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photo credit: Courtesy of Inventorchris/flickr
Disappointment and confusion continue to surround the struggle for oversight of the Sonoma County sheriff’s department.
Local resident Kimi Barbosa recently made her thoughts on the matter known to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
"You proved us right," Barbosa said. "In 2020 we said we did not want you to adopt this ordinance because we did not trust that you would keep this ordinance intact."
 She's not alone in her concern.
In an August letter to the Board the Community Advisory Council - CAC - expressed their concern about the future of the county’s independent sheriff oversight body, IOLERO.
“Indeed it appears that the county has done exactly what community members most feared would happen.”
Supervisor Chris Coursey weighed in with his thoughts.
"You've got a couple of different narratives going on, and one is that the MOU’s allow Measure P to be implemented, and the other is the MOU’s have gutted Measure P," Coursey said.
Recent months have seen a flurry of legal activity over the implementation of Measure P, passed by 65% of Sonoma County voters in 2020.
Measure P provides for greater civilian oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.
Much of the contention centers on the decision by the state Public Employee Relation Board, PERB, vacating provisions of Measure P after deputy sheriffs labor groups filed a complaint after the measure’s passage.
In June the California Court of Appeals overturned PERB’s decision.
Meanwhile, the Sonoma County board of supervisors, the appellant against PERB’s decision, signed memoranda of understanding, MOUs, with the deputy sheriffs labor organizations.
Then, earlier this month, the California Supreme Court denied hearing an appeal aiming to reinstate PERB’s initial ruling to overturn Measure P.
Coursey expressed some optimism for oversight though.
"The provisions of Measure P have not been applied," Coursey said. "And it's not because anybody thinks that they can't be. My understanding is that they, they have not been. Nobody has asked, nobody has refused. So it's hard to make predictions. But my expectations are that we're gonna have more robust sheriff's department oversight in Sonoma County because of Measure P."
Lauren Bonds, legal director for the National Police Accountability Project, said the complicated legal morass around the implementation of police oversight, not just in Sonoma County, but across the country, comes as no surprise.
"One of the really big barriers to municipal or county level civilian oversight, unfortunately, has been that even if there's very vocal support from the public, it's so easy for law enforcement unions to kind of tie things up in the court," Bonds said. "Some of the most exciting models that we've seen haven't really moved forward because they've been tied up in litigation."
Bonds said the auditor model, which IOLERO operates on, can have serious shortcomings.
"The auditor model, like after internal affairs has done its thing, and it's kind of referred to independent oversight where they can make their own determination, that usually doesn't have much binding effect or force, unfortunately," Bonds said. "And oftentimes even those bodies don't really get all of the information that they need to do a real investigation or assessment."
Some of the major concerns about the recent MOUs are over whistleblowing and investigative powers. Measure P originally allowed IOLERO to get whistleblower complaints without having to notify the sheriff’s internal affairs department. Per the MOUs though, complaints to IOLERO must now be referred to quote “the appropriate enforcement agency.”
Regarding investigations, the MOUs stipulate the sheriff doesn't have to comply with a request by the IOLERO director to access internal investigative files. And that IOLERO can only begin investigating incidents which result in a death following the conclusion of the sheriff’s own investigation.
In the eyes of the CAC, both investigative provisions run afoul of Measure P, and they said the precedence of the MOUs over established law, leaves the county open to further legal troubles around Measure P going forward.
Bonds said the provisions within the MOUs should come as no surprise.
"So I think that's been kind of one of the biggest forms of opposition we've really seen is officers pushing back and saying that we can't be held accountable, cause otherwise we won't be able to do our job," Bonds said.
John Alden, the new IOLERO director, addressed the CAC’s concerns at their September meeting. He said for now the relationship between the sheriff's office and IOLERO appears set in place.
"I'm not aware, from what I've been advised so far, that there's a way for IOLERO to expand its powers beyond those letters of agreement through this operational agreement," Alden said. "This is the document that helps us understand how to implement the letters for better or for worse. In that regard, this operational agreement is not going to allow us to get to the issues that people have expressed concern about."
While IOLERO retains its ability to recommend disciplinary action and interview individuals as part of its investigations, anger over the MOUs continues.
"This agreement does impinge on the proper operation by IOLERO," local resident Thomas said at a recent board meeting. "To write these letters of agreements with the sheriff to essentially gut the major aspects of this ordinance continues to breed distrust," Barbosa said. "Now it's the Board of Supervisors literally standing in the way of independent oversight," said Lee Vandeveer speaking to the board of supervisors during public comment.
As Bonds said, the court still serves as a forum of last resort.
"At the end of the day, sometimes courts are the best way to hold police accountable, ultimately our theory of change is that you should always be able to sue police to make them better and also to be made whole for injuries that you experience," Bonds said.
Josette Brose-Eichar is a Sonoma County resident who was involved in the Measure P campaign and continues to advocate for accountability. She said proper oversight is itself a matter of public safety.
"If they cared about us as human beings out here that they are supposed to represent, they should care about our safety and whether we live or die, that we should never have to worry that during a traffic stop or in jaywalking that we could die or be harmed in some way," Brose-Eichar said.
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