Sacramento crime report

Sacramento’s new sheriff fights crime on a budget

New sheriff in town: Scott Jones is trying to reform the shrinking Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

New sheriff in town: Scott Jones is trying to reform the shrinking Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Photo By Mike Iredale

Just before Thanksgiving last year, someone smashed a bathroom window in Travis McCann’s south Sacramento home, came into the house and stole a digital video camera. McCann thinks the robber got spooked once he realized that the house had an alarm. Otherwise, he might have taken more.

“The thing is, I know who did it. The kid was stupid enough to try to sell my camera on Facebook.” The culprit, said McCann, is a “major knucklehead” who lives right in the same south Sacramento neighborhood.

McCann called the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, gave the detective all the details. But there was never any follow-up.

“I’ve called the detective maybe a half-dozen times. No call back.” McCann is a little pissed off about the lack of response. But he’s also philosophical. “I understand why.”

McCann means that he understands the sheriff’s department isn’t what it used to be.

And no one is more aware of this than Sacramento’s sheriff, Scott Jones. Next week, March 20, marks the end of Jones’ first 100 days in office.

The Sacramento sheriff is probably the most powerful elected official in the county. There was a time when the county sheriff could just belly up to the podium in front of the county board of supervisors and demand more resources. Those days are long gone.

Now Jones talks instead about the need to lead his department through a “paradigm shift.”

“What’s the future of policing? Is it simply doing less with less?” Jones asked. “Or is it really changing the paradigm of how we deliver services?”

Doing less with less is exactly the path that the department has been down for the last couple of years. In fact, things got so bad for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department last year that, at its worst point, “We just weren’t providing an acceptable level of policing. We just weren’t,” said Jones.

“You’d call up with a burglary. You’d come home and your home was burglarized; we wouldn’t come,” Jones added. “Most property crimes, we wouldn’t come. You could do a report online. But we wouldn’t come. And frankly, we wouldn’t investigate it, either, if there were no leads.”

The cuts to the department over the last couple of years have been well-publicized. Due to Sacramento County’s budget troubles—and a $55 million hit to the Sheriff’s Department, 122 deputies were laid off in 2009. Those were the first layoffs in the department’s 160-year history.

In fact, 430 sworn positions were actually lost during that round of cuts. Hundreds of positions had already been left vacant, following retirements, termination and other forms of attrition, in hopes of staving off layoffs. Obviously, it wasn’t enough.

In fact, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department lost more deputies than all the other county sheriff’s departments in California combined.

Among the losses: The sheriff’s helicopter was grounded, at least for a while; the county’s gang unit is gone. The vice unit is gone. The SWAT and K-9 units are gone, folded in with the regular patrol units.

To be sure, if you called the sheriff’s department because you were in imminent danger, deputies would come. Responses to 911 calls haven’t changed all that much over the last couple of years. “But honestly, that’s all we were able to do. Everything else suffered,” Jones said.

And the crime statistics bear that out. Violent crime went down in Sacramento County last year, as it has throughout the state. Murders ticked up slightly last year. But Jones noted that homicides—because their numbers are so few compared to other crimes—can spike or drop dramatically in any year.

But property crimes, thefts, burglaries and quality-of-life crimes have all gone up—Jones believes because of the lack of adequate police power.

Perhaps the most telling, and disturbing, statistic: In 2010, the number of arrests in Sacramento County dropped by more than 5,000 compared to 2008. That’s a 25 percent decline. And the bad guys could tell the difference.

“We weren’t doing anything proactive. Not one thing. We weren’t enforcing street-level prostitution, or street-level narcotics. We saw apartment complexes or streets that took us years to get under control slip back in a month or two, to where it wasn’t even safe for us to go in there.”

“It was entirely predictable that this community would slide into a criminal abyss,” Jones added.

Sacramento County Inspector General Lee Dean says a “fundamental change in thinking” needs to occur over how the sheriff’s department provides services.

Photo By mike iredale

There go the neighborhoods

Of course, we haven’t slid off into a criminal abyss, yet. In fact, the sheriff’s department has even regained its footing somewhat since the budget massacre of 2009.

But the impacts of a shrinking law-enforcement agency—compounded by Sacramento County’s uniquely urban makeup—are real.

Throughout California, county sheriff’s departments patrol mostly rural areas, while city police departments safeguard urban centers. Sacramento County is different in that much of the 800-square-mile unincorporated area is dense, highly urbanized and crime-prone.

All over the county, neighborhoods are struggling with the impacts of a smaller, less proactive sheriff’s department.

