To serve and protect their own
When Sacramento City Council member Dave Jones recently suggested that the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department ought to be subject to the same sort of civilian oversight as city cops are, we thought it was no-brainer.
Citizen review of law-enforcement agencies is now the standard of good government and quality law enforcement all around the country. But for some reason, county officials got awfully defensive about the proposal and said, in effect, that Jones ought to mind his own business.
They missed the point. Citizen review not only helps to protect people from civil-rights abuses by the police, but also helps to protect the police from spurious accusations by citizens and from the perception that elected sheriffs and police are “covering up” misdeeds. As such, entities like the Sacramento Office of Police Accountability (OPA) enjoy the support of citizens and police agencies alike.
OPA Director Don Casimere has the power to audit all of the police department’s internal-affairs investigations and, at the discretion of the city manager, to conduct his own investigations. The outcomes of those OPA audits all are made available to the city council and to the public. Since the OPA’s establishment in 1999, complaints against the police department have dropped, bringing a much-needed level of transparency to the police department.
The city’s oversight could be improved, of course. In San Francisco, the director of the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) has even more power. There, the OCC can initiate its own investigations and has subpoena power to conduct them. Voters also recently approved a ballot measure giving civilian oversight even more teeth, allowing the OCC to go around the police chief and to bring its own criminal penalties against officers.
County officials argue that the sheriff’s department doesn’t need a new civilian oversight body because it is reviewed by its own internal-affairs department and, on occasion, the Sacramento County Grand Jury.
Nonsense. Every law-enforcement agency has an internal-affairs department, and every county has a grand jury. The problem is that internal-affairs investigations, by their nature, are not independent. We can’t trust the sheriff’s department to investigate itself; it has an obvious conflict of interest. And grand juries simply aren’t geared for the constant review that real civilian accountability requires. That’s why complaints about the departments of elected sheriffs in Los Angeles and San Diego counties also go through citizen review.
We’d prefer to see an entity that has more teeth, like the San Francisco model. But, at a minimum, the Sacramento sheriff’s deputies ought to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as Sacramento city cops are.
The county should drop its defensive posture and take Jones’ proposal seriously. We suspect that it won’t. Instead, it will be up to individual Sacramento County citizens to demand this important safeguard of their civil rights. If the board of supervisors won’t do it, there’s always the ballot.