New policies at SLO County Jail won't cure culture of indifference

In a March 17 photo, several San Luis Obispo County advocacy groups participate in a protest in front of the San Luis Obispo Superior Courthouse to demand justice for Andrew Holland.
In a March 17 photo, several San Luis Obispo County advocacy groups participate in a protest in front of the San Luis Obispo Superior Courthouse to demand justice for Andrew Holland.

In response to Mr. Wade Horton’s Viewpoint of March 30, I offer the following comments. This is not criticism of Mr. Horton personally; he stepped into his current position of county administrative officer in November, taking the reins of a county in a crisis that he did not create, though his decisions moving forward can profoundly affect the outcome.

Mr. Horton makes three fundamental points: 1) bad policies led to Andrew Holland's death; 2) systemic pressures of the mental health crisis are also responsible; and 3) the county has renewed its commitment to ensure this never happens again.

The county’s policies could use a dusting off, but they did not kill Andrew; nobody was following policy to begin with. There is a systemic mental health crisis facing our state and nation; but there are real and critical reasons why 57 other counties in California are not engaged in a macabre debate over why a mentally ill man was strapped to a chair for 46-plus hours until it killed him.

Finally, we acknowledge the county’s stated renewed commitment to working together to address these shortcomings, just as we acknowledge the very same “renewed commitment” has frequently been made by the very same departmental leadership in the preceding years without any tangible difference occurring.

During the legal settlement with the county, there were mutual assurances made by each side. Carty and Sharon Holland refused to sign a confidentiality agreement and made it clear they would never be silent about what had occurred unless the county could fulfill its assurance to meaningfully address it. The county will never be able to honestly address what happened so long as its primary concern is to avoid negative consequences to the sheriff’s re-election campaign, or any steps that would hold responsible senior management that engaged in grossly negligent behavior and total dereliction of duty.

It is wholly within the county’s powers (and public duty) to set straight the factual record being actively misrepresented by the sheriff. Policies and procedures were not followed — please stop trying to pretend that they were. Andrew’s case was not one of medical malpractice; the fact that the county saved the taxpayers money on a lower deductible payment by channeling much of the settlement proceeds through its medical malpractice policy does not make it true that that this was actually medical malpractice. Doctors would need to have actually been practicing medicine on Andrew for that to be true.

The only participation by the county’s medical/psychiatric doctors was their utter indifference to the suffering and life-threatening situation that the sheriff and his custodial staff had put Andrew in. Why would there be a medical malpractice settlement of $5 million when California law still imposes a statutory cap on medical malpractice damages of $250,000 (Google “MICRA”)? Why would the county bring in outside counsel that does not practice in the very specialized legal world of medical malpractice to work on Andrew’s case? Why has there been not been any consequences to the supposed doctors who committed this heinous medical negligence? After all, the sheriff has repeatedly assured us that Andrew was “under the care of a physician” at the time of his death. The answer of course if the obvious one; this was not medical malpractice. This was deliberate indifference to Andrew’s basic humanity. It is exactly what it appears to be.

For years, the leadership of the Sheriff’s Office, Public Health Department and Behavioral Health Department have been unable to work together. After being called out on this repeatedly, the refusal of these “leaders” to work together has been laid bare in the tortuous death of a severally mentally ill man (an extreme example, but not the only one); and still the county refuses to take any action to hold them accountable for their years of abject dereliction of their fundamental duties.

The county cannot supply meaningful reform so long as it protects from any real accountability or consequence those directly responsible. The failure to be accountable stems from an unwillingness to be transparent about what transpired. The consequence is that while promising change out of both side of its mouth, the county is behaviorally reinforcing that these actors may continue to engage in this destructive behavior without consequence. Far from ensuring this will never happen again, it all but guarantees it will continue. No problem was ever meaningfully addressed by refusing to name it.

New policies do not change an entrenched culture of indifference and dehumanization. Noting and identifying the very real mental health challenges facing our jails does not address the outright deception being perpetrated by the Sheriff's Office. Renewed promises and commitments to work together are meaningless when there is no political will to hold those people responsible when they routinely and consistently fail to live up to those promises and commitments.

The county’s leadership needs to decide — right now — whether it will put this county back to work for the citizens it is supposed to serve or whether it will continue to place a premium on protecting elected and non-elected county officials who are treating county government as their own private fiefdom.

J. Tavener "Tave" Holland is the chief officer of the Holland Family Alliance. He has been practicing law in San Luis Obispo since 2010.
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