Erika D. Smith

Sacramento’s Scott Jones is a case study of why California should appoint — not elect — sheriffs

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones discusses the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo for a string of violent crimes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, at a news conference in April.
Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones discusses the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo for a string of violent crimes in the 1970’s and 1980’s, at a news conference in April. AP

For all of the police reform bills that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law in recent years, one particular constituency of California law enforcement has managed to slide under the regulatory radar.

Sheriffs. Specifically, elected sheriffs whose powers are spelled out in the state’s Constitution.

Some troubling trends are afoot, which have already led to some troubling precedents. For a public increasingly demanding more accountability from law enforcement, there could be repercussions for years to come.

Just look at Sacramento County.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors, known for avoiding political conflict like President Donald Trump avoids apologies, will take yet another stab at settling a fight that Sheriff Scott Jones picked with Inspector General Rick Braziel.

For months now, Jones has been blocking Braziel from doing his job of conducting independent investigations of sheriff’s deputies. Confronted with a report from Braziel that criticized as unnecessary and reckless the way deputies chased down and killed Mikel McIntyre along Highway 50 in May 2017, the sheriff petulantly revoked the inspector general’s access to the department’s facilities and personnel records.

So far, in two meetings, supervisors haven’t been able to change the sheriff’s mind either. Last month, Jones went so far as to lecture supervisors that they “have no authority to impose oversight” on him and that Braziel “is done.” The response? Crickets.

Now, supervisors must decide whether to renew Braziel’s contract, which expires soon, and whether to water down the inspector general’s duties to please Jones. They say the third time’s the charm, but I’m not optimistic about Tuesday’s meeting being much different than the first two.

And Jones isn’t the only sheriff in California having his way with a board of supervisors.

As my colleagues Ryan Sabalow and Phillip Reese reported last week, Bruce Haney was serving as sheriff of Trinity County when he got mad over the enforcement of cannabis regulations and decided to move six hours away to Oregon and stop coming to work.

He had no problem continuing to collect a salary and benefits, though.

In response to the sheriff’s blatant dereliction of duty, Trinity County supervisors waxed philosophical about whether they had the power to force Haney to perform his duties — or even live in the county in the state where he was elected.

“I was wondering a while back, how do you hold this gentleman accountable when he’s an elected official?” Supervisor Terry Mines told The Bee. “How does it work? Can I get elected for a four-year term and just walk away and collect?”

Supervisor Keith Groves said the board looked at state law and had several discussions. They opted to do nothing.

“He doesn’t sit under us,” he concluded, “so we really don’t have any authority.”

Uhm, what?

If taxpayers are obligated to pay the salary of a sheriff, then he had better fulfill his obligations and come to work. Just like if taxpayers are paying the salary of an inspector general to provide oversight of a department, particularly one that has paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over the questionable conduct of deputies in the past decade, then a sheriff had better let him do his job.

Theoretically, supervisors can control a sheriff by using the purse strings of the county budget. But withholding money is politically perilous because it affects public safety, something most voters care a lot about.

And what happens when supervisors aren’t courageous and aren’t interested in using their powers for good? In theory, the state Attorney General’s Office can step in an exert some control over a sheriff, but so far, Xavier Becerra has shown little interest in doing so in Sacramento or Trinity counties.

Sheriffs, just by virtue of being elected, shouldn’t be able to run their counties like fiefdoms — acting on ridiculous, ideological grudges and handpicking successors to put before voters to ensure the power of the office remains in a tight-knit circle.

That supervisors are questioning their authority over sheriffs at all is indicative of a problem much larger than two counties. And it begs the even larger question of why, in this day and age when most Californians live in urban areas, not the lawless countryside, the state still needs elected sheriffs at all? Why not appoint them like police chiefs?

Think about that on Tuesday, as you watch Sacramento County supervisors fumble around, trying to figure out a politically palatable and legal way to oppose Jones.

I know I will be.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee