OPINION: Community Partnership - YES on P

By Elizabeth Cozine, Former IOLERO Community Advisory Council Member

One sunny October afternoon in 2013 , a young middle schooler walked to a friend’s house to return a recently borrowed, air soft bb gun. He strode along side a dried and overgrown vacant lot in his Southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, a vacant lot he would never make it past. Shot seven times by Sonoma County Deputy Eric Gelhaus, Andy Lopez’s death set in motion the long sought after quest for reforms, accountability and effective community oversight of the largest law enforcement agency in the County.

That quest continues with Measure P, in the November election.

Andy’s death set off a firestorm of sustained community protests. Fed up with frequent officer involved fatalities, people took to the streets to demand accountability and change. City Council chambers, Board of Supervisors’ meetings, District Attorney offices, and Sheriff’s offices were inundated with demands for action and justice.

Over the following year, there were few days when Andy’s name did not appear somewhere in local newspapers. Long time activists revived their calls for police reforms and community oversight recommended in the 2000 Civil Rights Commission Report, itself a response to the high incidence of police shootings and in custody deaths in Sonoma County. They were joined by an empowered Latino community, student activists, and outraged citizens throughout the region, demanding wide ranging substantive reforms.

The Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Rosa Police Department (the agency investigating Andy’s shooting) and the District Attorney’s Office responded in their usual manner of declaring that no policies or laws were broken in Andy’ shooting. But the Board of Supervisors did take action. They began to look closely at the needs of Andy’s long neglected Moorland Neighborhood, and they appointed the Community And Local Law Enforcement (CALLE) Task Force to closely examine police issues and community relations. After nearly 16 months of community meetings and research, this dedicated group issued a report with dozens of meaningful and substantive recommendations. Although most of those recommendations remain unmet, the call for the creation of an independent auditor and community council was heeded in 2016, with the approval of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO).

The original IOLERO office consisted of one Director/Auditor and one paid Assistant, charged with receiving public complaints about the Sheriff’s Office, reviewing and auditing Sheriff investigations of critical incidents and excessive force, making policy recommendations, and robust community engagement. They were assisted by a volunteer Community Advisory Council, whose purpose was to reach out to the community, hold public meetings and make recommendations to ensure that Sheriff’s policies reflected best practices and community values. Although IOLERO’s recommendations and findings were not binding, the Director’s conclusions would be made public in an annual report.

The goal of this new office was to increase transparency and accountability, and thus work with the Sheriff to strive for best policies and practices, increase officer and community safety, and build public trust. Unfortunately, the reality of the IOLERO charter left it without the resources or powers it needed to do its job effectively.

While civilian oversight of the police dates back more than a hundred years in this country, the modern vision of community oversight is best espoused by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) established in 1995. It recognizes that every oversight body is unique, and must be tailored to fit the needs of each community, but that no matter the model they all need sufficient resources, independence, and the power to effectively fulfill their mission.

It became clear to IOLERO’s first Director, Jerry Threet, almost from the onset, that a two person office would be unable to adequately and timely audit Sheriff’s investigations of fatalities, and serious incidences of use of force at the jail and on patrol, while at the same time supporting a viable Community Advisory Council to conduct public meetings, and reaching out to disenfranchised portions of the community. Despite these challenges, through working exhaustive hours, the IOLERO began to function: reviewing complaints, auditing internal investigations, making recommendations, conducting community meetings, collaborating with the Sheriff’s Office in a workable manner. The Office worked with the Sheriffs on limiting cooperation with ICE, Body Camera Policy, and a Homeless interaction policy.

However, as the Director continued to look at the Sheriff’s misconduct investigations, he found repeated deficiencies, and was met with resistance and a lack of cooperation from Sheriff’s Office. The original IOLERO ordinance did not allow him to interview the involved parties, or to require that the Sheriffs cooperate and provide him with the information needed, to thoroughly complete his audits.

In his 2017/2018 annual report, the director found that the initial model of civilian oversight created by the Board of Supervisors did not have the independence, resources or powers to fulfill its mission. As currently structured, IOLERO would be unable to effectively monitor use of force, including deadly force by Sheriff’s deputies, or to effectively recommend changes in policies, practices, or trainings. It could not bring about the transparency and accountability that was initially envisioned.

From his experiences working with the Sheriff’s Office, and expertise gleaned from NACOLE and national models, the Director laid out a template for a truly effective oversight office that became the basis for the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, or Measure P, on the ballot this November.

With the added recommendations of the current Director, Karlene Navarro, and the Community Advisory Council, the new ordinance would, without raising new taxes:
– mandate mutual collaboration with the Sheriff’s Office;
– give IOLERO access to Sheriff’s investigation/incident reports, body camera footage, evidence, dispatch records, and databases;
– establish the clear authority of IOLERO to conduct independent audits and investigations; authorize independent subpoena power to the IOLERO;
– establish IOLERO legal authority over investigations into all uses of force, constitutional violations, sexual assault or harassment, dishonesty, and bias in policing or incarceration;
– authorize IOLERO to review all stops by deputies for racial or ethnic disparities;
– guarantee a minimum budget equivalent to 1% of the Sheriff’s budget, allowing for adequate IOLERO staffing;
– and a secure a 3-year term for the Director, with removal only for cause.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has recently recognized the IOLERO’s severe understaffing and begun to increase positions, however without the powers allocated in Measure P, the Office will continue to fall far short of its mission.

Sadly, there is a long history in Sonoma County of excessive use of force by deputies, leading to the death or injury of a person of color, or someone experiencing a mental health or drug crisis. Indeed, since Sheriff Essick took office in 2018, there have been 9 deaths in the custody of Sheriff’s deputies, along with two extreme uses of force against unarmed, unresisting Black men.

In this moment of National reckoning about race and justice, we have a chance, this November, to act locally and meaningfully to empower effective oversight, to create a public office that advocates for the safety, well being , and constitutional rights of all those in Sonoma County, by ensuring that Sheriff practices are unbiased, reasonable, respectful, and responsive to the community they serve.

Although, often resisted by law enforcement, effective oversight benefits hard working deputies, as well as members of the public. With the continual independent push towards best practices in training and policies, and by providing alternatives to using force, effective oversight improves the safety and well being of deputies on patrol or working in detention.

Less excessive force also translates into fewer lawsuits and lower liability insurance costs (a problem currently plaguing the Sonoma County Sheriff). Further, positive public interactions, increased transparency and accountability correspond with higher levels of public trust.

After Andy Lopez’s death, the Board of Supervisors looked at his long neglected neighborhood and the weed strewn lot where he died, and they dedicated the resources needed to create a green and dynamic community park, a place of continual benefit to the families who live there, an investment in the future.

They also set out to create viable and meaningful community oversight of the Sheriff’s Office. Measure P is the next vital step in that community investment.

MORE INFO: https://ballotpedia.org/Sonoma_County,_California,_Measure_P,_Changes_to_Law_Enforcement_Review_Board_(November_2020)

OPINION: Measure P - WHY we need it

By Kathleen Finigan

Measure P: Evelyn Cheatham Ordinance for a More Effective IOLERO (Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach) – was established and approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors for placement on the November ballot. The Sheriff and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association immediately filed lawsuits against the County in an effort to kill the measure.

The ordinance calls for greater transparency and accountability in the Sheriff’s Office, subpoena power for the IOLERO Director and adequate funding to allow the agency to get its job done - that of auditing complaints against the Sheriff.

In the midst of these trying times of corona virus, the devastating fires in the Pacific states, and the hateful fear-mongering occupant of the White House, the murder of George Floyd has ignited a nationwide wave of grassroots protests. People of all ages and ethnicities are rising up in great numbers against the impunity with which law enforcement systematically deals out abuse and excessive force – frequently fatal – to citizens, particularly those of color.

Here in Sonoma County, we’ve had more than our share of tragic and needless deaths in recent years. And the stark horror of the 2013 shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez at the hands of a deputy who mistakenly thought the boy’s toy rifle was real remains a gaping wound for many. The deputy was not only returned to street patrol, he was promoted.

However, police brutality and the distrust that communities of color harbor against them are nothing new – the issues here were clearly defined more than twenty years ago. Following a rash of citizen killings in a two-year period by law enforcement, an exhaustive study carried out by the California Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1997 confirmed that citizen demand for reform was met by unresponsive officials who denied that a problem existed.

“Community representatives spoke of the need for diversity training for officers, options other than the use of deadly force in critical incidents, and greater sensitivity when dealing with domestic violence and suspects who may be experiencing a psychiatric episode or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

Karen Saari of Bodega was the head researcher for the first known research project of nationwide deaths of civilians by law enforcement. In her Stolen Lives Project, sponsored by the national October 22nd Coalition and Project Censored organizations, Saari revealed to the California Advisory Committee that Sonoma County had the highest number of deaths by police among all the counties in the entire Bay Area.

