Putting down the watchdog

At the time he was forced out, Rick Braziel was reviewing nearly a dozen shootings by Jones’ officers

Sheriff Scott Jones locked out Inspector General Rick Braziel from reviewing his department’s actions in critical encounters, revealing the office to be a paper watchdog.

Sheriff Scott Jones locked out Inspector General Rick Braziel from reviewing his department’s actions in critical encounters, revealing the office to be a paper watchdog.

illustrations by maria ratinova

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has unilaterally banished independent oversight of his department—and county supervisors appear poised to co-sign his decision.

The dismantling of the county’s Office of Inspector General happened quickly. On August 15, Inspector General Rick Braziel released a report criticizing the fatal shooting of an African-American man, whom two deputies shot from behind as he ran away.

While Braziel was measured in his criticism—he defended the actions of the first officer who shot at Mikel McIntyre after McIntyre struck him with a large rock—Jones responded with the nuclear option. On August 23, Braziel learned that Jones had terminated his access to all department facilities, records and personnel. And during a September 11 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Jones reiterated that it was his way or the highway.

“Look, let’s face facts. The current inspector general, Rick Braziel, is done,” he told supervisors. “And that’s not going to change, by the way. Any ongoing dialogue about renewing his contract is just silly. You can certainly renew his contract and pay him to do nothing. But I’m not sure how you can justify it.”

Jones’ power play—and supervisors’ seeming abdication—exposed the Office of Inspector General for what it is: a paper tiger intended to provide the illusion of oversight over one of the largest law enforcement agencies in California.

Now, following a Monday afternoon shootout in Rancho Cordova that left one young deputy dead and another injured, supervisors will be even more reluctant to challenge a sheriff tasked with consoling a grieving agency.

But the dismissal of Braziel—Sacramento’s former police chief and a widely respected consultant on critical policing incidents such as the Ferguson riots and Stockton bank robbery shootout—comes at a critical time. Recently elected to a third term, Jones has dragged his feet on instituting body-worn cameras and refused to create a policy for releasing video and audio footage of critical incidents, like neighboring Sacramento Police Department has. Jones also oversees a jail system that is the subject of a class action lawsuit alleging the overuse of solitary confinement.

For his part, Jones said there is no “crisis of trust” between his department and the communities it serves. But that’s coming from the elected leader of an agency with a costly record of service. Public records obtained by SN&R show that, since Jones took office in 2010, the county has been paid more than $4.5 million to cover 556 civil claims against the department, including for six wrongful deaths. This doesn’t include the claims that have gone to court and racked up millions more in damages for the county and its taxpayers.

Supervisors have been reluctant to use their power over the sheriff’s budget as leverage to press for reforms. But how long can they afford to do so?

The event that kicked all of this off occurred more than a year ago, on May 8, 2017, when deputies fatally shot McIntyre following a chaotic foot pursuit in Rancho Cordova.

Braziel detailed the events leading up to McIntyre’s death in a footnoted 27-page report that relied on officer accounts, witness statements and audio and video evidence he was able to review in his capacity as inspector general. The report was sympathetic to the plight of officers, who responded to exaggerated 911 accounts of a man choking a woman in the parking lot of a Ross department store.

The woman was McIntyre’s mother, who later told the media she wasn’t being attacked; she and her emotionally troubled son—who was the subject of two 911 calls from relatives earlier that day that resolved peacefully—were arguing over the car keys. Still, officers are colored by the information they’re given.

When Deputy Jeff Wright arrived, he was pointed toward McIntyre by a witness who described McIntyre as “the primary aggressor.” McIntyre reportedly ignored Wright’s orders to stop and engage with him, and soon the two were jogging across a thoroughfare into another parking lot, wedged between a motel and gas station. Wright caught up to McIntyre and tried to grab him, but McIntyre escaped the deputy’s grasp. Wright drew his sidearm and ordered McIntyre to the ground. McIntyre turned and approached Wright, Braziel wrote.

Instead of firing, the deputy holstered his weapon and grabbed McIntyre. The two swept around a parked truck, where the deputy tripped and fell onto his side. McIntyre collected a river rock near a wrought-iron fence and threw it from about five feet away. Wright, who was still on his knees, felt a sharp blow to his head. Half-deaf and seeing lights, the deputy fired two rounds at a fleeing McIntyre, but stopped once a Hooters restaurant fell into his line of sight. Braziel would conclude the deputy acted appropriately and showed restraint, ceasing fire when it was no longer safe.

