Watching the sheriff’s watchdog
Lee Dean has been the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department inspector general for two years now, but the real test lies ahead
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is in really bad shape. And that’s according to Sheriff John McGinness. Budget troubles are forcing him to lay off hundreds of deputies, he told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on July 14, and the resulting smaller department won’t be able to protect residents as it once did. “We’re decimating the sheriff’s department,” McGinness said. “Members of the media have talked to inmates leaving the jail. [The inmates] are absolutely aware of what’s going on and will live their lives accordingly.”
That grim assessment is bound to get worse as the economic downturn deepens, cutting into law enforcement budgets as well as social programs. As crime and joblessness increase, friction between the sheriff’s department and the public are bound to heat up. It’s Sacramento County Inspector General Lee Dean’s job to douse those sparks before they erupt into full-blown conflagrations.
In a letter sent to McGinness before the sheriff spoke to the board of supervisors, Dean criticized the department for not having “agreed upon ways to mitigate the resulting harm from across-the-board reductions.”
That says something about how seriously the ex-Sacramento sheriff’s deputy and former San Bernardino police chief takes his role.
Dean has been the I.G. for nearly two years now—the county Board of Supervisors hired him on September 4, 2007. He’s a contractor these days, not a civil servant. “Sacramento County is my client,” Dean said. “And I am their inspector general. I look at the community as my client. I have an advocacy role on behalf of my community, and I take that seriously.”
His budget is $297,000 per year, and he’s got a staff of one (in addition to himself). Compare that to the Los Angeles Police Department’s inspector general, which fields 32 employees. Since Dean is a contractor, he doesn’t have to reveal his personal salary and won’t, but county staff reports put it between $80,000 and $120,000 per year.
Some, like Sheriff McGinness, are effusive about the job Dean is doing. “He has reinforced a sense of confidence that the public has in the department,” McGinness told SN&R. “He provides another window of transparency into the department. We don’t always agree on everything, but he’s helped me make good decisions.”
So the sheriff—the guy Dean is tasked with watching over—thinks Dean is doing a bang-up job. But others, like Sacramento attorney Mark Merin, who specializes in cases of police brutality and excessive force, are casually dismissive of Dean’s influence. “I haven’t seen any effect from any oversight,” he said. “You have to have time to investigate. You have to have authority to investigate. That will never be permitted.”
To understand the tremendous responsibilities resting upon Dean’s shoulders, recall why the supervisors hired him in the first place. “The pressure put on the board of supervisors to create that position was based on the community not believing that the sheriff’s department was transparent—that complaints were getting shoved into dark corners,” said Barbara Lehman, executive director of Sacramento’s Regional Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission. She’s also a member of the Sheriff’s Outreach Community Advisory Board, which meets every other month to air public concerns about the department.
Until Dean’s position was created, it was just “our word against the sheriff’s,” as Efren Gutierrez of the Chicano Consortium and SOCAB ex officio member put it. People would complain to the department or organizations like Gutierrez’s and Lehman’s about deputies using excessive force—either on the streets or in the jails—but nothing really was ever done.
“Our group, from the very beginning, wanted some kind of accountability,” Gutierrez said. “We originally wanted a countywide oversight committee. But they weren’t going to give us that.”
By late 2005, then Sheriff Lou Blanas was being questioned by county supervisors over charges that some of his deputies were abusing jail inmates. Eventually, even Blanas agreed that “some type of an independent oversight of the sheriff’s department would be beneficial.”
But it wasn’t until June 2007 when new Sheriff McGinness, SOCAB Chairman Ralph Carmona and then chairman of the board of supervisors Don Nottoli sat down and began interviewing the final seven I.G. candidates. Dean’s name was near the top, but almost from the beginning there were questions about just how effective he’d be.
First, there was the issue of Dean having spent more than 17 years as a deputy in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department—at least 15 of those years, by Dean’s recollection, concurrent with McGinness. Then there was the fact that he’d spent five years as Vacaville’s police chief and another six as chief in San Bernardino.
“Here was a white guy, former chief of police,” Carmona recalled. He knew skeptics would ask, “Why have a former chief look over the sheriff, especially if he worked there?”
And for Betty Williams, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Sacramento chapter, Dean seemed a problematic choice. “I opposed him in the beginning because he was coming from the sheriff’s department,” she said. “And I didn’t feel he had enough experience dealing with minorities.”
But these days, Williams is far more impressed with Dean. “I didn’t expect him to deal with the hard issues I’ve confronted him with, but he has without hesitation,” Williams said. “I respect him for that.”
