By Royal Calkins
It was a good and grand thing that happened on Tuesday. The voting public said it was time for a new way of doing things in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, a way that is not merely imposed on us the way it always has been.
For decades mediocrity has been endured though there were those times when some of the men and women in those awful green uniforms performed well. That was usually through personal initiative or integrity, a patrol deputy going an extra mile to find the lost child, a detective relying on shoe leather rather than intimidation to break the case.
It is a department populated with men and women who care about doing the right thing but who have learned that doing the right thing doesn’t always advance your career. They watched as the sheriff set his own schedule and spent much of it fooling around with and pressuring women who worked for him. They watched as the jail command tolerated the abuse of prisoners and laughed at the neediest men and women behind bars.
In one recent death, a man suffering from severe schizophrenia and other issues got no mental health treatment while he was incarcerated for eight months for a minor crime. He died. It cost the county and its medical provider $2.5 million.
The guy in cell B-12 might need a nurse, but that’s expensive. We’ll get him a nurse if he’s still with us tomorrow.
Some deputies worked hard to get on special teams and then learned that half of a shift might consist of getting drunk, so drunk that one of theirs almost died in a bathtub. And nothing came of it. Discipline, that was for losers or those who had supported the wrong candidate in the last election.
They watched as their supervisors made up allegations about political opponents, somberly and secretly crafted accusations while on duty and didn’t get in any trouble. Instead, the supervisors got promoted and the county picked up their legal bills. One retired at full pension. His buddies are about to do the same
Some watched their bosses rack up overtime for work that couldn’t possibly have been worked and heard them explain why there was no money for better radios.
Once, while the sheriff and his top people were being investigated by the District Attorney’s Office, they “lost” their cell phones and computers so old communications couldn’t be recovered. Who paid for the replacements? Taxpayers.
They watched the sheriff host a convention for other sheriffs and saw that it was mostly about schmoozing and golfing and politicking. And while they watched the bosses hanging out, they were being paid themselves, overtime, no questions asked. Just fill your timecard like this and no one will notice. I cover you. You cover me.
Some noticed that the sheriff was always flying off somewhere, with other people, including some that a sheriff should not be seen with. Who paid for the trips? Friends and friends of friends.
The soon-to-be-gone sheriff, Steve Bernal, was a lowly deputy when he was elected eight years ago. He was handling a gazillion-dollar budget though he had never taken a budget class. He had never received any special training after the police academy. Never hired or fired anyone except maybe a bass player for his cowboy band. But no one seemed to understand that he was creating a mess that he never had any hope of fixing.
So that brings us to now, or to January actually, when the new sheriff, Tina Nieto, takes over.
She comes well equipped for the challenge, probably better equipped than anyone before her. She’s the first woman and first minority to land the top spot here in 179 years. One of the best trained as well. Before coming to Marina as police chief, she had been a captain, the highest ranking woman ever at the Los Angeles Police Department. She supervised cops in huge sections of the city. By necessity, she kept those above her in the know.
While the Sheriff’s Office makes the Marina Police Department seem small, LAPD makes the Sheriff’s Office look like a scout troop. It’s tougher too. After some scandals, the rules got tougher and toleration for rulebreakers dissolved.
No, I’m not saying she’s going to have an easy time of it. After eight years of Bernal and who knows how many undersheriffs, not much is working right at MCSO. If you were going to buy a boat, you wouldn’t buy a broken boat. The department is a broken boat.
Nieto will find some good folks in and out of the department. She’ll also find some chowderheads who won’t want to work for an outsider. Or a woman. Or a Latina.
Some will try to test her. That’s good. She’s tougher than she looks. Some will try to finesse her and that may work. For a time.
Among the biggest problems for Nieto will be the jail. It has been a broken boat for years and years.
