Sacto’s Abu Ghraib?

Bill Honer is the founder of a Sacramento watchdog group on police brutality, who now lives in Costa Rica

Apparently, little has changed in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in the 15 years since I co-founded a citizens watchdog group called the Coalition for Equity for Minorities in Sacramento (CEMS). Thanks to SN&R’s reporting on our efforts to achieve public accountability of law enforcement in Sacramento, the coalition had success in securing information on the incidence of disciplinary measures taken against police officers involved in incidents of alleged police brutality.

Reminiscent of the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, deputies were given two-week suspensions during the 1990s for strapping a 41-year-old grandmother into a Prostraint chair and telling her that she was going to be electrocuted. The sheriff’s department attempted to downplay the incident by characterizing this act of barbarism as a “prank.”

CEMS met with representatives of the assistant U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento to request a full investigation of allegations of torture in the county jail. To the best of our knowledge, no investigation was ever undertaken.

CEMS also made a series of recommendations to the county board of supervisors that included requiring newly employed deputies to possess an associate’s degree and receive additional training. The board did not act on our recommendations.

At that time, the negative publicity surrounding the mock executions was a public-relations problem for the sheriff’s department. I joked that, rather than take formal action, perhaps the sheriff would retain a consultant to establish an advisory committee for the department in order to ensure that nothing would get done. In a case of life imitating comedy, that is precisely what happened.

What has changed throughout the last 15 years?

Lawsuits claiming brutality continue to be filed. Sheriff Lou Blanas was undersheriff during the 1990s. He did not appear to be effective in improving conditions then, nor does he appear to be so now.

Nothing short of an independent civilian review board will rein in abusive deputies in a sheriff’s department that long has appeared to be out of control. The citizens of Sacramento will have to demonstrate a willingness to become socially and politically engaged on this issue for meaningful change to occur.

If left to the likes of the board of supervisors, and Lou Blanas, the Sacramento County Jail will remain “Abu Ghraib West.”