Dean has shown a willingness to work with community groups—especially the NAACP. After sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a man on Dry Creek Road in October 2008, Williams called attention to the shooting. At her behest, Dean met with her and her attorney and methodically went through the event, explaining what the deputies were thinking and why (the incident and subsequent meeting are mentioned on pages 51 and 52 of the “County of Sacramento Office of Inspector General 2008 Annual Report”). When it was over, Williams said she was so impressed with Dean’s thorough understanding of the incident. In the end, her organization backed off criticizing the shooting.
Dean’s résumé may drip blue with decades of law-enforcement and legal experience (he’s also a member of the State Bar of California), but he said he’s not a typical career cop. “I’m not one of those guys who wanted to be a cop since I was kid,” Dean said. After a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, the 21-year-old Dean was working at a Southern California Shell station and attending night school when he found out the Los Angeles Police Department was recruiting. “It had a certain allure,” Dean said. “Law enforcement just fit.”
Dean stayed in L.A. for two years, then took his “little baby and little wife” up north to Sacramento to take advantage of the cleaner air and environment. He stayed at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department until 1991, eventually rising to the rank of chief deputy. After that, he took over as Vacaville’s police chief, then in 1996 returned to Southern California and became San Bernardino’s chief. After retiring in 2002 to be a consultant, Dean applied to be Sacramento’s I.G.
It’s a conventional high-achieving cop’s career, but Dean doesn’t think like a typical high-achieving cop. For example, SN&R repeated to Dean a criticism of law enforcement that attorney Merin had made earlier: “In law enforcement, there is only escalation of force. An officer will not answer your questions. They will only escalate force. If you see someone bludgeoned on the street by plainclothes cops and you ask what’s going on, you’re ordered to step back. You can be arrested, even though all you’re doing is expressing your First Amendment right. That’s a problem.”
Dean’s response: “I think he’s right. The command presence that police officers are supposed to bring in largely looks like escalation to most people. The public has an expectation that we’re supposed to take charge, keep the peace, keep people safe. … But there are lots of instances where a bit of dialogue would defuse things.”
Dean’s first annual report came out in March of this year. One hundred and two pages long and filled with full-color photos, charts and graphs, the report contained some insight into—and some criticism of—the sheriff’s department.
Most notably, Dean found that the sheriff’s department Internal Affairs Bureau was sitting on a sizeable number of cases and allowing so much time to lapse that it became impossible to prosecute the accused deputies.
At the same time, Dean has reported that 58 percent of complaints made by the public against sheriff’s department personnel had been “sustained”—meaning that Dean had found some validity to the citizen complaints.
Local officials and media trumpeted this number as showing the sheriff was serious about policing his own people. But the report leaves out some important details. For one, the reasons for sustaining or not sustaining a citizen complaint are not made public. Nor does Dean disclose what punishment, if any, is meted out to deputies found at fault.
“I was happy with the way the report came out,” Dean said. “I’m not going to have this job forever, and one of my goals was to set a benchmark. I think it does that. It’s a balanced document—not all good, not all bad. I hope it gives the reader the perspective that I’ll call it like I see it.”
Dean wasn’t alone in that assessment. “I’ve been impressed with his performance,” County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said. “I read his report, and I found it to be very thorough and helpful.”
But others, like private attorney Stewart Katz, who frequently handles police misconduct cases, barely took notice of the report.
“I sort of leafed through the report,” Katz said. “It’s got lots of charts, and I still mean to read it. But it’s totally invisible. There is no perceptible profile.”
Katz’s gut feeling is reinforced by the numbers. The report itself says Dean’s office processed just 23 complaints from the public in the year leading up to its release.
“There’s about the same number coming in now,” Dean said. “This office is not a high-traffic hub. But I’m OK with it. It allows me to do things like the [upcoming] jail audit. I’m OK there’s not people coming in at [a] high-traffic level. But when they do, we set aside what we’re doing.”
For Supervisor MacGlashan, the low number of complaints is a positive development. “It appears we have a much reduced level of complaints, through [Dean’s] work and the work of the sheriff,” she said.
This would seem to make sense, until you look at the workload of attorneys such as Katz and Merin. Katz said his office receives “six to 10” calls every day from people alleging police misconduct. Merin said he has a similar rate of calls—“about 50 a week.”
For Barbara Lehman, who said that very few residents show up at SOCAB meetings, it’s all part of a depressing trend. “The public perception is still that the department isn’t as transparent as it could be,” she said. “That’s why [there is] poor attendance [at SOCAB] meetings. And that’s why people with complaints are still going to attorneys.”
No one contacted for this story denies that Dean has been accessible to residents, but some think he needs to be more active in soliciting complaints.
For example, Lehman asked if there were any signs at the county’s main jail alerting those being booked that there was an inspector general tasked to listen to their complaints. “That’s a good idea,” Dean replied. “That’s something for us to take a look at.”
Or, as Carmona, who helped hire Dean back in 2007, put it: “Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is a work in progress.”