Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Policing the Sheriff’s Department

Rick Braziel, Sacramento’s former police chief, will look into the conduct of sheriff’s deputies as county inspector general.
Rick Braziel, Sacramento’s former police chief, will look into the conduct of sheriff’s deputies as county inspector general. Sacramento Bee file

It’s hard enough being the chief of police in Sacramento, but Rick Braziel did the job under the worst possible circumstances.

He took over the department in 2008, around the beginning of the Great Recession. He retired in 2012, before the local economy had rebounded. Braziel’s tenure, therefore, was about cutting civilian jobs and laying off cops. During that time, he would save money by keeping his office lights off during sunny days. He turned down perks, like participating in leadership programs that would have required his department to pay his tuition. It wouldn’t have looked good, so Braziel didn’t want to do it.

When his department was accused of racially profiling motorists, Braziel didn’t flinch during contentious community meetings. Nor did he flinch when Heather Fargo, then Sacramento’s mayor, apologized to community members for police conduct, while Braziel stood silent at her side.

At 56 and bespectacled, Braziel seems more professorial than cop-like. But he is a career cop starting an important new job where his background is cited as a strength. Whether it becomes a strength, or whether his background prevents him from being truly independent, remains to be seen.

Braziel started Tuesday as Sacramento County’s inspector general. It will be his job to be an independent arbiter while investigating sheriff’s deputies accused of excessive force or bad shootings. That’s just one of the responsibilities of the inspector general. Braziel also will be a public representative of law enforcement.

Maybe if this were five years ago, Braziel’s appointment would be little more than a footnote in the newspaper. But on Tuesday, Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent in Chicago, was fired amid widespread community protests over the death of Laquan McDonald, a young African American male who was killed by a white Chicago policeman in October 2014.

The dash-cam video of McDonald repeatedly being shot, released this past week, has opened racial wounds just as other police shootings did in Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C.. The Chicago unrest is further fueled by accusations of a systematic cover-up by police and political leaders of America’s third-largest city. The officer who shot McDonald has been charged with first-degree murder.

The situation raises a question that’s relevant in Sacramento: Can police be trusted to investigate their own?

In Chicago, and in other cities, many say the answer is a resounding no. Some in Sacramento agree. And while it’s hard to find anyone who would question Braziel’s integrity, some say he’s still a cop who will be investigating other cops.

“(Braziel) and (Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones) have been in the same henhouse for 30 years,” said Stewart Katz, a criminal defense attorney in Sacramento. “It seems to me that someone who has spent his whole career in law enforcement isn’t going to be able to give you the kind of independence that the inspector general needs.”

Sacramento has not had a Laquan McDonald. The city and county have not erupted with community protests like those seen in other parts of the country.

The Sacramento region, however, has seen its officers accused of excessive force. In September, Sacramento Bee reporters Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh broke the story of Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer. The 14-year veteran has been accused several times in court of using excessive force. The Bee obtained video, shot by bystanders, of Pfeifer beating a suspect with a metal flashlight. Stanton and Walsh also wrote recently of a pastor who accused a sheriff’s deputy of shooting his mentally ill son to death without justification. Both cases are still in litigation.

Jones denies that his department goes easy on bad cops. He said he has fired deputies for misconduct. But Jones acknowledges that he couldn’t remember a case in which a deputy was prosecuted criminally for a bad shooting.

A cynic could say that’s what happens when cops investigate fellow cops – nothing. There have been cases, both among deputies and Sacramento police, where sworn officers were jailed for committing crimes. But it’s the officer-involved shootings that have roiled the nation and chipped away at public confidence that police can police themselves.

The difference in Sacramento is a lack of outrage – so far. With the Pfeifer case, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said he got one or two emails from concerned constituents.

The IG job had been open for nearly three years. Serna said he wanted to fill it before something happened. As chairman of the county board, Serna created two committees to fill the IG board. One committee comprised Jones and members of local law enforcement unions. Serna knows that process could seem cozy to some, but there was also a committee of citizens from across Sacramento County.

Meanwhile, Braziel says he will use his position to try to prevent incidents from happening. Braziel was part of a federal task force that analyzed the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson. He spent Tuesday sharing his insights on community policing with the command staff of the New York Police Department.

Now that he is no longer the leader of Sacramento PD, Braziel feels empowered to talk openly about police brutality. He called the arrest of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago officer in the McDonald shooting, “appropriate” given what he saw on video. “But what people didn’t see was other officers trying to calm the situation down.”

Braziel’s officers did good work in calming tense situations, particularly during “Occupy Sacramento” protests at City Hall. Braziel said he wants to create a system in which officers flagged often for excessive force are identified and counseled. He wants to take training methods that work in other departments and bring them to Sacramento.

He wants to keep local law enforcement from making the mistakes that Ferguson officers did by failing to talk publicly about a controversial shooting until it’s too late. “We need to look at different ways of doing business,” Braziel said. “Sometimes departments are so wrapped up in their own work that they don’t look outside to see what is working.”

Serna and Jones say Sacramento has avoided community uprisings because of hard-won trust established over many years. In Sacramento, Serna said chants of “black lives matter” helped to inform supervisors as they allocated money to combat the high incidence of deaths among African American children in Sacramento.

But all it takes is one bad shooting caught on video to create a crisis. “Putting a camera on a cop doesn’t do anything to build trust,” Braziel said. “You’ve got to get out of your car and talk to people.”

Will Braziel be in a position to build trust in Sacramento if that crisis comes? There is no answer to that question for now, just the realization that Braziel may be starting a job that could make running Sac PD seem easy by comparison.