Sheriff needs independent review
Independent body would protect citizens and deputies
The residents of Sacramento County and the deputy sheriffs who serve them both deserve to have an independent Office of Sheriff Accountability that can impartially investigate citizen complaints of misconduct.
The men and women who serve in the sheriff’s department do a difficult, dangerous and often thankless job. The vast majority of these men and women do their jobs well and with integrity. We owe them our thanks for putting their lives on the line to protect us. Unfortunately, as is the case with any large organization, there are going to be some who do not follow the rules and who misuse their authority.
What is the best public-policy response to ensure that citizens are protected from rule breakers and that the integrity and operation of the sheriff’s department is protected as well? As with any governmental operation, checks and balances are needed to make sure that people are held accountable for their actions and to deter wrongdoing.
The city of Sacramento dealt with this very issue six years ago. Faced with a significant number of police-misconduct complaints from its citizens, the city council established an Office of Police Accountability (now the Office of Public Safety Accountability, or OPSA) in 1999. The OPSA has the duty and power to investigate citizen complaints of misconduct. OPSA staff has the power to take complaints, interview witnesses, sit in on internal-affairs interviews of police officers, review police files and otherwise fully and comprehensively investigate all allegations of misconduct. The city OPSA also is truly independent—it reports to the city manager and the city council, not the police chief.
Since establishing the OPSA, the city has seen complaints of police misconduct drop by more than 50 percent. There are several reasons for this success, according to the OPSA. One is that the office serves as a deterrent against misconduct. Another is the OPSA’s involvement in helping the police department prevent misconduct, through training and new policies and procedures. Yet another is that citizens have more confidence that they are being treated fairly, so illegitimate complaints are thus less likely to be filed. Rank-and-file police officers and their representatives also have spoken to the benefits of the OPSA—the integrity of the officers is protected by having an office that can address the rule breakers, and overall community trust has been improved, making it easier for officers to do their jobs.
This type of reform is not limited to cities alone. Several counties and sheriff’s departments have adopted this approach successfully. Both the counties of Los Angeles and San Diego have successfully implemented independent review for their sheriff’s departments. Working collaboratively with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca led the effort to establish an independent oversight office. Working together, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and the sheriff can create an Office of Sheriff Accountability.
Opponents argue that an independent office is not needed because the sheriff’s department already has an internal-affairs unit to investigate misconduct. So did the city of Sacramento, but it was not enough. An independent office was needed, outside the police department. Opponents also argue that there is review already from the district attorney’s office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice. Again, the city’s police department had this review as well, but it was not enough. Only since the establishment of the OPSA have citizen complaints dropped 50 percent.
Opponents also argue that the sheriff has a Community Advisory Board, so an independent office is not needed. The key word here is “advisory.” The sheriff’s advisory board lacks investigative authority, such as the power to subpoena witnesses, review deputy-sheriff files, interview witnesses or sit in on internal-affairs interviews. None of its members is trained as a misconduct investigator. Furthermore, the Community Advisory Board is not formally independent of the sheriff’s department—it is appointed by the sheriff, it serves at his pleasure, and its chairperson is paid by the sheriff’s department. The board’s role is to advise on policy, not to investigate individual cases of misconduct.
Also, the fact that the sheriff is elected and therefore accountable to the voters does not eliminate the need for an independent Office of Sheriff Accountability. The voters are not able to investigate allegations of misconduct. They cannot interview witnesses, take complaints or hold individual officers—other than the sheriff—accountable for their actions. Also, elections are every four years—too long to wait to ensure accountability and prevent abuses, if they are occurring.
Perhaps the quickest and most economical approach to establishing a county Office of Sheriff Accountability would be to partner with the city of Sacramento to create a joint city-county Office of Police and Sheriff Accountability by expanding the jurisdiction of the existing city OPSA.