In the aftermath of the Andy Lopez tragedy, the Andy Lopez Task Force recommended the formation of an independent oversight agency to monitor the Sheriff’s Office; the Board of Supervisors created IOLERO in 2016. The new agency was charged with carrying out independent reviews of police misconduct investigations, creating a Community Advisory Council to study and propose policy recommendations to the Sheriff’s Office, and conducting outreach in order to improve ties between the Sherriff’s Office and the communities it serves.

The new agency, led by Director Jerry Threet, carried great promise but Mr. Threet found that despite his best efforts, the Sheriff’s systematic refusals to release vital investigation records and to otherwise cooperate with the Director curtailed its effectiveness. It is notable that Lt. Mark Essick was Sheriff Steve Freitas’ representative on that Task Force, which recommended by a vote of 20 to 1 that the oversight agency be created. Mark Essick was that sole dissenting vote.

Further, when Mr. Essick was running for Sheriff, he trumpeted his support for IOLERO at every opportunity but after he was elected, he called for disbanding the IOLERO Community Advisory Council as well as the Director’s position in favor of hiring legal firms on a one-off basis that would conduct reviews and report back to him, not the public. However, the agency continues its work under the current director, Karlene Navarro.

Over the years, the County has paid out millions of taxpayer dollars for lawsuits resulting from excessive force/wrongful death fatalities at the hands of the Sheriff. The names of those stolen lives still resonate:

Jeremiah Chass, 16, parents called 911 for help with son having mental crisis; within six minutes of arriving, sheriffs shot the boy 8 times; wrongful death case settled for $1.75 million.

Glenn Swindell, 39, had a psychotic episode and holed up in his attic. The Sheriff’s 50-member SWAT team bombarded the attic with multiple tear gas canisters and battered down a wall of the house; the terrified Swindell committed suicide – his widow recently settled the wrongful death case for $1.9 million.

The Lopez family was recently awarded $3 million for Andy’s tragic death.

David Ward, 52, was killed by Deputy Charlie Blount who repeatedly slammed the man’s head against his car and then employed a suffocating carotid hold. Bodycam videos revealed the shocking attack. Sheriff Essick fired Blount but the Deputies’ Association filed a lawsuit to prevent the termination and before the suit made it to court, Essick allowed Blount to retire with full pension; civil court case pending.

Jason Anglero-Wyrick, 35, was unarmed and with hands up, was tased, then attacked and mauled by a police dog. The needless viciousness was clearly depicted in a video shot by his sobbing daughter; Anglero-Wyrick has required multiple surgeries in an effort to save his leg.

● In two other notable cases, 20 County jail inmates were subjected in 2016 to a five-hour round of physical and emotional torture known as “yard counseling.” They were awarded $1.7 million; Esa Wroth was beaten and tased 23 times in 28 minutes; his case was settled for $1.25 million.

● In mid-August, Donald Miller, 49, whose wife had called for help to get her husband to a hospital because he was having a psychotic break, was tased to death on the spot by deputies.

● And in a newly surfaced case, La’Marcus McDonald, 34, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff for excessive and deadly force. Deputies roused McDonald from sleep in his car and slammed him face-first into the ground. He was rendered unconscious, suffered a concussion, several teeth were knocked out and he suffered multiple lacerations of the face & arms. “We’ve made sure to leave no doubt,” said Hagens-Berman attorney Reed Kathrein. “The Sheriff’s Office has been complicit both in our client’s case of police brutality and misconduct, and in a history of similar instances. Sheriff Essick insists that there was no wrongdoing but refuses to release body cam footage of the July 2019 incident.”

In September,1997, the San Francisco Weekly asked, “Why do police in bucolic Santa Rosa kill more citizens per capita than cops in San Francisco and New York?” And in September, 2020, research Karen Saari says, “I feel it is important to let the public know about the high number of law enforcement-related deaths emanating from the Sheriff’s Office since Essick took over in January 2019. There have been nine (!!!) such deaths since then. This may be an all-time record. There is something very wrong at the Sheriff’s Office and this is one indicator of those problems.”

Another is that the Sheriff’s Office has paid out more than $13.1 million for excessive force/wrongful death cases since 2011 – $6.6 million in the past year alone - and as a result, their liability insurance premiums have skyrocketed by 46% this year to $5.9 million per year, up from $3.2 million last year.

There’s no room for doubt that real reform of the Sheriff’s Office must be initiated in earnest and that greater transparency and accountability comprise the essential first step to improvement.

Please help to get the process rolling right now – VOTE YES ON P!



OPINION - Death by Sonoma County Sheriffs

OPINION: Measure P on the Ballot: Our right to Police Oversight-IOLERO

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