Just as the Sheriff’s Office is facing renewed scrutiny over the Nov. 24 death of a Petaluma man, the community advisory arm of a county law enforcement watchdog held its last meeting with its founding members on Monday, Dec. 2.
Over three and a half years after its formation, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) remains underfunded, the office’s supporters argue. Additionally, the community advisory council has been hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Sheriff’s Office for the past year, according to former members council.
But, the public has renewed the conversation around the issue of law enforcement oversight in the wake of the death of David Ward.
Ward, 52, died at a local hospital on Wednesday, Nov. 24, about an hour after a Sheriff’s deputy attempted a controversial neck hold on him, according to an account released by the Santa Rosa Police Department.
The case, which has made headlines nationwide, began when an off-duty Santa Rosa police detective informed the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office that he had spotted Ward’s car, which Ward had reported stolen several days earlier.
After leading law enforcement officials on a seven-minute car chase, Ward reportedly did not follow orders from law enforcement officials to exit his car.
Santa Rosa Police Lt. Dan Marincik told the Press Democrat last week that, after the chase but before the altercation began, Ward said to law enforcement officers through his car’s open window, “I can’t believe this. I’m the injured party in this. Why are you f—ing harassing me all the time.”
The situation soon escalated, according to the police department’s account. The officers hit and used a Taser on Ward. Then Blount attempted a neck restraint on Ward.
“Deputy Blount who was outside next to Ward’s driver’s door placed one of his arms around the neck of Ward and attempted to administer a carotid restraint,” the police department’s report states.
Because of its potential to injure or kill a subject if administered incorrectly, some law enforcement agencies ban the carotid hold.
And, among a long list of recommended changes to the Sheriff’s Office’s use of force policy released as a draft in November, the IOLERO community advisory council asked the sheriff’s office to prohibit all officers “from using restrictive choke holds and strangle holds including the carotid restraints.”
Karlene Navarro, who has led IOLERO since March, said on Tuesday, Dec. 10, that the Sheriff’s Office has told her they won’t implement the suggested ban of carotid restraints on a temporary or ongoing basis.
“I had a lengthy meeting with the Sheriff yesterday and we discussed a plan to research how other jurisdictions have dealt with this issue and what safer alternatives may exist,” Navarro wrote to the Bohemian. “One of the concerns is that evidence shows that an outright ban on resistance tools such as the carotid hold sometimes lead to a rise in other instances of force and more injuries.”
However, two former members of the CAC who worked on the use of force policy recommendations say that the Sheriff’s Office did not participate in the development of the CAC’s recommendations as the office had done during similar previous processes.
If they had, the CAC would have been able to consider the Sheriff’s Office’s concerns well before they issued recommendations, the council members argue.
Navarro decided not to extend the terms of any of the current members of the advisory council. As a result, the council’s Dec. 2 meeting was its last with its founding members. Navarro is currently searching for new members.
To two former CAC members who worked on the proposals, the use of force recommendation process was a frustrating communication breakdown between the Sheriff’s Office and IOLERO.
“[In previous policy recommendation processes] there was really a lot of good back and forth so that we could end up hammering out a policy that already reflected something that had a good chance of being passed by the Sheriff, because we already kind of worked out the kinks,” Cozine told the Bohemian.
After hearing the Sheriff’s Office comments, the CAC could share the results of the conversations, and the Sheriff’s thinking about the suggestions, at public meetings before issuing final recommendations. However, the relationship started to break down when the CAC started to consider the use of force policies, Cozine said.
Representatives of the Sheriff’s Office stopped coming to as many meetings and “it became clear right away that the new director and the Sheriff were not interested in having the CAC meet with them and discuss policy,” Cozine said.
Sgt. Juan Valencia, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, says that the office values the input from the IOLERO director and community advisory council, and noted that representatives of the Sheriff’s Office attended the CAC’s Dec. 2 meeting.
