Ad Watch: Jail strip-searches used to attack Jim Cooper

Law enforcement experience runs through the race for an open 9th Assembly District seat, and cop-turned-city-councilman Darrell Fong’s campaign has sent a mailer linking opponent Jim Cooper, who has worked for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years, to strip-searches conducted at the Sacramento County jail.

Following is an excerpt from the mailer and an analysis by Jeremy B. White of The Bee Capitol Bureau.

Text: “When Cooper ran the county jail, women were stripped and videotaped – ‘including women who were pregnant ... and those subjected to humiliating tactics such as forcing them to dance (naked) ...’ ” (attributed to The Sacramento Bee).

Analysis: While it is true that Cooper was commander of the Sacramento County jail at a time when strip-searches spurred a class-action lawsuit, the suit did not name him as a defendant.

The legal maelstrom over strip-searches at the jail began in March 2000 with a group of protesters arrested for demonstrating at a Board of Forestry meeting. They were taken downtown and made to remove their clothes. They later sued, arguing that the nature of the searches was abusive and violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

From there, the case broadened into a class-action lawsuit shining a spotlight on the jail’s alleged practice of routinely strip-searching offenders. The lawsuit challenged the legality of searching people accused of misdemeanors and other low-level crimes, treating them the same as more serious offenders, and of group searches.

Sheriff’s Department officials told The Bee in 2003 that they began recording the searches on video cameras in 2001 and holding on to the tapes as evidence against future accusations of wrongdoing. At the time, Cooper told The Bee that cameras aimed at strip-searches were recording but “they can’t be monitored.”

Sacramento County and then-Sheriff Lou Blanas – but not Cooper – were named as defendants.

The quote from The Bee about pregnant women being strip-searched and others being forced to dance comes from a story about the lawsuit’s eventual settlement. The $15 million settlement was the largest in the history of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Mark Merin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said some people filing claims attested to being pregnant at the time of being searched or being forced to dance.

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