Editorials

It’s high noon, and high time for accountability for California sheriffs

There may not be a new sheriff in town, but if Assemblyman Kevin McCarty has his way, at least the sheriff may have some badly needed supervision.

McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, authored Assembly Bill 1185, which would create citizen oversight boards for sheriffs in each of California’s 58 counties. The bill narrowly passed in the Assembly and is nearing a vote in the Senate. It should be approved and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Here’s why: Time and again, California sheriffs have proven the need for oversight and supervision. The office of sheriff, a strange institution that dates back to 1600s England and should probably be abolished, has too often become a hotbed of scandal, controversy and injustice.

Opinion

Some examples:

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has continually acted without regard to ethical norms, let alone good taste. When a trusted outside investigator was called in to oversee the internal investigation into the shooting of Mikel McIntyre by Sacramento deputies in 2017, Jones barely cooperated. Eventually, he locked the investigator – Rick Braziel – out of his office, essentially ending his work. Sheriff Jones has also shown little regard for things like transparency and the First Amendment. After a new state law took effect that required law enforcement agencies to share personnel records of offices who had violated the law or public trust, Jones refused, forcing The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times to sue. Jones was soundly defeated in court, but only after wasting time and money on his egotistical pursuit of power and secrecy. Jones routinely engages in petty political feuds with county supervisors, showing that he has no regard for their authority. His most recent outrage was allowing Netflix to film a ridiculous reality television show based in the Sacramento County Jail, Jailbirds, which exploits human suffering for the sake of cheap entertainment.

Fresno Sheriff Margaret Mims runs one of the deadliest jails in the state. Her neglectfully understaffed jail produces misery, suffering and death, and the number of people who died in Fresno County’s custody doubled in the years since the state reform known as realignment took effect. Last year was the deadliest in decades. “We’re never going to be always 100 percent compliant,” she said, when asked about her failure to meet the staffing levels mandated by a federal consent decree. According to The Sacramento Bee: “In more than two hours of interviews, she repeatedly characterized such deaths as an unfortunate consequence of jail life after realignment and expressed no remorse over her office’s failure to prevent them. At one point she asked reporters for basic details about the fatalities in her own jail.”

The scandal-plagued Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office seemed to be turning over a new leaf after Sheriff Lee Baca’s fall from grace for obstruction of justice and lying to federal authorities. Baca’s demise stemmed from his role in trying to cover up abuses in his jails from federal investigators. Yet his successor, Alex Villanueva, has delivered scandal after scandal. The newly-elected sheriff reinstated several deputies who had been fired for misconduct, employing his own highly-flexible standards for review. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are 27 other employees also under review for reinstatement. Like Jones, Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with county supervisors. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called out Villanueva for an “emerging pattern of inconsistencies” and “blatant misrepresentations.” Ridley-Thomas noted that it’s hard to “do business with someone when you can’t trust what they’re saying.”

The power of the county sheriff is so unusual and prone to abuse that some sheriffs don’t even do the job once they’re elected. An investigation by The Sacramento Bee in 2018 found that Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney didn’t even reside in his own county, let alone California. He lived on 53 acres in Lebanon, Oregon. On “medical leave,” Haney collected $9,000 per month in salary while feuding with that county’s board of supervisors, who had no way to hold Haney accountable.

In a perfect world, California would abolish the antiquated office of the sheriff, making the post an appointed rather than an elected one. In the meantime, AB 1185 will give counties the power they need to keep sheriffs accountable.

We urge swift state Senate approval of McCarty’s bill and encourage Newsom to sign it. It’s high noon and high time for accountability for California’s sheriffs.

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