Navarro says that, while she wasn’t around for the entire process of creating the use of force policies, she recommended that the CAC include some of the research they had conducted about carotid restraints, instead of offering a one-line request, as they did in the case of the carotid restraint.
Navarro said she “never understood” the CAC’s previous approach to policy recommendations.
”My question to the CAC was why should the Sheriff’s Office dictate what recommendation to me?” Navarro told the Bohemian.
Navarro added that an assistant sheriff had told the CAC at a meeting in July that “I’ve already talked to you about [use of force policies].” Still, Navarro acknowledged that there was “some disagreement” among the CAC about whether the Sheriff’s Office had addressed their concerns.
Jim Duffy, another former CAC member, says that policy recommendations are “where the rubber hits the road” for a law enforcement review office because of the possibility of bringing about change.
However, in Duffy’s view, the CAC’s role is to work “hand in glove with the Sheriff’s Office” in order to craft the best recommendations. Without the opportunity to speak to the Sheriff’s Office earlier in the process, that wasn’t possible.
IOLERO came out of the community outrage and protest stemming from the 2013 death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year old boy who a sheriff’s deputy killed on Moorland Avenue, a then-unincorporated area of Santa Rosa.
After 16 months of meetings, the Community and Local Law Enforcement (CALLE) task force, a 21-member group with representatives from across the county and within the Sheriff’s Office, issued its recommendations, including forming a law enforcement review and public outreach office.
The CALLE task force recommended forming the auditor’s office based on “a desire to enhance community confidence in the delivery of law enforcement services and ultimately to bring law enforcement and the community closer together.”
Ultimately, the supervisors created the office with one full-time auditor and a full-time assistant with a promise to revisit the level of funding for the office once the first auditor advised the board on further needs.
But pretty much everyone involved in the formation and operation of IOLERO says that the state has underfunded it throughout its short life.
Caroline Bañuelos, who served as chair of the CALLE task force, told the Bohemian that she’s had concerns about the level of funding the office has received since it’s approval in late 2015.
Jerry Threet, who served as auditor between April 2016 and March 2019, says he asked for additional staff several times during his time leading the office but never received any.
Navarro, the current director of IOLERO, told KSRO last week that the office is “really underfunded and over-tasked.”
The Board of Supervisors recently allowed Navarro to hire an additional full-time staffer to help her run the office and conduct community outreach.
But Navarro says the new employee won’t begin work until January at the earliest. And, despite the additional staffer, Navarro will still be the only employee who can conduct law enforcement audits, write annual reports or make policy recommendations, tasks considered central to the office’s role.
In the county’s current recommended budget, IOLERO receives $549,793, approximately 0.3 percent the size of Sheriff’s current recommended budget, $180 million.
In a ballot measure proposal aimed at strengthening the office, Threet and other advocates propose increasing IOLERO’s funding to 1 percent of the Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget, approximately $1.8 million under the current budget.
Threet and other backers hope to get the measure, known as the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, on the county’s November 2020 ballot.
Done well, the benefits of community involvement and review could make the Sheriff’s Office stronger and more popular with the community it serves, Cozine says.
One possible benefit could be saving the county money from lawsuit settlements.
“I really think that [increased spending on oversight] would be saved by the county in spending on lawsuits,” Cozine told the Bohemian. “If you have a strong and robust oversight office, you are going to have a well-functioning and best-practicing law enforcement organization.”
In 2018, the county agreed to pay a $3 million settlement to Andy Lopez’s family after years of fighting a case that ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Charlies Blount, the deputy who attempted a carotid hold on Ward in November, reportedly has a legal history of his own.
In 2015, the county settled a court case about a 2011 excessive force case involving Blount and other deputies for $375,000, according to KQED.
Another attorney told KQED that her client settled a 2016 case involving Blount for a “low monetary amount.”
Of course, settlement amounts do not include the cost of county staff time and outside legal fees.