Civilian Sheriff’s Oversight Is Now Law in California. Will It Make a Difference?

PUBLISHED JUL 25, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Last year, Gov. Newsom signed AB 1185. What changes has it made for sheriffs?

Last year, Gov. Newsom signed AB 1185. What changes has it made for sheriffs?   James / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest civil rights protests since the 1960s gripped streets across the country, sparked by the horrific police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protests focused on the need for police reform and in California, as in many other states, a slate of bills hit the legislature. Ultimately, however, all but a few failed to pass.

A suite of law enforcement reform bills died, in many cases without a final vote, as time ran out on the legislative session Aug. 31. One significant if widely overlooked bill did pass. That bill, authored by Sacramento Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, came up in the 2019 session, but never got a vote in the Senate after being passed by the Assembly. Following the 2020 protests, the bill passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The bill, AB 1185, lets every California county create an official watchdog group or individual to keep the local sheriff in line. That watchdog can be a sheriff’s oversight committee, or an inspector general, or both. The key provision of the new law is that civilian sheriff’s oversight boards would now possess subpoena power, giving them considerable authority to investigate and expose misconduct by sheriff’s departments.

AB 1185’s Origins in a Sacramento Shooting

The bill was first introduced by McCarty in 2017 after Sacramento Sheriff’s deputies killed Mikel McIntyre, an unarmed African-American man with serious mental health issues, shooting him six times in the back as he ran from them across Route 50 at rush hour.

That shooting was investigated by Sacramento Inspector General Rick Braziel, a former Sacramento police chief, who produced a report sharply critical of the sheriff’s deputies in the shooting. After the report was made public, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones blocked Braziel’s access to department records and files, including the county jails, and barred him from even entering the department’s headquarters, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

Braziel’s contract was allowed to expire shortly after that. The inspector general’s job stood vacant for a year. When the Sacramento County District Attorney investigated the shooting of McIntyre, she ruled it to be justified.

“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, as quoted by the Bee, during his ultimately failed push for AB 1185 in 2019. “This isn’t just a Sacramento problem. Sheriffs across California have refused to comply with or completely ignore oversight boards.”

The idea of a civilian law enforcement oversight committee is not new. At least 25 California cities and counties have some form of police oversight, in the form of an auditor, inspector general, independent review office or some similar type of agency. Police departments, however, are not run by an elected official. But county sheriffs in California are answerable to voters. That fact has helped sheriff’s departments hold off most forms of independent oversight.

By a vote of the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles County created a Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission in 2016. The board was created in the aftermath of a massive scandal over abuse in the county jail system—a scandal which ultimately saw former Sheriff Lee Baca sentenced to three years in federal prison for obstructing an FBI investigation.

The Fight for Subpoena Power

Even in the wake of that scandal, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors declined to give the oversight board subpoena power, or any ability to force the sheriff to cooperate with its attempts at meaningful oversight. Sure enough, by 2019, the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) found itself dealing with “dissembling and stonewalling” from Baca’s successor, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, complaining in a letter to the sheriff that it “cannot fulfill its oversight mission in any meaningful manner without timely and complete access to all relevant information.”

In the March 3, 2020 election, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure R, finally granting subpoena power to the oversight commission. Now, AB 1185 gives any civilian sheriff’s oversight board the same power, if it wants it. There remains some question, however, whether the law will have the teeth it needs.

Just two months after voters approved Measure R, Villanueva blew off a subpoena from the COC to appear and testify at one of its meetings, according to a City News Service report. The COC had to take him to court where, faced with a looming contempt hearing, Villanueva finally relented in December of 2020.

Sonoma County and Santa Clara County both established sheriff’s oversight boards prior to the passage of AB 1185, in 2015 and 2018 respectively. Neither had subpoena power. Following Newsom’s signing of AB 1185, Sonoma voters in the November election passed Measure P, which, along with other upgrades to the oversight board, gave it the subpoena.

San Francisco County also took action, passing Proposition D, creating a Sheriff’s Oversight Board and an inspector general position to investigate complaints against the department and deaths of people held in custody.

A week after the November election, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to adopt AB 1185, strengthening the civilian board’s subpoena power granted under Measure R, taking away the sheriff’s ability to defy subpoenas by challenging their legitimacy—as Villanueva had done earlier that year. He claimed that voters had been somehow confused when 72 percent of them voted to pass the measure. Under AB 1185, the civilian board’s subpoena authority now has the full weight of state law backing it.

But sheriffs can still challenge subpoenas in court if they can prove that complying would interfere with investigations. How AB 1185 may conflict with the “no interference in investigations” provision still falls under that catch-all category of “remains to be seen.” The right of sheriffs to be free of interference in their investigations comes straight from the California Constitution, and was affirmed in the 1994 California Supreme Court decision in Dibb vs. County of San Diego

Santa Cruz May be Next to Create Oversight Board

AB 1185 is meant to codify that 1994 Supreme Court decision as state law. But in the Dibbs case, the court ruled that a civilian oversight board may issue and enforce subpoenas only if a county’s charter specifically allows them to. In 1990, San Diego voters had amended their charter to create a sheriff’s oversight board with subpoena power. The court rejected a legal challenge to that authority.

At the same time, that San Diego ruling wasn’t definitive because it applied only to the 14 California counties that are governed by charter: Alameda, Butte, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Placer, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Tehama. AB 1185 extends that ruling to cover all 58 California counties.

Santa Cruz County is now actively discussing the possibility of creating a sheriff’s oversight board according to a Santa Cruz Sentinel report by Jessica A. York. The push to take advantage of the AB 1185 provisions in Santa Cruz was initiated by the county’s civil grand jury, which is charged with annually investigating the county jail system which is operated by the sheriff’s department.

In a report titled “Justice in the Jail,” the grand jury called creation of the sheriff’s oversight board “essential,” adding that if the Board of Supervisors would not take up the issue, “put it on the ballot and let the voters decide.” 

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