Yolo County News

Yolo panel calls on Sheriff Ed Prieto to rebuild trust in department

Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto discusses the Luis Gutierrez shooting in his office in 2009.
Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto discusses the Luis Gutierrez shooting in his office in 2009. Sacramento Bee file

An independent panel, in a new report, has called on Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto to build trust with those under his command, allay fears of retaliation and emphasize community policing.

The 31-page review by a panel led by former Woodland Mayor Marlin “Skip” Davies found a department plagued by low morale and rank-and-file employees who believed they couldn’t speak openly with Prieto about their issues and concerns for fear of retaliation.

“The fear of personal vulnerability clearly has a chilling effect on employees’ willingness to speak candidly with the Sheriff and his leadership team,” the November report stated.

The Davies panel had more measured findings than the Yolo County grand jury did in June. The grand jury labeled Prieto’s leadership style as a relic of the “wild, wild West” and found instances of harassment, intimidation and nepotism by the sheriff.

Prieto also caught heat at the time from Yolo County Supervisors Don Saylor and Matt Rexroad, who led the Board of Supervisors’ efforts to investigate Prieto’s office. Rexroad said the sheriff did not “uphold Yolo traditions” after the grand jury released its report. The board also asked the 2014-15 grand jury in August to conduct another review to examine new complaints.

Rexroad declined to comment this week on the Davies panel’s findings. Saylor could not be reached this week.

Prieto is an imposing figure, physically and politically. He has been Yolo County sheriff since 1998 and was re-elected in June after facing no opposition. The grand jury, in its report over the summer, said he ruled over his department through intimidation.

But in an interview, Prieto seemed puzzled by the assertion.

“I don’t know what they perceive as retaliation. I don’t know who has been retaliated against,” Prieto said.

Though Prieto said he has “zero tolerance for retaliation,” he noted the perceived fear among some shows “there’s things we have to work on.”

Davies’ group surveyed workers confidentially Aug. 14-27. In all, 166 of 265 employees responded, according to sheriff’s officials.

In response, the independent panel called on Prieto to foster a “culture of trust” with his sworn and other personnel.

The panel cited a widely held perception of nepotism – his two daughters and friends work for the Sheriff’s Office – that remains held by the force.

The panel also said the department overemphasizes arrest numbers at the expense of more robust community policing. The report’s authors scolded Prieto and his command staff for relying too much on the data as a gauge of performance, a perception that staffers said has led to increased patrols in areas more likely to generate arrests, leaving fewer deputies to patrol rural Yolo County.

“The current practices have been taken to an extreme,” the report reads.

Prieto maintained that he remains committed to community policing.

“My style is that (the deputy) has to arrest, but he also has to reach out.”

He pointed to resident deputies in Clarksburg and other more remote Yolo communities, and monthly town halls where deputies meet with residents.

If the report’s aim is a kinder, gentler – or at least more receptive – sheriff, Prieto says he’s listening.

Prieto said he’s “clearly initiated steps” to improve communication and morale in his ranks, doing more to be more approachable. He said he has launched an internal newsletter, met more often with deputies and staff and attended deputies’ and correctional officers’ training days and briefings.

Prieto also chose Undersheriff Tom Lopez to create a task force of representatives from the department’s bargaining units “to focus on making improvements in the areas addressed in the survey.”

“I think communication is something we’re going to address,” Prieto said.

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.