Some county sheriffs are out of control. This bill would help rein them in

What happens when a county sheriff goes rogue?

Generally speaking, not much.

As an elected official, a sheriff answers only to the voters every four years — or even less often, if no candidate steps up to challenge the incumbent.

Unlike police chiefs, who are typically appointed by city councils and subject to dismissal, a recall is the only way to get rid of a bad sheriff in an off-election year, and such recalls are rare.

The last time one was even attempted in California was 2013, in Lake County. It failed to qualify for the ballot, in spite damning reports about Sheriff Frank Rivero. According to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, his misdeeds included:

  • Being placed on a list of unreliable trial witnesses
  • Causing a criminal case to be dismissed because he allegedly violated a suspect’s Miranda rights
  • Being the subject of multiple investigations by the district attorney for, among other things, violating the rights of the Hells Angels by telling deputies to block their entrance to the county and, in a separate incident, lying about his involvement in a 2008 shooting that occurred when he was a deputy
  • Refusing to give police access to a computer database of criminals

This is an extreme case, but given the controversies that have embroiled so many sheriff’s departments — including here in San Luis Obispo County — it’s past time to increase transparency and oversight of these powerful officials.

An effort is underway in the state Legislature to do exactly that.

Assembly Bill 1185 would authorize counties to create civilian oversight boards with subpoena powers.

Counties would not be mandated to do that; the bill says they may do so, either by the action of the board of supervisors or a vote of county residents.

The bill, authored by Sacramento Democrat Kevin McCarty, has passed in the state Assembly. The Senate should approve it as well, and the governor should sign it.

Too often, the public is kept in the dark when things go horribly wrong, especially inside county jails.

Consider what happened to Andrew Holland, the mentally ill man who died in San Luis Obispo County Jail after being held, naked, in a restraint chair for 46 straight hours. It was outrageous treatment of a vulnerable human being — yet no one was punished, and questions still linger about how such an awful thing could have occurred.

While Sheriff Ian Parkinson did spearhead several changes at the jail — including outsourcing medical care for inmates — if ever a case should have been reviewed by a citizens oversight panel, this was it.

And SLO County is by no means alone; time and again, California sheriffs have proven the need for oversight and supervision.

Some other examples:

Fresno Sheriff Margaret Mims runs one of the deadliest jails in the state. The number of people who died in Fresno County’s custody doubled in the years since the state reform known as realignment took effect. According to The Sacramento Bee: “In more than two hours of interviews, she repeatedly characterized such deaths as an unfortunate consequence of jail life after realignment and expressed no remorse over her office’s failure to prevent them. At one point she asked reporters for basic details about the fatalities in her own jail.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has continually acted without regard to ethical norms, let alone good taste. When a trusted outside investigator was called in to oversee the internal investigation into the shooting of Mikel McIntyre by Sacramento deputies in 2017, Jones barely cooperated. Eventually, he locked the investigator out of his office, essentially ending his work. Jones routinely engages in petty political feuds with county supervisors, showing that he has no regard for their authority. His most recent outrage was allowing Netflix to film a ridiculous reality television show based in the Sacramento County Jail, which exploits human suffering for the sake of cheap entertainment.

The scandal-plagued Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office seemed to be turning over a new leaf after Sheriff Lee Baca’s fall from grace for obstruction of justice and lying to federal authorities. Yet his successor, Alex Villanueva, has delivered scandal after scandal. The newly elected sheriff reinstated several deputies who had been fired for misconduct, employing his own highly-flexible standards for review. Like Jones, Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with county supervisors. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called out Villanueva for an “emerging pattern of inconsistencies” and “blatant misrepresentations” and noted that it’s hard to “do business with someone when you can’t trust what they’re saying.”

The power of the county sheriff is so unusual and prone to abuse that some sheriffs don’t even do the job once they’re elected. An investigation by The Sacramento Bee in 2018 found that Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney didn’t even reside in his own county, let alone California. He lived on 53 acres in Lebanon, Oregon, collecting $9,000 per month in salary while on “medical leave.”

In a perfect world, California would abolish the antiquated office of sheriff, making the post an appointed rather than an elected one.

That would greatly expand the pool of qualified candidates, as counties would be able to mount statewide or even nationwide searches, rather than being limited to local residents who are willing to stand for office.

Such a radical change wouldn’t be easy — and will be long in coming.

For now, AB 1185 will give counties clear authority to appoint citizen oversight board to serve as the eyes and ears of the public.

If sheriffs are truly committed to serving their constituents with openness and honesty — as they typically promise when they run for office — they should not have a problem with that.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this editorial.

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