Aug 30, 2017
by Evelina Molina and Dan Kerbein
In the wake of a recent killing by local police, Sonoma County's law enforcement oversight council at their August 7 meeting issued two new policy requests to guide Sheriff's Department conduct during investigations.
The first resolution, approved by unanimous vote, requests that in the event of a death in custody or resulting from the action of an arresting officer, that the county coroner's office recuse itself from conducting the autopsy.
The vote was taken by the Community Advisory Council, which serves as the executive committee of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO). The group was founded late in 2016, based on recommendations made by CALLE, a community law enforcement oversight task force. County government at the time sought to rebuild the community's sense of safety with its police, and confidence in their mission of patrolling local neighborhoods, after the shooting death of Andy Lopez, a local boy, at the hands of a deputy.
This concern of the Advisory Council with matters of autopsies was prompted by the death-by-taser of Branch Roth by Rohnert Park police and the subsequent “taking” of young Mr. Roth's body from his parents, without returning it before cremation. A further wrinkle in the case was the reluctance of the County Coroner to record the proceedings of the autopsy on video. The recording was made after a court order, but even now the County Coroner is suing for the right to destroy that video recording.
Capping off a list of conflicting circumstances in the Roth case are a prior large money settlement in a brutality case brought by Branch's brother Esa, and a years-long record of advocacy by Branch's parents regarding the case of Andy Lopez. This has left many in the community suspicious of the department's motives.
Many community groups decry this series of events as one more reason for the community to distrust the motives and actions of law enforcement.
According to Susan Lamont, a member of the Police Brutality Commission who attended the meeting, “The Advisory Council decided there was a bigger problem and broadened their request to include recusal in all cases.”
If the Sheriff's Office enacts the Advisory Committee's policy, then it could contract with a coroner outside the county to examine the body of the decedent in such cases. In the view of Council members, this would fulfill its mission of building trust in the community and avoiding suspicion of conflicts of interest.
The second resolution enacted on August 7 involves the type of communication the Sheriff's Dept. does with the community regarding inmates or potential suspects who have been killed or died in custody. The Advisory Council, by another unanimous vote, agreed to a request that the Sheriff's Office release “neutral press releases” regarding these incidents.
Specifically, the Council requests that local law enforcement release only relevant facts and “not release private background information about the involved parties.” The resolution specifically refers to the type of personal information the Sheriff's Department released about Andy Lopez after his fatal shooting by a deputy.
Placed against the levels of activity undertaken by the Advisory Council since its inception in 2016, the past month has seen the group moving assertively ahead with policy requests for adoption by the Sheriff's Department. Other motions are also in the works, involving policies regarding body-worn cameras by deputies and jailers, and a request for the complete recusal of the Department from investigating jail and arrest fatalities when a conflict of interest could arise from investigating themselves.
Any signs the County Sheriff or Coroner is ready to comply or accept these requests? Judging from the its handling of a death at the jail a few days after the Advisory vote, the Department is halfway there, if not fully there. They named the Marin County Sheriff as the investigator of that incident. And although the press release about the death included personal information that the inmate “had a long history of undisclosed medical problems”, that statement was released by the Marin County Sheriff, not the Sonoma County Sheriff.