.IOLERO Says Many of Sheriff’s Internal Investigations are Incomplete

Early on the morning of Nov. 27, 2019, David Ward lost his life on a dead-end street in Bloomfield.

Three days earlier, the 52-year-old had reported his green Honda Civic stolen. Ward later recovered the car but did not inform law enforcement. When the police received a report that the supposedly stolen car had been spotted, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputies Charles Blount and Jason Little gave chase.

Once Ward’s car came to a stop, still not knowing Ward was driving his own car, the deputies attempted to arrest him. A body-cam video posted on YouTube shows Blount trying to pull Ward out of his car window, slamming his head against the car door several times and attempting a now-banned carotid choke-hold while Ward sat in the driver’s seat.

As the case gained public attention, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick decided to fire Blount, but the deputy quit before Essick acted. In October 2020, a grand jury indicted Blount on two charges, felony involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor assault. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office is pursuing an involuntary manslaughter charge against the former deputy in a trial which is expected to conclude in early February.

Essick placed Little, the deputy who accompanied Blount, on temporary leave after the incident. Following an internal investigation of the incident, the Sheriff exonerated Little of any responsibility in Ward’s death.

Little’s exoneration is one of 13 Sheriff’s Office investigations that the County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach found incomplete or not totally accurate. The 2020–2021 report references a total of 25 investigations.

“Deputy Little appears to have had ample opportunity to intercede in Mr. Blount’s egregious behavior,” IOLERO’s report states. “A departmental policy required him to do that and he made no attempt to comply.”

The agency presented its report to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Jan. 25. IOLERO can audit sheriff’s investigations and make recommendations based on its findings, but it cannot conduct independent investigations or enforce its recommendations.

Another case the IOLERO report cited involved a deputy who posted anti-Jewish and anti-Black statements on social media. The Sheriff’s Office exonerated the deputy, but the IOLERO report found the investigation to be incomplete, saying the posting violated department policy involving the balance between First Amendment free-speech rights and a deputy’s responsibility as a public servant.

The policy reads, in part, “Due to the nature of the work and influence associated with the law enforcement profession, it is necessary that employees of this office be subject to certain reasonable limitations on their speech and expression.”

The other 12 investigations which IOLERO deemed incomplete range from alleged mishandling of a collision between a deputy’s car and a private vehicle to a deputy using excessive force while arresting a man who was sleeping in his legally parked vehicle. Two of the cases involved jail medical staff.

Nancy Pemberton, a member of IOLERO’s Community Advisory Committee—the group charged with providing community input—said of the auditors’ findings, “We should be very disturbed about the incomplete investigations. If the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t enforce policies, they might as well not have them. There is no motivation for the deputies to follow the policies.”

Established by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2015, IOLERO’s five tasks include independent review of sheriff’s investigations, an alternative avenue for members of the public to file complaints against the Sheriff’s Office, increasing transparency, conducting public outreach and proposing policy recommendations to the sheriff.

In November 2020, Sonoma County voters approved Measure P, a ballot measure intended to strengthen and expand IOLERO powers, including the right to conduct independent investigations, to subpoena the records of deputies involved in investigations, to publish deputies’ body-cam videos, to sit in on interviews of the subjects of complaints and to recommend discipline measures.

However, two police unions quickly filed a complaint with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that the county mishandled the process of putting the measure on the ballot. The complaint has resulted in all portions of the measure involving deputies being invalidated while a court considers the county’s appeal of the Public Employment Relations Board’s ruling.

Although the audits form the core of the agency’s 2020–2021 report, the report also lists some successful efforts at recommending Sheriff’s Office reforms and IOLERO’s ongoing work within the community. The successful actions include agreeing to implement “an overarching de-escalation policy” and a new policy requiring deputies to document every time they point a weapon at a suspect, even if they don’t fire it.

In the community, IOLERO has been working with Angel Turner, the sister of Georgia Leah Moses, a 12-year-old girl whose 1997 murder is still unsolved.

Pemberton, a retired criminal defense attorney who was appointed to the CAC in December, wrote about her concerns with the report’s finding in a letter she sent to the supervisors.

“It is not enough to read and listen to the report. It is time for the board of supervisors to exercise more authority over this rogue sheriff’s department, with whatever tools you have at your disposal,” Pemberton wrote.

At their Jan. 25 meeting, the supervisors also entertained a second agenda item involving IOLERO. They approved Bay Area attorney Garrick Byers as interim director of the agency. Byers will replace IOLERO’s former director Karlene Navarro, who left her position suddenly in November after Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her to serve as a Sonoma County Superior Court judge.

In an interview last week, Byers said he “expects no change in direction” during what he estimates will be a five-to-six-month stint as interim chief.

“I am moving forward on Karlene’s plans,” he said.

Navarro, who has known Byers for many years, hired him in September 2021 to audit a backlog of cases dating back to 2017.

During his tenure, he expects to take a more active role in the CAC and to further the Sheriff’s proposed community-oriented policing program, Byers said.

In an emailed statement to the Bohemian, Board Chair James Gore said, “The Board of Supervisors is heartened that the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office expressed a commitment to conducting more thorough and complete investigations. Interim Director Byers has the support of the Board in meeting IOLERO’s mission to strengthen the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the community, which could include working to improve the internal process for completing investigations, in the interest of greater transparency of law enforcement operations.”

Beginning in February, the county plans to conduct a nationwide search for a permanent IOLERO director.

In regard to that search the CAC has “strongly recommended” that the supervisors and the county’s human resources department adopt the transparent process employed by King County, Washington when it appointed a new director for its Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

King County’s process included two virtual public meetings featuring the two top candidates for the position. Meeting participants were asked to complete a survey that was shared with the county’s recruitment committee.


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