Years later, Sacramento still drags feet on hiring new cop watchdog
Despite Ferguson and attention on law enforcement, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department operates with zero watchdog oversight
Drumming her nails on a wooden communal table inside Temple Coffee Roasters, a couple of blocks from her office in City Hall, Francine Tournour hardly looks like the only law-enforcement watchdog in Sacramento.
As the director of the city’s Office of Public Safety and Accountability, Tournour follows up on complaints against the police and fire departments. She also audits internal-affairs investigations and reviews critical incidents.
“There is always the need for oversight,” she said of her role. “There should be someone who has the perspective of the people.”
That perspective is exceedingly rare these days in Sacramento County.
For the past two years, the office charged with monitoring the largest law-enforcement agency in the county has been vacant. Critics say the county isn’t really even trying to hire a new watchdog for the sheriff’s department. And a complaint line for the public to call when they do have issues has been non-operational for some time, an SN&R investigation reveals.
As a result, the county says its Office of Inspector General has received zero civilian complaints against the sheriff’s department since former inspector Lee Dean resigned two years ago.
Activists within the community have a different take, however. “That’s just a boldfaced lie to me,” said Rev. Ashiya Odeye, whose Justice Reform Coalition has pressed for greater law-enforcement oversight since forming in 2005. “The first chance [the county gets to] de-emphasize the office, they do it.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice’s scathing report on systemic police abuses in Ferguson, Mo., reveals what kind of system emerges when public concerns are ignored.
The cities of Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Citrus Heights, Folsom and Galt also lack external oversight of their police departments. But at least they’re upfront about it.
The county says it tried to hire for the $100,000 annual inspector general position after Dean resigned. A request for proposals was released in March 2013, but responding candidates weren’t local, said county spokeswoman Chris Andis. Instead, the county opted to contract with a law firm to investigate civilian complaints and conflicts of interests, she said.
But in two years, Andis claimed that no one has called the inspector-general complaint line. There’s just one problem: That phone line hasn’t worked for some time.
Weeks before contacting the county, SN&R called the line. An automated voice responded, “You have dialed a vacant Sacramento County government telephone number.” The call was then disconnected.
“That phone’s been dead a long time,” added Odeye.
Andis said she doesn’t know when the line went vacant. In February, after being informed by SN&R, the county replaced the number with a working one that allows callers to leave a message. Those messages are then routed to the sheriff’s department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, the inspector-general website states.
The catch is that an inspector general is supposed to exist outside of the agency it monitors, say Tournour and Dean. “It’s definitely important,” Tournour said of her office falling under the city manager’s authority rather than the police department’s.
It’s not like there haven’t been incidents for an inspector general to review.
The sheriff’s department lost two jail inmates to homicide, on January 16 of this year and December 14, 2014.
Over the last two years, there have been nine in-custody deaths at the department’s jail facilities. The five that occurred last year—including one homicide and one suicide—were the most since 2008, when seven in-custody deaths occurred, according to information received through a public-information request.
Another six people were wounded or killed in sheriff’s deputy shootings over the last two years, according to figures provided by the department.
The department does not track the number of use-of-force incidents its deputies are involved in, said department spokeswoman Sgt. Lisa R. Bowman. Attacks on deputies and injuries to deputies are also not tabulated.
All of these incidents would be grist for an inspector general—if there was one.
In the absence of an inspector general to conduct external investigations, some have turned elsewhere to air grievances against the department.
Several prisoners have filed civil-rights complaints in federal court, but have seen those complaints dismissed because they couldn’t afford the $350 filing fees, or due to legal technicalities, a review of federal court cases showed.
“No one can get through a case like that without an attorney. If you file the wrong thing in the wrong way the court just throws it out,” said Christine Morse, co-founder of Ascend, an offender rehabilitation program. “The trouble is that we don’t have attorneys willing to take those cases because civil cases are too expensive to litigate. I’ve had so many clients who had legitimate cases and I couldn’t find a civil attorney willing to represent them.”
Morse said one such client was an incarcerated woman whose appendix burst inside the jail after deputies ignored her pleas for medical aid for days.
According to past annual reports, more than half of the excessive-force complaints against the sheriff’s department originated from prisoners inside the jails.
Reached by phone, Dean told SN&R he decided to resign “primarily” because of budget cuts to the position, which resulted in the loss of a full-time assistant and an office, five blocks from the main jail. “It was just diminished,” he said of his role. (Andis said the reason for Dean’s departure was that he moved away.)
Following multiple emails by SN&R, Andis said the county would release a proposal for new inspector-general candidates within 30 days. “It will have a [broader] scope of services including constituent relations and taking a proactive approach,” she wrote. “County leadership is fully committed to the function of this position and hopes to get a contract in place as soon as possible.”
The county inspector-general office may have been compromised well before its current purgatorial state.
The need for the position was identified in 2005—two sheriffs ago—due to multiple prisoner-abuse allegations inside the jails. Two years later, Dean, a former employee of the sheriff’s department, was selected from a pool of eight finalists. The choice wasn’t without its detractors, with the NAACP’s Sacramento branch opposing Dean’s selection. The defunct Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission offered a muted endorsement, noting “the possible public perception that [Dean] may be seen as an ’inside’ candidate.”
Odeye found Dean accessible and frank about his limitations in trying to check a profession that resists outside nudging. But the reverend was surprised to learn that Dean ran a side business that later hired one of the sheriffs he was charged with monitoring.
In 2002, Dean founded a consulting business now called Capstone Solutions LLC. Among its services, Capstone conducts practice and training seminars on internal investigations, resolving conflict and media relations, telling potential clients on its website that it provides “proven techniques used to help control the message.”
In other words, the firm helps its clients, many of which are public agencies, massage the very crises Dean the inspector general was tasked with uncovering.
That particular assignment belongs to former Sheriff John McGinness, whom Dean hired as his vice president in early 2011, a few months after McGinness left office.
Odeye and others expressed shock at learning that. “From what I understand, they didn’t like each other that much,” Odeye told SN&R. “That’s something that I did not really know about.”
Dean said he hired McGinness specifically to develop the firm’s media-relations component, and that such discussions didn’t even begin until after McGinness left office. Dean also said he didn’t conduct Capstone business while inspector general.
“I have the utmost respect for John, and consider him a principled, centered person,” Dean said. “But I also understand the perspective of the people who look at that [hiring] with hindsight and say, ’Hmm.’ I understand that.”
As for the office he vacated, Dean said an independent inspector general is especially necessary during times of crisis, like the country is seeing in Ferguson, but also critical for providing day-to-day feedback, oversight and corrective action plans. “I think it’s important,” he said.
NAACP branch president Stephen T. Webb wants his organization to be involved in picking a new sheriff’s watchdog. “That’s very key right there,” he said. “We need to have somebody watching them.”