“When there’s a shooting, every deputy north of the [American] River responds,” said Rob Harrison, a community activist in the Arden area. Harrison was a supporter of cityhood for Arden Arcade last year. The No. 1 issue for incorporation supporters was the declining coverage by the sheriff’s department in the area. There’s been gang activity in the parks, and open prostitution and drug dealing on Watt Avenue. But the cityhood effort was squashed at the polls last fall.

In other neighborhoods, the crime problems are more subtle, but still frustrating. Travis McCann, the guy who’s still waiting for a detective to call him about the burglary in his house, is vice president of the Vintage-Churchill Neighborhood Association, encompassing the Vintage Park and Churchill Downs neighborhoods.

Neither neighborhood is considered a high-crime area. But last year, residents lost the problem-oriented policing team that the sheriff’s department had been providing. POP officers make one geographic area their beat, and get to know residents and resident troublemakers alike.

There was also a sheriff’s bicycle patrol of the Vintage Park greenbelt. That’s gone now, too. And the Sheriff’s “graffiti abatement officer” has been cut as well. “He knew who all the kids were who were doing the tagging,” explained Cassandra Murphy, also on the VCNA board. “He was a real asset to our community.”

And for a long time, the neighborhood graffiti problem was under control. “It’s just been coming back in the last six months or so,” said Murphy.

If you subscribe to the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, that could mean more trouble down the road. “The appearance of a neighborhood has a lot to do with the crime rate in that neighborhood,” said McCann.

While the cuts have taken their toll, at his upcoming “State of the Sheriff” press conference, Jones will likely try to emphasize the things that have gotten better.

Last year, the deputies union made concessions in their contracts—giving up some pay raises and agreeing to contribute more to their pensions.

Then, in September, the federal government bailed out the sheriff’s department, with a $21 million grant from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program. That allowed the department to restore 50 officers. “We’re not back to 2008 levels. But we’re relatively stable, compared to a year ago,” Jones said.

Another positive: The helicopter is back in the air. Though it had been grounded in the budget massacre of 2009, Jones figured out how to get it flying again, by selling the sheriff’s department fixed-wing airplane and moving around some small piles of state money that the department receives for vehicle maintenance. The helicopters are flown in coordination with the Sacramento Police Department, the county’s other “air power.” For a 14-hour period every day, either the police or the sheriff’s department has a copter in the air. When one is up, the other is down, and vice versa.

The helicopter is also an example of one of the themes Jones stressed in his election campaign—the “regionalization” of law enforcement, the collaboration between the unincorporated parts of the county—patrolled by the sheriff’s department—and the incorporated parts of the cities: Sacramento, Folsom, Isleton, Galt, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Rancho Cordova.

Jones thinks other services, like boat patrols, K-9 and SWAT, could be similarly divided between the county and the cities to provide more efficient coverage and save money.

As he delves into the details of the budget, a couple of things about Jones become clear. First, though it’s early in his tenure, he does seem to be serious about wanting to be more transparent than his predecessors. Second, he’s kind of a wonk.

Neither thing is too surprising given Jones’ background. Before he took command of the jail, Jones was the department’s lawyer. A big part of his job was handling information requests from the media and other members of the public. And he dealt with complaints—from inmates, members of the public and, again, from the media.

During the election campaign, Jones boasted that complaints and lawsuits against the sheriff’s department dropped sharply while he was commander of the main jail. Now in office, Jones started to make some gestures toward bringing the public in. He’s planning his first public office hours. He’s started a business advisory task force, along with a “faith-based” advisory council.

Travis McCann, with the Vintage-Churchill Neighborhood Association, says his area has felt the impact of cuts to the sheriff’s department.

Photo By larry dalton

Jail fail

If anything, the state of the department is bleaker from the deputies’ point of view.

“I have never seen the morale in the department as low as it is now,” said Kevin Mickelson, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

It’s not just the lack of manpower, Mickelson said. “The deputies on the ground just want the tools to do their jobs.” For example, the main jail lacks an adequate number of metal detectors, and there have been problems with inmates smuggling or making dangerous items.

And though the department’s patrol cars have fairly new laptops and dispatch software, the wireless network that runs them is old and in dire need of an upgrade. “The computers are very, very, very slow,” Mickelson explained.

All of these problems predate Jones. The crisis developed under Jones’ predecessor, Sheriff John McGinness, to whom Jones was a close adviser.

McGinness had a brief and troubled tenure as sheriff. He was unpopular with the deputies union, he was powerless to stop the deep budget cuts to his department and, well before his first term was up, he decided not to run for re-election.

