Even before he was arrested last week by Nevada County sheriff’s deputies on child molestation charges, veteran Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Donald Black had alarmed his own department on numerous occasions. None of the earlier problems hinted at the more serious sexual misconduct allegations that Black faces in Nevada County. Nonetheless, former Sheriff John McGinness says he was “frustrated” when arbitrators repeatedly softened discipline he tried to impose against Black.
As The Sacramento Bee’s Kim Minugh revealed last week, Black, a 23-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, cost the county close to $400,000 in civil payouts to plaintiffs who accused him of various offenses ranging from excessive force to verbal abuse.
In one case, a detained suspect said that Black pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger, or “dry-fired” it, terrorizing him. Black denied the allegation, but the county ended up paying the plaintiff $90,000 to settle the case.
Black was also the jail-watch commander in a notorious 2005 event when deputies tossed flash-bang grenades into cells in an attempt to remove prisoners who had deliberately clogged toilets to protest jail conditions. Several inmates suffered burns in the incident, which ultimately cost the county $300,000 to settle. Following that event, former Sheriff McGinness suspended Black 240 hours and demoted him from the rank of sergeant to deputy for failure to supervise his deputies and for lying to investigators. An arbitrator reduced the suspension to just 20 hours and ordered Black reinstated to sergeant.
“When the head of an organization cannot impose discipline, it’s bad for everybody including the individual being disciplined,” McGinness told The Bee’s editorial board. He’s right about that.
At the time of his arrest, Black held the rank of deputy. Although an arbitrator overturned the department’s efforts to demote Black, court records suggest he lost his sergeant stripes at the end of his probationary period because of issues raised in the December 2005 flash-bang incident.
Sacramento’s Civil Service Commission used to serve as the appeals body in county employee discipline cases. They made mistakes too. In one notable example, civil service commissioners reinstated five deputies that former Sheriff Lou Blanas, McGinness’ predecessor, had tried to fire. Two had been convicted of stealing while on the job, a third of criminal trespass, the fourth of excessive force and the fifth of conduct unbecoming an officer.
Under contract changes approved by the county and labor organizations in 2006, professional arbitrators took over from the county’s Civil Service Commission in worker discipline appeals. So now, unelected, unaccountable arbitrators make the decision when employees appeal discipline against them. Both management and labor are required to abide by the arbitrator’s decision. As Sacramento County’s history shows, neither system is foolproof. But on balance, professional arbitrators experienced in the law and personnel issues are probably better suited to take on this task than part-time and often politically minded commissioners. But that doesn’t mean they will always make common-sense decisions to ensure that wayward officers are properly disciplined.