Marcos Bretón

A sharp censure for Sheriff Scott Jones and company

Sheriff Scott Jones discusses the recent verdict in the retaliation lawsuit handed down on May 17, 2016, in civil court in a news conference at the Sacramento Sheriff's Department headquarters, May 19, 2016.
Sheriff Scott Jones discusses the recent verdict in the retaliation lawsuit handed down on May 17, 2016, in civil court in a news conference at the Sacramento Sheriff's Department headquarters, May 19, 2016.

It was a damning verdict, one of the strongest rebukes against local law enforcement in recent memory.

A Sacramento County jury didn’t simply award four women $3.6 million in their lawsuit against the leadership of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. It ruled against the culture within the Sheriff’s Department in a way no local elected official would dare, sizing up Sheriff Scott Jones and the top men in the hierarchy below him and saying: We don’t believe you.

The four women, deputies themselves, had broken ranks and violated the sacred bond among cops when they told a jury that their careers had been harmed after they challenged the powerful men who run the department.

Some of the women testified that the problems began when current Undersheriff Erik Maness showed preferential treatment to another female deputy in his command. When they spoke out about this, their complaints were not only rejected, the women said – they were punished for making them.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Tracie Keillor was hit with an internal affairs investigation. She said she suffered a stroke from the stress of the conflict in 2013. She was awarded $3.2 million in damages by the jury.

Deputy Jodi Mendonca was awarded $66,240 for being removed from her post after blowing the whistle on the alleged preferential treatment. So was Lt. Dawn Douglas, who was awarded $185,000 after being stripped of her command.

At the same time, Lt. Annica Hagadorn, the highest ranking African American female in the department, became the subject of multiple internal affairs investigations after speaking out about what she saw as discrimination within the department. She was awarded $100,000 for emotional distress from the jury.

Maness denied allegations that he had an inappropriate relationship with the female deputy or showed her preferential treatment. He denied that he punished anyone for suggesting as much.

Jones denied that he signed off on professional retribution against the female plaintiffs as a show of support for Maness. Former Sheriff John McGinness also testified, backing the current leadership of his old department.

That the jury didn’t find the cops credible is significant enough, but it didn’t stop there.

I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and in many – if not most – of the trials I’ve covered, jurors ran for it when the proceedings were over. Some jurors don’t want their names in the paper. Or they don’t want any more conflict after deciding complicated, emotional cases.

But on May 17, after sitting through a six-week trial and hearing all the evidence, jurors in this trial couldn’t wait to talk.

“We found a lot of retaliation,” juror Sheryl Daverio told Sacramento Bee reporter Darrell Smith.

Juror Margaret Griffin told The Bee that the four plaintiffs didn’t come forward because of Maness’ perceived relationship with the female deputy. “They came forward for the preferential treatment,” Griffin said. “They didn’t come forward for the relationship.”

Alice Wong, a lawyer for the four women, said this case didn’t have to go to trial. If department leaders only had acknowledged that changes needed to be made in how the department handled complaints against superiors, the courtroom could have been avoided.

Wong, and her co-counsel Jerry Chong, told the jurors that the women had everything to lose and nothing to gain from going after their leaders in a legal proceeding.

“I’ve been with the department 29 years, and it’s a family,” Mendonca told me. “We’re ingrained from the outset that these are our brothers and sisters. We have to protect each other. That bond is very difficult to break. You don’t break that bond.”

The word impunity comes to mind when talking about the power Sheriff’s Department leaders enjoy. The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors have budgetary oversight of the department, but that doesn’t mean much. The Sheriff’s Department operating budget is the biggest piece of the county budget by far, roughly $205 million spent to protect 1.5 million county residents.

Unlike the supervisors who run in districts, Jones is elected countywide and has a far higher profile than any of the supervisors. One could argue that Jones, who is currently running for Congress, is accountable to county voters. But that means little when he runs unopposed – as he did in 2014.

And even though Jones’ side lost the $3.6 million verdict, county taxpayers – via county liability insurance – are on the hook for that tab.

Jones has vowed to appeal, which will incur more costs to county taxpayers. Sacramento County already has spent nearly $640,000 on outside lawyers in fighting the suit. County supervisors may grumble privately – this isn’t the only court case where damages have been awarded against deputies lately – but the supervisors still may vote in closed session to appeal the verdict.

Because closed session matters are confidential, the supervisors wouldn’t be able to discuss the case publicly. Nevertheless, you likely won’t hear any of the five supervisors say boo about how a parade of the highest ranking law enforcement officers in Sacramento County were not found credible.

In one particularly damning part of the trial, Douglas testified that Jones was in cahoots with Maness to protect the female deputy in question. Douglas said she supervised the female deputy and that the deputy was insubordinate to her.

“Is there anything unusual about a deputy saying no to a Lieutenant?” Douglas was asked in court on March 30.

“I’ve not seen it happen in my career. No one has ever told me no,” Douglas replied.

Douglas and Keillor said they pressed Jones to do something about the insubordination. To the jury, Douglas recounted her memory of Jones’ answer: “(Jones) said leave her alone. Hands off ...” Douglas testified. “(Jones) said ‘I promised (Maness) I would protect her.’”

Jones denied in court that this exchange ever happened. He denied any wrongdoing after the jury rendered its verdict. He declined to be interviewed on Friday, saying in a text that he would let the legal system play out.

It’s curious how the man whose department sends suspects to trials decided by juries is now assailing a jury verdict that went against him and planning to spend more taxpayer dollars to challenge the ruling.

Clearly, all this doesn’t help Jones’ congressional bid, but that’s hardly the most important issue at stake here. (Jones’ opponent, incumbent Democrat Ami Bera, has his own ethical nightmare with the recent conviction of his father on two felony counts of election fraud.)

The issue is transparency within the Sheriff’s Department. It took seven years of discovery and pre-trial motions before the four women even got a trial. It took a “David vs. Goliath” victory by Wong and Chong, longtime civil rights lawyers in Sacramento, to shine a light on the inner workings of an insular department.

County Supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy have been very public about their desire for Jones to retract his support of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Where is their public call for transparency within Jones’ department? Where is the concern for taxpayers if Jones pursues an appeal?

A jury has spoken. It believed the four plaintiffs over the Sheriff’s Department leadership. It believed the women had experienced retaliation at the hands of their superiors for speaking out against what they saw as abuses of power.

If the public can’t be confident in how this department follows labor laws and its own policy directives, how can it be confident in how it enforces any laws?

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