But he had started to move the department away from the somewhat combative posture taken by his predecessor, the popular and powerful Lou Blanas.

“I think there was a lot of pressure on them, and they started to change their behavior for the better,” said community activist Henry Harry. Harry is also a sheriff’s deputy who works at the county courthouse. “They realized that the media and the public was going to hold them accountable. And they stopped dealing so … I guess you’d say ‘softly’… with certain individuals.” By which Harry means deputies accused of excessive force or other misconduct.

McGinness oversaw the creation of the Office of the Inspector General to provide an independent watchdog of the department—something Blanas resisted for years.

The inspector is Lee Dean, who was himself a former chief deputy in the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department years ago, before leaving to take a job as chief of police in Vacaville, then as chief in the city of San Bernardino.

For the last three years since being hired as inspector general, Dean has issued a candid report about the department and the jails that it runs. Though the report seldom gets much attention, Dean’s findings are worth noting.

Each year, Dean inventories the complaints made against Sacramento deputies and the tallies up the results of the ensuing investigations. For example, of the 39 employees accused of misconduct last year, 29 of those complaints were “sustained,” or found by Internal Affairs to be likely to be true. Of those, eight employees were fired, two resigned. The rest received milder discipline.

But this year, as with last year, Dean found Internal Affairs investigations are taking far too long. “They aren’t even close to complying with their own policies,” Dean told SN&R.

In particular, the department is lagging on those cases in which sheriff’s employees are put on paid administrative leave while complaints against them are investigated. There were 15 of these cases in 2009, and 17 such cases in 2010—each taking five-and-a-half months on average to complete. Those cases cost the county nearly $2 million, with just 28 percent of the officers returning to duty. The rest were fired or resigned.

Dean says that the sluggishness in clearing Internal Affairs cases is wasting money, and isn’t fair to deputies who are accused. “In my opinion, it’s a matter of diligence. They just need to do it.”

Dean also reiterated something that department brass already knows: The jails are dangerously understaffed. At the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, Dean told SN&R, “They are not even close to meeting minimum staffing levels.”

That leads to lots of overtime pay for jailers, which isn’t safe and only exacerbates the budget problem. “It’s a spiral,” Dean said. In his annual report, he explained that “the safety implication and unfavorable working condition from chronic, exorbitant use of overtime are indeed serious.”

Dean also suggested that the department find out what the “real-time cost” of housing state and federal inmates is, and if it doesn’t pencil out, the county should “get out of the business altogether.”

Jones says he’s well aware of the problems inside the jail.

“When I was a deputy, when the jail first opened in 1989, we had all sorts of lightweight inmates. We don’t keep low-level offenders anymore. The type of offender has gotten more and more distilled. They’re almost all terrible people now.”

But while the department has been struggling to field enough deputies to make patrols and respond to 911 calls, Jones says he can’t spare any more bodies to staff the jail.

When Jones was jail commander, following a disturbing period of inmate suicides and lawsuits, he tried to address the stubborn problem of the jail’s health-care system.

“We got to point where it was better than your or my health insurance. We were providing top-notch medical service.” But the correctional health budget has been decimated, too.

The uncertainty over the jail is likely to grow with Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” plan to send some of the state’s “nonserious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders” (Jones calls them “the nononons” for short) to county jails. Parole violators would also be housed in county jails.

In all, the Sacramento County jail system would have to absorb an additional 1,500 inmates at any given time. The Sacramento County Main Jail’s maximum capacity, by court order, is 2,432—and it’s at capacity most of the time. Same goes for the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, which houses about 2,200 inmates. “Oftentimes, we’re really trying to figure out how to get rid of people,” said Jones. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but I’ve not found a way to accommodate an additional 1,500 inmates just yet.”

Jones says that only education and anti-recidivism programs will work to relieve overcrowding. “Until we take a holistic approach and put at least as much effort into prevention and rehabilitation as we do incarceration, we’re going to continue to have this problem. We’re not going to be able to build our way out of this problem.”

But those programs require lots of investment in hopes of results years down the road. “Those are down-the-road dollars. We’re worried about right-now dollars,” said Jones.

Also complicating things for the sheriff’s department right now, Gov. Brown’s realignment plan would give over the responsibility for the security of the county courthouse to the sheriff’s department. Right now, the sheriff is on contract with the state to provide those services. If the state wants to save money on that program, that may mean cutting back the number of deputies working at the courthouse. There are 147 deputies now getting their paycheck because of that contract, and Jones doesn’t yet know how many, if any, will have to be reassigned.

