Who polices the police? Public hearing on oversight for Monterey County Sheriff’s Office


By Royal Calkins

Former Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal’s biggest accomplishment, if it can be called that, was inadvertently showing the public and county officials that the Sheriff’s Office needs more oversight.

His eight years in office were stained by allegations of systemic sexual harassment and worse by the top brass; illegal spending of taxpayer money; Internal Affairs complaints that were simply ignored; rapes of jail inmates; escapes of inmates; a series of preventable deaths and a pattern of woeful health care in the jail; millions of dollars spent on litigation; unfathomable overtime pay for detectives and others; and department supervisors going unpunished after making unfounded public allegations against subordinates.

And that’s only the things we found out about.

It was a mess that has been passed on to Bernal’s successor, Sheriff Tina Nieto, who took office in January after a campaign in which she said she would support creation of a citizens’ oversight committee — a panel of county residents providing an unspecified level of scrutiny over her department’s various functions.

Nieto has since changed her mind, however. She now supports the idea of an independent inspector general who would perform some of the main functions of a citizens’ committee.

But the idea of a combination of a citizens’ council working with an inspector general has gained traction among various public interest groups in the county and the larger region, including the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, resulting in a detailed proposal that began floating through the community in recent days.

That proposal and other suggestions are to be the focus of a “public listening” session from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, at the county government building, 168 W. Alisal St. in Salinas. The session also will be available via Zoom.

The county Board of Supervisors last year endorsed the idea of a citizens’ oversight committee and appointed a two-supervisor committee, Glenn Church and Wendy Root Askew, to head the creation process. Recent state legislation, Assembly Bill 1185, allows for creation of such oversight bodies. The state Attorney General’s Office also has direct authority over sheriffs’ and police departments and district attorney’s offices, but it rarely acts except in serious cases of criminal behavior.

In a recent interview, Nieto told Voices that she is no longer backing the idea of a citizens’ panel, largely because of costs. The proposed ordinance now being circulated calls for an oversight budget covering a citizens’ commission and an inspector general to equal at least 1% of the Sheriff’s Office budget. That would create an oversight budget of at least $1.5 million annually.

Such a panel would require some staffing plus legal counsel and there likely would be unanticipated expenses, Nieto said. A qualified inspector general, operating independently of the Sheriff’s Office, could play an equally effective and less expensive role, she indicated.

“I’m not opposed to a committee but I think it would be better to start out with an inspector general” reporting to the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff said.

She said she had concerns about the appointment and training process of citizens’ committee members.

“Doing things on the cheap doesn’t work, especially when you’re looking at fixing whole systems,” she continued. “I don’t think the board will put the money into it right now.”

An inspector general operation over the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department starts at the end of this month, but is already being criticized by some in the community for not having enough authority.

Members of Nieto’s staff, who asked not to be identified, said some in the department have objected to a citizens’ committee, in part because it likely would become politicized as has happened with similar bodies elsewhere. Los Angeles County’s highly politicized panel is often cited as an example.

“We’re already under an extreme level of scrutiny at all levels and adding a layer of amateurs to the mix doesn’t give us any comfort,” said one veteran manager in the department.

One of the department’s primary functions is running the county jail, which has been under federal monitoring for the past eight years because of dangerously inadequate health care provided by a for-profit vendor.

Regardless of Nieto’s misgivings, a strong lineup of Monterey County organizations has endorsed a larger effort involving residents and various specialists appointed by the supervisors working with an inspector general. The groups include the Monterey County chapter of the ACLU, the League of Women Voters of Monterey County, Salinas LULAC #2025, LULAC North Monterey County, MILPA, the NAACP’s Monterey County Branch, the Caste Action Alliance and the Monterey Peace and Justice Center.

A proposed enabling ordinance detailing the larger proposal was tweaked by longtime ACLU leader and Monterey County lawyer Michelle Welsh from a draft ordinance prepared by something called the California Coalition for Sheriff Oversight. The coalition involves activists in the counties of Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Alameda and Marin.

The local draft ordinance says, “Civilian oversight of law enforcement is an investment that benefits the community even if there are no presently existing issues. However, there have been numerous prior and existing issues and a number of concerns related to the health and safety of persons incarcerated at the Monterey County Jail and the management.”

Under that proposal, the community panel and inspector general would have subpoena power and the power to require the department to turn over investigative reports and other documents. They would be empowered to conduct hearings, at least some of which would be held in public.

It isn’t entirely clear what force the oversight structure would have to directly discipline deputies and others in the department. It would be required to make public reports every three months listing disciplinary actions in the department but without names. It could be charged with responsibility to determine if deputies were at fault in shooting cases.

Nieto said any inspector general would need to be a law enforcement professional “that understands the systems because you have to create a sense of fairness to a whole bunch of different people … fairness to the community, the electeds, and there has to be a sense of fairness to the law enforcement people.”

Elsewhere, inspectors general hired by local jurisdictions are usually heavily experienced in both law enforcement and public policy. The inspector general over the Fresno Police Department, for instance, is John Gliatta, a retired FBI agent and analyst for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department.

Gliatta also had been an assistance inspector for the FBI, handling investigations of FBI field offices and shootings by special agents.

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About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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