategy as his old boss Lou Blanas. He refused to talk to SN&R for this story.

Photo By mike iredale

Sheriff Blanas responded to media coverage of these problems by limiting reporter’s access to information, prohibiting sheriff employees from talking to journalists and requiring all questions to be submitted in writing.

“Lou’s approach to the media was aloof at best and just confrontational at worst,” said Jones. At that time Jones, who has a law degree, was the department’s legal counsel. It was his job to write the letter telling the press of the new policy, though he knew it was a mistake.

“Over the next four months, there were 39 articles in the Bee, just attacking us. The News & Review wasn’t very kind to us either,” Jones recalled. But the media blackout didn’t last long, once the Bee got their lawyers involved.

It wasn’t until Blanas decided to retire, and John McGinness was elected in 2006, that an “inspector general” for the department was hired—in order to collect and investigate complaints against the department. McGinness made Jones jail commander. He continued to make changes to avoid inmate suicides—issuing short socks instead of long ones, blankets instead of sheets. Jones also made staffing changes in the jail’s booking area, where many of the complaints of inmate abuse originated. And complaints dropped. Inmates were given greater access to the media. Jones even reversed the ban on photography inside the jail.

“We are an organization that affects people’s fundamental rights. That transparency and accountability have to continue,” Jones told SN&R.

But while there’s been a new openness in the department in recent years, the McGinness administration has not been widely seen as successful.

The sheriff openly feuded with then-county executive Terry Schutten, and on his watch, 130 full-time deputies were laid off due to county budget cuts. And Jones has been McGinness’ right hand during the worst of it.

Again, Cooper wouldn’t talk to SN&R for this story, but some of his supporters say Jones is “out of touch” with the rank and file. “The morale in the department is at an all-time low,” said Kevin Mickelson, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

Mickelson said that Blanas had a reputation of fighting for his deputies, and they think Cooper will, too. “Blanas would go down before the board of supervisors and he would bark and wag his finger,” said Mickelson. “The membership wants to see their sheriff like a Baptist preacher banging away in the pulpit.”

Indeed, Blanas is supporting Cooper in his bid for sheriff. And like Blanas, Cooper is proving to be a powerful fundraiser. He got $50,000 from the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, and has done well with both labor and developers. The plumbers and pipe fitters union gave $10,000, among other unions. Developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, a longtime Blanas benefactor, loaned him another $10,000.

As of March of this year, Cooper had raised more than $250,000 compared to Jones’ $149,000. But Jones has relied much more heavily on loans from himself and family. Among his largest donors is Sheriff McGinness, who kicked in $10,000, and north Sacramento developer Bob Slobe, who gave $5,000.

By March, Daniels had raised almost $4,000.

Candidate and former deputy Brett Daniels says it’s time to start trimming management fat in the department.

Photo By larry dalton

Cooper also has the backing of the powerful Sacramento Central Labor Council and most of the Democratic politicians in town, including the county Democratic Party.

Jones, on the other hand, has the endorsement of nearly every top law-enforcement official in town—including Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, along with the police chiefs of Folsom, Isleton, Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights and Galt.

Cooper is certainly taking a page from the Blanas playbook in refusing to be interviewed by SN&R. In the fall, this paper published accounts of a now widely reported complaint of sexual harassment against Cooper, and also a Sacramento County grand jury finding that Cooper had violated conflict-of-interest laws during his time on the Elk Grove City Council by refusing to excuse himself from votes and discussions involving contracts with his employer, the sheriffs department.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, an attorney working for the county contacted former SN&R contributor Anthony Pignataro in April to ask where he got some of the information about Cooper’s past, reported in his story (see “Captains outrageous,” SN&R Frontlines; October 22, 2009). Pignataro declined to discuss his sources.

Jones and Daniels have some questionable episodes in their own past. Daniels was fired from Blanas’ department in 2000 for, according to an internal investigation, lying about whether he accessed a law-enforcement database for his personal use. Daniels says the firing was really for daring to run against Blanas for sheriff in 1998.

Jones was implicated in an illegal check-cashing scheme involving a business acquaintance and was even made to appear before the grand jury. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, but only after several days of administrative leave.

Daniels predicts that the check-cashing caper will dog Jones for the rest of the campaign. “I’m going to give Scott the benefit of the doubt. But I’d like to know why the feds felt they had enough to bring him before a grand jury. Where’s the internal affairs investigation?”

Jones has offered to release his own personnel records to the public, saying he has nothing to hide. He’s calling on Cooper to disclose his own. But Mickelson says that releasing such records could violate the privacy rights of other employees who might be named in the files as making complaints.

“It’s going to have a chilling effect. People are going to be labeled as snitches,” said Mickelson.

Jones countered that “I’m not worried about it, because there’s nothing in my file,” and that third parties can easily be protected by blacking out names and other identifying information. “There are lots of ways to release records without violating anybody’s privacy rights,” said Jones.

Terry Francke, director of open government watchdog group Californians Aware, said Jones is right: State law prohibits a government agency from disclosing the personnel records without permission, but it doesn’t prevent employees from disclosing their own records. “Any peace officer who wishes to may waive his rights to keep that information private.”

And the Sacramento County’s top lawyer, county counsel Robert Ryan told SN&R, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a public record,” as long as Jones provides a written waiver, which he has, and any other names are redacted.

But the deputies union is threatening legal action to keep Jones from pursuing what Mickelson calls “just a publicity stunt.” A letter to the county sheriff and county counsel says the deputies’ association “will take all necessary measure to protect the privacy rights of its members.”

Jones, however, noted that even entry-level law-enforcement employees get extensive background checks by their employers. And the sheriff’s employer is the public.

“If we don’t have the public trust, we can’t do our jobs,” Jones said.