A civil rights attorney who has successfully sued over jail issues five times said the poor treatment truly bothered her but worse was the attitudes, a view from the top down that the inmates really didn’t matter. She said she encountered an exception when Scott Miller was sheriff before Bernal. She said he pushed for better treatment but received strong resistance from the jail staff. If the top official can’t fix it, who can? No one by themselves.
Nieto, dear people of Monterey County, will need your help. Tensions are high between the Sheriff’s Office and the rest of county government. When the Sheriff’s Office gets sued, the county lawyers hold back facts from the public and hide the amount of liability from the county supervisors.
Because of federal court orders, the jail may be adequately staffed but it relies on a terrible contract with a private company to provide health services for the inmates. Until the lawsuits pile up, poor medical care is cheaper than good care but the county, the sheriff, is obligated to provide at least adequate care.
Fixing that bit of nonsense will be expensive. Nieto will need the full weight of the county bureaucracy to change things and she’ll need you, the taxpayer, to help by not squawking about the price until the result exposes itself.
The county has a widely admired public health operation in Natividad Medical Center and associated clinics. Yet we contract with a profit-driven, privately owned company from Tennessee to slap bandages on the jail’s health care issues and wonder why million-dollar settlements are becoming more and more common. It would be a huge bureaucratic feat to start using Natividad resources at the jail rather than the cut-rate operation that is working so poorly now, but it is more than worth the trouble.
Tried that once. Didn’t work. OK, well, by all means. Let’s not try again.
It is a department where women are fair game for sexual harassment, even sexual coercion, and when it’s discovered the men get promoted, or retired with pension intact. The women may do fine at the start of the relationship but at the end they are demoted or fired or transferred because they have been branded as disposable.
Imagine the challenges Nieto will have with hiring and firing. Several Bernal loyalists who support Capt. Joe Moses over Nieto will scatter, and she’ll be hammered by people wanting those jobs.
Haven’t some detectives making $100,000 been walking away with double or three times as much? Where do I sign up?
Every personnel decision will be challenged.
You hired Bill because he worked on your campaign. You didn’t hire Joyce because she supported your opponent. You hired Jimmy because his dad contributed to your campaign.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.
You think things are tough in your office? Try it here and remember everyone has a union rep.
The only thing as sticky as a regular election is an election in a Sheriff’s Office. Or a District Attorney’s Office. In most workplaces personnel decisions are made by bean counters several states away. In a Sheriff’s Office, your boss and her boss controls your fate. So if you mess up, you’d better be able to hide it.
The good news is that Nieto has already expressed support for a citizens advisory board. The form and the role haven’t been set yet but it is critical that those decisions are made wisely. Communities and law enforcement agencies have spent decades building barriers between them. It’s going to take hard work and lots of good intentions to break them down.
Under Bernal and the rest of the county regime, internal complaints that are mandated to be handled professionally have been shelved or simply lost. Even a woman in charge of internal affairs wasn’t able to persuade her supervisor that his supervisor was harassing her. For years now prosecutors have complained that bad behavior by deputies or detectives doesn’t become obvious until trial. Too late.
If the public felt it had a place to raise issues about police behavior, if parents felt they could find out how their sons and daughters are faring in custody without being made to feel like low-lifes, some of the tensions that surround this fortress could ease.
And while Nieto and county leaders are creating citizen review boards, they should be eliminating things such as the Sheriff’s Advisory Board, where well-heeled businesspeople get the privilege of hanging with the sheriff in exchange for donating exercise equipment or the like.
Some of these people end up with armored vests and paraphernalia and allowed or even encouraged to seek a little patrol action for themselves. The liability must be huge.
Good news, in addition to the election results, is that the complexion of the Board of Supervisors is changing, too. Hard-nosed John Phillips is out, to be replaced by analytical Glenn Church, who is winning a board seat handily. And also soon after the first of the year, County Administrative Office Charles McKee is stepping down. We can hope a stronger board and administration can help the new sheriff find ways to make better use of a tremendous amount of resources that have been poured into the wrong holes for decades.
Wish Nieto luck. Wish us luck.
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