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Law Enforcement Oversight Comes to Sonoma County

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Law Enforcement Oversight Comes to Sonoma County

By Eric Koenigshofer

Throughout the United States increased attention is being focused on use of force by law enforcement. Our county is among many communities grappling with the complex questions which follow when law enforcement uses force resulting in the death of a community member. As one means of trying to move forward after such a tragedy and hoping to reduce the potential for future incidents, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors convened the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force after the death of Andy Lopez to explore with the public in an open forum how this community should proceed. The Task Force was composed of 21 residents of our county and was very diverse in demographic characteristics as well as experience and point of view.

The Task Force split into three subcommittees and addressed community healing, community oriented policing and law enforcement accountability. These topics were identified by the Board of Supervisors as specific topics to be analyzed by the Task Force. I will focus this article on the work of the sub-committee on Law Enforcement Accountability which I had the honor to chair.

Making Connections

After 16 months of work by Task Force a report to the Board of Supervisors was submitted earlier this year. The report contains a wide array of recommendations aimed at improving relations between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the community. Perhaps the most significant proposal contained in the report is the establishment of an independent office to monitor and review investigations of allegations of excessive use of force. This new office will also greatly expand community outreach efforts to close the gap, which some people report, between the Sheriff’s Office and especially minority communities.  Read the full report which has  a list of task force members.

Over the months which have passed since the Task Force recommendations were submitted to the Board of Supervisors the new office has been funded for start-up and the process to hire a director has been underway. On Friday, December 18, 2015, the Board of Supervisors interviewed a slate of finalists seeking to be the new director and to run the new office. It is likely a director will be on-board within a couple of months. Then the work will begin in earnest to implement the day to day operations of an oversight office.

The Task Force recommendations advised the Board of Supervisors to create a new office which is completely independent of the Sheriff’s Office and which reports directly to the Board of Supervisors rather than be under the administrative thumb of the Office of the County Administrator. The Board of Supervisors accepted this advice and the new office will be independent. That said, the new office will have to develop a professional working relationship with the Sheriff’s Office since cooperation will be needed to ensure success of the program wherein all investigations done by the Sheriff’s Office will be reviewed by the new accountability office to guarantee the investigations were done thoroughly and that each investigation succeeded in getting to the facts of an incident. This is a level of public oversight not currently present in our county.

A Cooperative Relationship

Under the California Constitution the office of county sheriff is elected and it is completely within the Sheriff’s discretion to decide whether to engage in this new oversight regimen. It is for this reason that the new office must develop a cooperative working relationship with the Sheriff. The Task Force believes that it is possible for legitimate oversight to take place within this framework so long as the process is transparent and the results are reported to the public in an annual report which will be presented in open session to the Board of Supervisors each year. It is important to note that Sheriff Freitas has stated his intention to help make this effort a success. This is a great place to start.

A major task of the new office will be to conduct extensive outreach to the community to open lines of communication and to learn of potential “hot spots” of tension between law enforcement and the community. These efforts are designed to reduce tension and create a better working relationship between neighborhoods and those providing law enforcement services to them. Another task will be to track statistical trends to pin-point geographical problem areas or patterns of officer misconduct.

The details contained in the final recommendations are worth reading for those who desire a complete picture of the tasks to be performed by the new office. I encourage you to go to the website noted above and review the actual recommendation to create the oversight function.

In the end, the day to day work of the men and women who provide law enforcement services to our community is complex and can, of course, be very dangerous. We expect these public servants to be ready to come to our aid when called and we also expect that the work they perform will be consistent with the requirements of our federal constitution and community standards. Working together in an open, transparent manner can help build the trust needed to encourage a close, friendly and constructive working relationship between law enforcement and each unique community these folks serve. The people of Sonoma County are taking a big step forward with the creation of this new office. It will take time for the full benefits to be apparent but I am certain that establishing more transparency and community engagement is always a good course to pursue.

Comments:

Letter in response to Koenigshofer's article in January edtion

The stench of mendacity 

In an old Tennessee William’s play one character remarks to another about the obnoxious smell of mendacity. It’s a line and an image I’ve never forgotten and unfortunately reminded of all too often. One recent example was a self-serving article by former county Supervisor, Eric Koenigshofer, on the accomplishments of the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force to address and ostensibly correct the Sheriff’s Department and local police department’s excessive use of force, sometimes fatal. The Task Force was indeed created and convened because of the slaying of 13-year-old Andy Lopez a few years ago by a Sheriff’s deputy. 

In a self- congratulatory pat on his own back, a twist worthy of a practiced yogi, Koenigshofer heartily commends himself and his team for successfully addressing and rectifying the matter at hand. I submit that it does no such thing because it doesn’t establish the need for an independent, special state prosecutor when there is a fatal police killing under questionable circumstances. It also does not call for a county Civilian Review Board or make compliance with it by the Sheriff’s Department mandatory. And lastly, the new agency recommended for oversight under the aegis of the Board of Supervisors has no subpoena power and the Sheriff’s Department’s obligation to it is voluntary. Without those teeth the Task Force’s work to resolve excesses and questionable deaths at the hands of police in Sonoma County is akin to being bitten by a baby. 

This should cast no aspersions on the volunteer members of the county-appointed Task Force. By all accounts they were smart, dedicated and admirable individuals worthy of our thanks and respect. They must have spent countless hours researching, reading and gathering pertinent data. It wasn’t their fault the bureaucratic deck was stacked against them. But it was and the result will not change law enforcement attitudes or actions and that was its sole purpose. 

It doesn’t matter to me if a litany of small changes or tweaks were made vis-à-vis police and public relations, or will it when there’s a repeat tragedy as in the Andy Lopez death. 

In-home police investigations or by neighboring brother police departments, even including the DA’s office, which is deeply interconnected with police departments politically and otherwise, provide no impartial, independent oversight and therefore indictments of police officers are rare and convictions even more so. The new recommended agency, as designed, has no investigative authority or means of enforcing compliance. In other words, it ain’t got nothin’, and the Sheriff’s Department or police departments don’t have to pay it no mind. This is not a triumph or even an improvement in the crucial matter of changing police tactics when it comes to life or death situations or holding police to account. 

Koenigshofer’s white-washing has the unmistakable smell of mendacity. Is that the smell of politics? 

Will Shonbrun, Boyes Springs