Marcos Bretón

Sheriff Scott Jones threw a verbal punch at the state auditor, but hit the DA too

It’s not every day that a duly elected sheriff anywhere, much less the sheriff of Sacramento County, is accused of committing a crime and has to have a conversation with his wife about whether he’ll be arrested.

 
Opinion

But that has been the recent fate of Scott Jones.

“Earlier this week, my wife said, ‘Tell me you’re not getting arrested,’ ” Jones said. “(I told her) there is no way I would be convicted, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be arrested.”

If he were a smidge more circumspect, a bit less paranoid and a ton less combative, Jones probably wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder right now. He wouldn’t be involved in an unseemly fight with the lead auditor of the state of California, who accused Jones of breaking the law by going public with her report examining his office’s concealed weapons permit process before it was officially released.

Afterward, Elaine Howle, the state auditor, urged Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento’s district attorney, to prosecute him. On Friday, Schubert’s office concluded that Jones didn’t break the law because the information he released was not the main body of the audit, and invited Howle to ask state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to look at the case.

But the damage was done. Jones’ spat with Howle put Schubert, a fellow Republican, on the spot, throwing her into the cauldron while she prepares to run for reelection herself. Now she is facing accusations of cronyism from a rival in the DA race.

Did Jones care about this? Not more than he cared about fighting with Howle, and that’s his problem.

If one thing is clear about the 50-year-old lawman nearing the end of his second term in office, it’s that Jones willingly has become a partisan lightning rod like no other in the region. He has his beliefs and he won’t back down, no matter what. He sees private fights as public crusades and treats them as such.

“I have to stand up for myself,” said Jones, who has called Howle’s audit politically motivated.

The audit flap illustrates how Jones has conflated his job as sheriff with his political beliefs as a failed Republican congressional candidate and a local keeper of conservative values. They are one in the same now and really, this has not been good for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department or for Jones.

If Jones were a legislator, he would be a needed Republican counterpoint in a reliably blue region. But even though he has shown political ambition beyond the local level, Jones is a lawman through and through, overseeing one of the largest sheriff’s departments in the nation.

Jones might be pugnacious to a fault, but he’s also smart and funny and a dedicated public servant. He and his staff have done good work during his tenure, though there have been issues regarding use of force, leading to settlements and judgments against the department and accusations of a “good ol’ boy” culture.

But even Jones wonders if the good work, including the strong community support his department enjoys, has been obscured because of the heat directed at his political persona. “I have a non-partisan job but I don’t think I came back as a non-partisan sheriff after running for Congress,” he said. “Is that becoming a distraction? Is it more harmful than the good I’m doing for the office? I hope not.”

Jones has said these concerns led him to announce his retirement, saying he won’t seek a third term this year.

That’s probably a smart move. It’s time for new leadership and a different approach. The department and the county need a sheriff focused 100 percent on being sheriff. And reports filed by the County Office of Inspector General speak to a department that needs to make some big changes.

The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department does not “utilize a reliable use-of-force tracking system,” according to the OIG 2016 annual report. The OIG is pushing the department to establish an “early intervention” program that identifies deputies whose on-the-job behavior indicates they could be at risk of getting involved in an “adverse incident.”

This is critical because last September, a federal jury took less than two hours to award a $6.5 million judgment against Jones’ department after the 2012 fatal shooting of a mentally ill man in North Highlands. The OIG also is pushing for Sacramento sheriffs to wear and activate microphones during interactions with the public and to more closely review department data on the frequency and effectiveness of its use of lethal force.

In many respects, the department would benefit from an experienced outsider who brings a fresh perspective. Two names have been spoken around town as viable candidates: Rick Braziel, the former Sacramento Police Chief who is the county OIG; and Jim Cooper, who narrowly lost to Jones in the 2010 sheriff’s election and who has since crafted a successful career in the state Assembly.

Both would be excellent candidates. But without naming their names, Jones said he is prepared to rescind his retirement announcement and run for a third term if a “high-profile outsider” steps into the race.

“If there is a threat from the outside or a collapse in the succession plan, I would consider running,” Jones said.

Both Braziel and Cooper basically told me the same thing: They both love the jobs they have, but for now, they say they are neither in nor out of running for sheriff.

One or both should run.

Jones is trying to clear the field for his own guy, Kris Palmer, one of his top lieutenants. It’s another move that is more about who Jones is rather than what might be good or needed for the sheriff’s department.

Jones sees it as his duty to fight for what he believes in and protect his department and his “succession plan.” But how about letting Palmer prove himself as more than just “Scott’s guy”?

And the idea that Jones is willing to step in for a third-term bid depending on the competition? That’s another example, similar to his brawl with the state auditor, of his hammer-in-a-room-full-of-nails approach.

With the auditor, Jones could have stepped back and let the report speak for itself. The most damning conclusion the auditor found was that Jones’ department “issued some (concealed weapons permits) without collecting documentation that the licensing process adhered to its own standards.”

That’s it. That’s the smoking gun that triggered a protracted battle between a sheriff and the state auditor. That’s what caused Jones to call out Howle, and suggest the audit was spurred by the political motivations of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento. That’s what caused Schubert to be dragged in the middle of this inane mess while she’s running for reelection.

When the sideshow threatens to eclipse the main event, it’s time for a change. Meanwhile, what Sacramento needs most is a sheriff who just wants to be a sheriff.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 16 to correct the spelling of Kris Palmer’s name.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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