Capitol Alert

Keeping an eye on sheriffs: California Democrats want to empower investigators

A dispute between Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and the inspector general who investigated a deputy-involved shooting is shaping a statewide proposal to create powerful law enforcement oversight bodies.

Within months of the dispute, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, wrote a bill that would be a new check on California’s 58 elected sheriffs, enabling counties to create oversight boards with authority to issue subpoenas.

“This timely measure ensures that those sheriffs who have refused oversight will no longer be able to operate in the shadows,” McCarty said in a written statement about his Assembly Bill 1185.

Tensions rose last August when former Sacramento Inspector General Rick Braziel released a critical report about the death of Mikel McIntyre, an unarmed black man fatally shot on Highway 50 in May 2017. Braziel concluded that the 28 rounds Jones’s sheriff deputies fired were “excessive, unnecessary and put the community at risk.”

After the report was published, Jones blocked Braziel’s ability to continue further investigations by locking him out of the department’s building and blocking all access to records and personnel.

McCarty would not say that the bill is about Jones, but an analysis of his proposal by the Assembly Public Safety Committee says the bill appears to be inspired by Jones’ conflict with Braziel.

McCarty’s proposal narrowly passed the Assembly floor on May 29 with two votes to spare and now heads to the Senate for approval before it has the chance to reach Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.

It’s one of several bills lawmakers wrote this year that would open the door to more scrutiny of law enforcement agencies.

McCarty is also a co-author of a high-profile bill to elevate the legal use-of-force standard in California. Assembly Bill 392 would restrict when officers can shoot suspects and, if signed into law, would become the strictest deadly force law in the country.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the principal co-author of AB 392, wrote a similar bill last year. She introduced the legislation after officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in Sacramento in March 2018. Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, was chased by the police into his grandmother’s backyard and was shot by two officers who thought his cell phone reflection was a gun.

“As we are all too familiar in Sacramento, law enforcement without transparency leads to mistrust in the community and misuse of police powers,” McCarty said.

“This isn’t just a Sacramento problem,” he said. “Sheriffs across California have refused to comply with or completely ignore oversight boards.”

California’s sheriffs typically answer to voters during elections, county boards of supervisors when they write budgets, and civil grand juries. They are lobbying against McCarty’s oversight proposal.

The California State Sheriff’s Association said that the bill would create “unnecessary pressure on the board of supervisors to enact additional oversight.”

“We don’t see the need to codify (the bill) into statute,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the association. “If the issue is the ability to issue subpoenas, we would argue that there are already entities with oversight power.”

But Sean Riordan, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, sees an increasing need for sheriff accountability across the state. AB 1185, he said, mitigates disagreements like those in Sacramento when a sheriff denies oversight from the board of supervisors.

“What this bill does is provide clarity for boards of supervisors and other elected officials,” Riordan said. “It’s an important step closer to becoming law and providing important clarification that will enable better oversight of law enforcement and hopefully ensure that when there are abuses of power, (sheriffs) are accountable for it.”

Jones did not respond to requests for comment about AB 1185. He previously raised objections about Braziel’s findings, calling the report “conflicted.” Jones argued that the inspector general’s release of the report was motivated by the imminent expiration of his contract and a job prospect in Chicago.

McCarty’s bill has support from the state Public Defenders Association, which contends the panels could improve relationships between law enforcement agencies and communities.

“(Oversight boards) can give the community a forum to voice concerns they have about the sheriffs’ departments and allow the sheriffs to respond in a meaningful way,” said Jennifer Friedman, co-chairwoman of the association. “It’s beneficial for both parties to have these kinds of entities.”

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