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The future of law enforcement

Jones is a Republican, and he’s cautious when asked whether he supports Gov. Brown’s tax plan to extend certain tax increases to help balance the state’s budget.

“It’s a tough position for me. … Am I for it? In a perfect world, I’d say no. I think we pay enough in taxes. But we are in an epic place in history. I applaud the governor for coming up with at least an honest plan.”

But there’s the very strong possibility that voters in June will reject that plan. Indeed, because of partisan gridlock, the plan may not make it to the ballot at all.

The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, says Jones, is just a “very small part” of that issue, but without it, “We’d have to get rid of 26.8 positions,” if those taxes aren’t approved by voters. He says the department might be able to avoid laying those people off, but the programs they are tasked with—like sex-offender tracking, the methamphetamine task force and high-tech-crimes investigation—would all go away.

He’s conflicted, too, about the possibility of raising new revenue for his department through a new tax or other local measure.

Former County Supervisor (now state Assemblyman) Roger Dickinson not long ago floated a countywide “anti-gang tax” to fund youth programs and gang-prevention efforts. But it was a political nonstarter; his board colleagues refused to vote to put it on the ballot.

Henry Harry, who has for years fought for increased sheriff patrols of the south Sacramento area, a region that he says has been chronically underserved by the department, thinks the answer is in several small property-tax assessment districts that would support those communities that vote for them. “If you vote in south Sacramento, you’ve got to spend it in south Sacramento,” Harry explained.

But Kevin Mickelson with the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association said new taxes aren’t likely to fly. His organization would be the most obvious sponsor of a new tax measure. And indeed the DSA did some polling about the possibility of a small increase in the sales tax dedicated to law enforcement. The poll registered almost no support for the idea, with a likely “yes” vote in the 20 percent range.

“It’s just not going to happen. Not now and probably not in the near future,” Mickelson told SN&R.

Likewise, the sheriff isn’t saying he’d never support a tax increase, but said “we ought to look in the mirror first.”

Jones is supportive of some sort of minimum ratio of officers per 1,000 citizens, something that the county board of supervisors would have to make law by county ordinance. He also thinks the board should approve an ordinance that gives the sheriff’s department a certain percentage of the county budget.

But he added, “I don’t think the time is really right for that. I’m not going to go in there right now and say as the sheriff, ‘Look, we need to get set funding for us at the expense of other departments.’”

Rather, Jones is beginning a department-by-department audit of sheriff’s operations. Again, the investigation will be led by Lee Dean.

Jones doesn’t agree with all of the conclusions in Dean’s annual report. For example, the two differ on the benefits of contracts to house certain federal prisoners on a short-term basis in the county jail. But the two men appear to be simpatico on the big issues. In Dean’s report, he stresses the need for “a fundamental change in thinking” in how the department provides services.

“We used to be flush with staff. We could do all the things we thought needed to be done. That’s no longer the case,” Dean told SN&R.

He suggests that the sheriff’s department of the future will be more of an “intelligence-based and evidence-based system.”

What does that mean? Well, if your home is burglarized, the sheriff’s department probably isn’t going to come. Instead, you’ll be asked to fill out an online report. Sheriff’s employees will more likely comb through the reports looking for trends and patterns in the data.

And citizens may have to get used to the idea that they’ll have to deal with graffiti, or barking dogs, or maybe worse, on their own.

Jones says there’s not likely to be a “revenue solution” to the department’s woes. But he hopes that through reorganization, regionalization and innovation, the department will be able to “deliver a better public-safety product with fewer resources.”

He says that, ironically, it would have been harder to reform the department back in the days when the department was flush with money and staff. “We have opportunities now to break free of the status quo that we would not have had 10 years ago. I’m not a status-quo guy. Now is my time.”

Crime fighting by the numbers

Number of arrests made by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in 2008: 23,136

Number of arrests made in 2009 and 2010: 18,775 and 17,593

Number of deputies lost because of layoffs in 2009: 122

Percentage drop in number of arrests due to lower staffing: 24

Number of sheriff’s employees placed on paid administrative leave pending resolution of complaints made against them in 2009: 15

Number of employees on paid leave under investigation in 2010: 17

Cost in salary and benefits for those employees while on leave: $1,859,630

Maximum capacity at Sacramento’s main jail: 2,432

Number of additional inmates Sacramento County will likely have to house under Governor Jerry Brown’s realignment plan: 1,500