Oversight may be coming for Sheriff’s Office Monterey County supervisors agree out-of-control department needs stronger guidance


By Royal Calkins

With some supervisors expressing serious concerns about the performance of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, the Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to refer some issues to the state Attorney General’s Office for criminal investigation and to begin the process of creating civilian oversight for the department.

“So many incidents have come out of one department,” said Supervisor Luis Alejo. “So much is happening in such a short amount of time” that additional scrutiny and action by the board appears to be necessary.

Alejo was referring generally to news accounts of serious cases of sexual harassment and coercion being tolerated by the department’s top management, escapes, jail deaths resulting in large financial settlements, allegations of payroll padding and other problems, all under the watch of Sheriff Steve Bernal. Alejo and other supervisors also brought up financial issues and seemed to be in favor of financial and management audits of the department.

On the proposal for a citizens oversight committee or possible inspector general, much of the discussion focused on whether the supervisors should act now or wait until a new sheriff is on board. With Bernal not seeking a third term, either Marina Police Chief Tina Nieto or sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses will head the department starting in January depending on the outcome of the Nov. 8 election. 

Supervisor Wendy Root Askew had proposed creation of a citizens panel months ago but the board majority opted to wait until after the election. During board discussion of that topic, then-Undersheriff John Mineau recommended against civilian oversight. He has since retired after the county Office of Civil Rights sustained complaints that he had sexually harassed one woman in the department and had coerced another into a relationship.

On Tuesday, Nieto spoke in favor of civilian oversight, saying public trust has been eroded and that sometimes the existence of a monitoring board can improve the quality of internal affairs investigations and other work. She noted that civilian panels often side with law enforcement’s view of an incident or issue. Moses did not weigh in.

County Administrative Office Charles McKee suggested that the department is adequately monitored through the county’s existing process and that it would be better to wait until after the new sheriff is sworn in. None of the supervisors expressed support for either position.

McKee, who is retiring in December, urged the board to not dwell on past mistakes but to be “forward-thinking.” He also said, contrary to the opinion of numerous high-ranking sheriff’s officials, the department’s Internal Affairs division has performed ably. Following media accounts about a recent IA investigation that led to suspension of a sheriff’s sergeant for alleged payroll fraud, the commander in charge of Internal Affairs was reassigned. Others in the department reportedly remain under investigation.

Christian Schneider, a campaign consultant who is engaged in litigation against Moses and others, alleged during public comment that the County Counsel’s Office had “buried” internal affairs complaints he had filed, including one complaint about previous complaints being shelved without action. He said he also questioned whether the jail’s inmate welfare fund is being used for inappropriate purposes.

Members of the public were allotted two minutes apiece to present comments. Schneider later asked for a second two-minute segment but the county staff ruled against him without saying why.

The board has been feeling political heat over the negative headlines the department has been generating. Supervisor Mary Adams made it clear, as did others, that the supervisors have limited authority over the Sheriff’s Office because it is headed by an elected official and the duties are constitutionally mandated. The supervisors can’t fire the sheriff or any of his employees and can’t even require the sheriff to show his face in the office on any regular basis.

The board discussed the idea of referring possible criminal activities to the Monterey County District Attorney instead of the attorney general but Supervisor John Phillips, a former judge, recommended against it. For one thing, he mentioned, investigators in the DA’s Office are members of the same union that represents sheriff’s deputies.

“I don’t know if there are any of us who don’t have concerns,” Phillips said. “How they have kind of let us down in a number of areas.” However, he said he was also hopeful that the new sheriff would “make the right changes to make sure the missteps don’t happen again.”

Some cities and counties have made the mistake of appointing law enforcement critics to civilian oversight groups, Phillips noted. 

Chris Barrera, president of the local League of United Latin American Citizens civil rights group chapter, said many people in the community have complained to him about the performance of the Sheriff’s Office while also expressing doubts about the validity of the county’s complaint processes.

Several county representatives emphasized that they don’t mean to be critical of the rank and file, most of whom work hard and effectively. Adams said the items of concern mainly have to do with the “culture at the top.”

The board vote was unanimous. No firm deadlines were set but County Counsel Les Girard said he should be able to return to the board by early December with specific recommendations on how to proceed.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Oversight may be coming for Sheriff’s Office Monterey County supervisors agree out-of-control department needs stronger guidance

  1. On September 27, 2009 Joe Moses along with Sgt Ted Durham threatened me with arrest (theft) for donating numerous bags of clothing that were left at my house for over a month when one of their co-worker deputies moved out. The deputy was found to be lying (during an IA investigation) about sexually abusing his children. This also was covered up. The deputy was fired and given his 17 year retirement instead of arrest. Moses and Durham knew of it.

  2. Well hopefully they will do something soon. I knew the DAs office couldn’t be trusted either…. The whole county is so F’d up? Why doesn’t the state or Federal government step in and do something? This is totally unacceptable!

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