The most recent reporting on how Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones uses his power brought to mind for us the late Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s infamous public safety commissioner from the 1960s.
Inspector General Rick Braziel told Bee reporters Sam Stanton and Molly Sullivan that his now-public feud with Jones started with a phone call after Jones heard rumors Braziel might run against him for sheriff.
On the call, Jones questioned Braziel running against him while simultaneously serving as inspector general. Jones would eventually lock Braziel out of sheriff’s department buildings and essentially fire him after Braziel issued a report critical of deputy’s actions in the shooting death of Mikel McIntyre.
Here is Braziel’s takeaway from the call:
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“I was warned ahead of time that when you do that there’s an evil side of the sheriff, the evil will come out, and the evil came out,” Braziel told the Bee.
Bull Connor gained national infamy for his treatment of civil rights protestors, including attacking peaceful demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. Connor was a segregationist, and nothing suggests Jones shares those views. But the two share a disdain for those with whom they disagree, and each callously dismissed the views of large swaths of people they are supposed to represent.
In 2018, law enforcement officers kill African American men at a rate so alarming it should be a national emergency. These deaths, and the racial dynamics underlying them, present an urgent moral crisis. This is the present-day frontier of the civil rights movement.
People like Jones should be leading the way toward solutions. Instead Jones has fought to hide the truth, evade accountability, bully critics and muzzle those charged with holding him accountable.
He proudly resists progress.
Just as Connor impugned the motivations of the Freedom Riders, Jones goes out of his way to smear Black Lives Matter activists.
Just as Connor lambasted “outside agitators” for meddling with southern oppression, Jones rails against “downtown politicians” who dare scrutinize his department.
Just as Connor defied the federal government’s efforts to enforce civil rights law, Jones declares that the county supervisors and his inspector general have “no authority” over him.
It’s time for competent, moral leadership at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
County supervisors must now summon the courage to stand up and step in.
They can start by passing an ordinance to make the inspector general a permanent county office, rather than merely a contract job, and grant it independent power to conduct investigations of the sheriff’s department and report findings directly to the board. Under the current system, the inspector general can be bullied and influenced by the very person he’s charged with overseeing and fired at any time.
Jones illustrated the weakness of this system when he locked Braziel out of his office and essentially forced the termination of his contract.
County supervisors tell The Sacramento Bee they’re considering such an ordinance. But it’s time for action, not talk, and passage of this ordinance should be a top priority in 2019.
It’s also time for California to consider a broader question about whether sheriffs should be appointed rather than elected. The idea of the elected sheriff dates back to the 1600s. A lot has changed since then. Law enforcement is too important to leave in the hands of people like Jones who think their job is to play politician rather than serve the ideals of safety and justice.
Changing the state constitution wouldn’t be easy, but even the people of Birmingham rose up and converted Bull Connor’s elected commissioner position into an appointed one. He ran for mayor, lost and faded into history.
Jones told The Bee he won’t run again. That’s great news, but he’s broken this promise before.
This time it’s on all of us to hold him accountable.