But Braziel didn’t think that was the case with two other deputies who picked up McIntyre’s trail underneath an overpass on Zinfandel Drive. That’s where Deputy Ken Becker and his canine first encountered McIntyre on top of a scrub-covered berm by a retaining wall. As McIntyre ran down the steep embankment, he threw a softball-sized rock that struck the dog in the muzzle and hit Becker’s leg. Becker backpedaled and got off several shots as McIntyre ran past him. Becker paused, adjusted his aim and resumed shooting as McIntyre ran away, along the shoulder of Highway 50’s westbound lanes. Deputy Gabriel Rodriguez, who encountered McIntyre earlier that day and decided against ordering a mental-health hold, started shooting from nearly 60 feet away. Together, the two deputies fired approximately 26 rounds, many across the highway during evening commute hours.

McIntyre was eventually brought to the ground and handcuffed on the shoulder of the highway. He was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. He had been shot seven times, all from behind.

In his report, Braziel noted that the events were “fast and chaotic,” unfolding in about seven minutes. But he found a need for deputies to reassess their circumstances as they changed.

“After McIntyre passed by Deputy Becker, he reached a distance where options existed to avoid the additional use of deadly force,” Braziel wrote. “The distance in this situation was enough to allow the officers to react to any new threats of a thrown rock without placing themselves or others in jeopardy.”

Rick Braziel says he stands by his report’s findings that the 28 rounds fired at Mikel McIntyre last year were excessive and could have been avoided.

His report concluded that there were instances when “the number of rounds fired at McIntyre were excessive, unnecessary, and put the community at risk.” Braziel stands by his findings and recommendations for consistent deescalation training, after-action reviews and less-lethal weapons.

“At some point, it’s not OK to send that many rounds down range at someone who was no longer a threat,” he told SN&R.

Jones has claimed that Braziel violated some sort of policy by publishing his report before the district attorney concluded its criminal review of the shooting. But no such policy exists, and Braziel told SN&R back in February that it was an approach that no longer made sense, since he and the DA don’t share information and focus on different areas of a critical incident.

Braziel also notes that Jones hasn’t actually contradicted any of his findings.

“I haven’t yet heard him say, ’I’ll show you … why you were wrong.’ Or, ’I think it’s OK to shoot an unarmed man running down the freeway in the back,’” Braziel said. “Because I don’t. And I have colleagues across the nation who don’t.”

While it appears Braziel’s time as inspector general is done, supervisors still have the power to insist on independent oversight of the sheriff. It just doesn’t appear they have the appetite—or votes—to do so.

Only Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy challenged Jones’ ousting of Braziel last week. Board Chair Susan Peters and Supervisors Sue Frost and Don Nottoli indicated they were ready to let the sheriff handpick his next I.G. The name on Jones’ lips is “Lee Dean.”

Dean is a former Sheriff’s Department employee who was the county’s first I.G., a position he used to issue annual reports that did little more than repackage press releases from the Sheriff’s Department. Today, Dean runs a consulting firm with former Sheriff John McGinness, a Jones ally and donor. The firm counsels public and private entities, including law enforcement agencies, on how to control the message during crises.

Jones says he would like Dean to fill in on an interim basis and help write the job description for the next I.G.

“That’s what he’s looking for,” Braziel said of Jones’ preference for Dean. “He’s looking for control.”

Jones made that clear in an exchange with Kennedy.

“You don’t think the current OIG is qualified to investigate an officer-involved shooting after 30-plus years in law enforcement, [being the] chief of police [in Sacramento] and, frankly, in many circles considered a national expert on the subject?” Kennedy asked, alluding to Braziel.

“He went outside of his lane,” Jones said. “They’re not going to be doing their own independent investigations.”

Supervisors are awaiting an opinion from county counsel about whether a passage in the county charter applies to the sheriff. It says an officer of the county who refuses to cooperate with an official directive is guilty of “willful misconduct.” Kennedy solicited Jones’ opinion on the matter.

“So if the county executive, at the direction of the board, were to tell you, ’You need to cooperate with OIG investigations,’ and you say, ’No,’ and shut the doors as you have, you don’t find that’s willful misconduct under the charter?” Kennedy said.

“I clearly do not,” Jones responded.

At the time he was forced out, Braziel was reviewing nearly a dozen shootings by Jones’ officers, as well as two in-custody deaths. One of the shootings involved an off-duty deputy in Contra Costa County. While Braziel says the shooting appears to be justified, he found it troubling that the sheriff’s department has no process for following up on conduct that occurs outside the department’s jurisdiction.

“If your deputy used a firearm [and] wounded a guy trying to shoot him … you may want to look at it,” Braziel said. “That’s one of the outstanding things that’s not going to get completed.”