Marcos Bretón

When local cops are in the hot seat, politicians are their best defense

Ami Bera, Scott Jones talk about controversies in their campaigns

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ami Bera held a fall kickoff event Sunday Sept. 4, 2016 for his re-election campaign against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican, in the 7th congressional district in the Sacramento suburbs. Both candidates add
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Democratic U.S. Rep. Ami Bera held a fall kickoff event Sunday Sept. 4, 2016 for his re-election campaign against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican, in the 7th congressional district in the Sacramento suburbs. Both candidates add

It’s becoming clearer every day why cops are so effectively shielded from consequences whenever their on-duty behavior is called into question here in Sacramento.

The stereotypical blue wall of silence? Sure, there’s that. But the more potent force shielding law enforcement – and enabling dubious conduct – is the lawyers retained by local governments and the timid elected officials who do whatever the lawyers say.

We have two such cases right now, one in the city and one in the county, that demonstrate how futile civilian oversight of law enforcement can be.

The massive lawsuit involving the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is Exhibit A. Litigated for almost seven years – and currently under an appeal approved by county supervisors that will cost even more – it has county taxpayers potentially on the hook for roughly $10 million in damages and fees.

On Thursday, a Sacramento Superior Court judge tentatively awarded $5.3 million in fees to the private lawyers who took on a Sheriff’s Department accused of retaliating against four female deputies. The women had challenged highly questionable behavior of their superiors. On Friday, the judge continued to hear arguments about the attorneys fees he awarded but said he was “inclined to embrace” his earlier decision.

In May, a jury awarded the female deputies $3.6 million in damages, despite a parade of sheriff’s brass testifying at trial, including current Sheriff Scott Jones. The county already has spent an estimated $1.15 million in its legal battle involving Erik Maness, now the undersheriff of Sacramento, and a relationship he had with a female deputy named Kristyn Beezley.

Three female deputies, who were either colleagues of Beezley or in the chain of command above her, had problems with the way she did her job. But they say that Beezley was protected from discipline and given favorable treatment by Maness. And when the female deputies complained, Maness retaliated against them. They either were reassigned to less favorable positions or found themselves under investigation by internal affairs.

Maness, Beezley and the entire Sheriff’s Department leadership denied this, but jurors didn’t believe them. (A fourth female deputy was part of the suit because she said she had been passed over for promotions.)

Once that judgment came down, it would have made sense for county supervisors to ask what the hell was going on. It would have made sense for them to read the court transcripts for themselves and ask some serious questions.

The jury and the judge believed that Beezley received preferential treatment. They believed that the female deputies who complained paid a price for speaking out. They believed that the department blew off the workplace grievances of the female deputies.

If you read the transcripts, it becomes obvious that the only way the closed culture of the department was going to be held accountable was through a lawsuit. Maness authorized overtime for Beezley even though he wasn’t her direct supervisor. He authorized shifts in the patrol division, even though she wasn’t trained for such duty. He took an active interest in her work evaluation, even though they were in completely different divisions.

In May, Maness testified that he previously was contacted by then-Undersheriff Tom McMahon about his relationship with Beezley. After one brief meeting with an internal affairs lieutenant and a sheriff’s captain, Maness testified that he reconnected with McMahon, who reassured him that he didn’t believe the allegations against Maness.

“(McMahaon) said it was frivolous and without merit,” Maness testified in court.

Maness also testified that the interview with internal affairs and a sheriff’s captain was not recorded. He affirmed knowing that McMahon was going to destroy the evidence compiled in the investigation against him, even though department procedures called for evidence in internal investigations to be saved for five years and six months. Moreover, it was clear from Maness’ testimony that the department did not take the concerns of the female deputies seriously.

On the witness stand, Maness asserted that during the internal affairs interview, he was simply being questioned about “rumors” that he was having an affair with Beezley. But when Jerry Chong, the veteran lead attorney for the female deputies, challenged Maness’ suggestion that allegations made by the deputies were not serious, Maness changed his story.

Chong asked Maness if the workplace retaliation claims made against him were serious.

“If they were true, yes,” Maness said.

Chong then asked Maness how anyone could determine if the allegations against him were true without a formal investigation that was – by definition – serious?

“That’s true, yes,” Maness said.

Chong then asked Maness again if an investigation was undertaken in his case.

“Yes,” Maness replied.

So it was an investigation, but one that was dispatched after a single 30-minute interview that wasn’t recorded. That sounds like a pretty cozy investigation between colleagues.

With all this and much more relating to how Beezley would go out of her way while on duty to be with Maness, one would think that county supervisors might be alarmed by what was going on inside the Sheriff’s Department. One would think they might question why a case of this nature has dragged on this long, only to expose taxpayers to millions in damages and fees.

Instead, Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said the county’s appeal, approved in closed session last month, was all about dollars and cents. “It’s our fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to pursue any avenue that could reduce the cost of judgment and set the stage for any future actions,” she said.

Imagine how that made the four female deputies feel. Why would any county employee have confidence in pursuing a workplace issue when the governing body of the county cares only about liability?

This case was a loser from the beginning. Nevertheless, Sheriff’s Department leaders continue to stick to their story that they did nothing wrong, the lawyers keep appealing, the politicians keep meekly going along and the tab keeps growing.

Earth to MacGlashan, Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy, Susan Peters and Don Nottoli. Anyone home? You guys have minds of your own, don’t you? Were you elected by the voters? Or by your lawyers? Serna and Kennedy have been especially AWOL, given that they represent more progressive districts in the county.

The same questions could be asked of the Sacramento City Council, which has closed ranks after the shooting of a mentally ill African American man by city police.

Officers shot Joseph Mann 16 times on Del Paso Boulevard in late July. Why 16 times? Why is video footage of the shooting being kept secret? Where is civilian oversight?

They’re cowed in the city, just as they are in the county. City Attorney Jim Sanchez has put all the politicians under a gag order and that’s that.

City cops investigated the shooting committed by other city cops. The District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case, but that could take at least six months if past cases are any indication. Or it could take 18 months. No one will say.

It brings to mind one of the few times when a local politician made a provocative statement about law enforcement. Mayor Kevin Johnson, then head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in November 2014 that it “didn’t feel right” when a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., failed to an indict the white police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. Johnson said the lack of an indictment was “a sad day in America.”

He got pummeled publicly by the local police officers union. Then he got pummeled privately by virtually all facets of law enforcement, including members of the DA’s Office. Johnson later apologized for his statement. He hasn’t come close to making a statement like that again, even though he was right.

Meanwhile, some of his fellow council members privately grumble that a big lawsuit likely is coming in the Mann case.

Grumble all you want off the record, as city pols do all the time instead of stating what they believe. But the county lawsuit is proof that outside pressure is the only way to penetrate the circled wagons protecting law enforcement conduct. Elected officials sure aren’t going to do it.