This is our house
The lawsuits against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department that surfaced last month are certainly not the first to allege abuse by sheriff’s deputies. And the now-familiar jailhouse videos of Jafar Afshar being taken down and having his head split open are hardly the first disturbing images to emerge from what has been called “the meanest jail in California.”
As reporters and editors, we constantly hear such horror stories from inmates and former inmates of the Sacramento County Jail. A lot of these stories are certainly not true. Most are obscured by the sheriff’s internal-affairs process.
But if even a fraction of those stories are true, then something has been wrong in the sheriff’s department for a long, long time. We all have a right to know the truth, and the best way to do that is through the creation of an independent citizen review body that monitors and investigates complaints against the agency.
Two years ago, when then-City Councilman Dave Jones suggested that some sort of citizen oversight body be formed, he was told by county officials to mind his own business. He’s since renewed his call and has been joined by The Sacramento Bee. We’re generally not much for bandwagons, but we’ll say again what we have been saying for years:
These are highly paid public employees. They are armed. They have been invested with tremendous power—life-and-death power—over the lives of the citizens whom they encounter. And yet, the sheriff believes that how they do their jobs—and what happens to people inside the jail—is none of our business.
Wrong. The jail belongs to the citizens of Sacramento County, not to Lou Blanas or his deputies.
Civilian oversight of law-enforcement agencies is now the standard for major metropolitan areas in California. And it’s just common sense. The city of Sacramento has it, and, by most accounts, the Office of Public Safety Accountability is a success. It protects citizens and police officers alike.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors might initiate some discussion of a civilian oversight entity, but its past track record isn’t heartening.
There’s also an election for county sheriff coming up. The anointed candidate is John McGinness, Blanas’ protégé, who appears to have inherited his boss’s contempt for public scrutiny.
Then there’s the ballot. Perhaps it’s time for enterprising citizens to start circulating petitions. There’s no reason something modeled after, say, San Francisco’s police-oversight body—which is much more aggressive than Sacramento’s Office of Public Safety Accountability—couldn’t be put before the voters.
It would be tough to pass, since most of the money and political clout in any election would be in the hands of the deputies’ union. But it sure would get the sheriff’s attention.