Jerry Threet’s desk is overflowing with papers and files, and right on the top of the inbox is a print-out of a story from the Washington Examiner that ran a couple of weeks ago. The article told of how Sonoma County sheriff Steve Freitas was one of six California sheriffs who attended a recent meeting in Washington, D.C., with United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, no friend of undocumented immigrants.
The story raised eyebrows and questions around the county, with its outsized population of the undocumented and Trump’s big deportation push right out of the gate. At the center of it all in Sonoma County is Threet, who’s just about to finish his first year as director of the county’s new Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), created in the aftermath of the 2013 shooting of teenager Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy.
We met recently at his office on County Center Drive on two separate occasions, and I asked Threet, a former San Francisco city attorney, to talk about his first year on the job—the biggest challenges and surprises and impressions he has of policing in Sonoma County, what works, what doesn’t and what’s he doing about it. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Bohemian: What are the basic functions of your job, and how do you respond to a criticism or a perception that’s been leveled at the IOLERO that its biases are with the community over the sheriff’s department?
Jerry Threet: We do work with the sheriff’s office, and we have to. It’s part of the charge of the office to bridge the gaps that people perceive between certain communities and the sheriff, but primarily we’re here to serve the community. If folks have complaints about deputies, we’re there as an extra set of eyes, independent of the sheriff’s office, to give the community assurances that these investigations are being done appropriately. We also take complaints here.
We know people feel uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons, and some of that has to do with this immigration order that we’re looking at now, if they come here now. You can file a complaint here, and I think that provides a level of comfort, and also helps with the process, helps to get everything that’s relevant in the complaint. And that function has to be a neutral function—the obligation there is to the truth of what happened, not to the deputies, not to the community, but to the truth. And I think that’s really where you get the confidence—sometimes maybe you’re saying that this [arrest] wasn’t done correctly, and we disagree with the sheriff’s conclusions, and sometimes you say, “Well, yeah, they did do it correctly, and the complainant is not correct on the facts,” and that’s not a surprising thing because if you think about these encounters, they are really stressful encounters. And the memory that folks have of stressful encounters is not really great in recall.
Are there particular challenges for Sonoma County, given its size, the various communities that SCSO is responsible for, and any particulars of staffing at the sheriff’s department?
There’s undeniably a problem around that, and the issue there is staffing. If you look at the staffing of the county for the deputies on each shift, it requires that there be one deputy per car, and usually that’s the only deputy that’s going to respond to a call for service; particularly in some of the districts, the calls for service can be a wide distance from each other. So even getting to a call for service can take a really long time, and that deputy is out there on [his] own, [he] can’t really expect backup for a long time if something goes wrong. It makes it difficult to get to know community members when they are living in a rural setting on large parcels of land far apart from each other, and there’s less of a central community, a center where people gather and interact with one another—those are all challenges for the sheriff’s department.
What are the ways that you work with these realities and seek to improve policing in the county?
I do think that a greater community-oriented focus would be helpful for the sheriff’s department, and for communities in particular in those unincorporated parts of the county that are more dense. One of those is the Moorland-Roseland area, and the other is the Springs. Those also happen to be the areas where there are significant Latino and immigrant communities, which have their own unique challenges for the department. So I think it would make sense to put in place, and I’m advocating for, pilot programs in community policing for those two areas. There are some grant opportunities coming up in a two-year cycle, that come from the state in 2018, and I’m trying to put together a team to put together a package for that. That’s something that would require partnering with community groups in those areas, which I think would be a win-win all the way around.
There was an incident at a home in Boyes Hot Springs last year involving a Deputy Scott Thorne and two other officers. What might have been done differently to avoid this outcome: a domestic-abuse call from a neighbor that ended with a guy getting Tased in his bed by Thorne, who then left the force and was charged with felony assault. As I understand it, the officer didn’t have any civil-service protections. Do you see any way that community policing or some other sheriff’s office policy might have prevented this outcome?
I don’t know enough about all the details of what unfolded to know whether if they had more knowledge of who they were—even with community oriented policing, where you have pretty robust staffing, you’re going to have lots of encounters where you are going to have no idea who these people are or how they got there. So it’s pretty speculative whether that could have changed something. Certainly you’re correct that that deputy, as I understand it, did not have civil-service protections yet, and certainly, without those protections, it’s easy for someone to be let go. I don’t know that he was let go. He could have resigned. All I know is that he is no longer working for the sheriff’s department at this point.
I actually credit the way that they handled that situation. I just don’t know, for example, whether he was told that you’re dismissed or was told that we’re investigating this and you have an opportunity to resign, and perhaps he resigned. Things can happen different ways. This is coming to me after the investigation is complete, after they’ve done the review. So I haven’t seen the videos, I haven’t seen the investigation released. What I do know about it is what has been reported to the press. I will know more details when I review it myself—then I can make a call about it.
One thing that is interesting about it—when the case goes over to criminal investigation, the reasons for him being criminally investigated and the referral can be talked about, in that context. [But] within the context of an administrative investigation, they can’t talk about it. So you still have an investigation ongoing criminally, as I understand it, by the DA of the other two officers. Presumably, she will make a determination soon about that. The administrative investigation is still going on as far as I understand it, and when they reach a conclusion, I’ll get that and I’ll have an opportunity to look at it carefully. And it is three officers, and they are somehow each involved in the incident and each one of them will have their own analysis.
Is anything happening at the federal level under Trump that is giving pause, worry—and how are you addressing the whole threat of renewed ICE crackdowns?
Our Community Advisory Committee made a couple of recommendations. One, the county board should push legislators to support SB 54, the statewide sanctuary bill. And the sheriff’s office should change its policies to only cooperate in any way with ICE when it involves an immigrant involved in a serious and violent felony.
Even if the state declares itself a sanctuary, there’s still federal immigration law and local law enforcement with questions about how to work within that framework.
I think that’s one reason SB 54 is interesting: it takes the conflict out of the hands of the sheriff and supervisors, and makes the decision for everyone. And there’s some real tension around that issue, you know, in every county. My own personal view of it is the government code does give the board of supervisors supervisorial authority over sheriffs, and that it’s rarely exercised.
Is the problem for local law enforcement one of, how do you create carve-outs for particular crimes committed by immigrants so they don’t get deported for stealing a pack of gum?
Nobody is saying that the sheriff’s department or law enforcement shouldn’t enforce the criminal laws; the question is whether they should be assisting in civil immigration laws. That’s a different question. And if you look at the Trump order that came out, the criteria for enforcement practically covers everything at this point. It’s not about crime. The [federal] enforcement priorities have nothing to do with crime. They include crime and they also include whether a single immigration officer thinks, if you are a risk to the country, they get to summarily deport you, put you over the border. I think all those priorities are totally within [Trump’s] purview to set up. There are other areas that are unconstitutional. And he doesn’t have the right to force localities to do it for him.
Some commenters on the Press Democrat‘s story about the Freitas visit with Sessions really seem to have it in for you—I was kind of surprised at the one-sided comment stream that was almost entirely pro-Freitas. The gist of the comments is: you have a bias, this is a waste of taxpayer money, why do we need this. And there are those who point out that this office and your job here in Sonoma County only came about as the result of a single incident, the Andy Lopez shooting.
I don’t spend a lot of time reading those comments because, as far as I’m concerned, those are people who are too cowardly to come out to a public meeting and make their comments in public, so the public can see who they are and what they represent. That being said, the way I tried to set up our Community Advisory Council, and the way I handle these things, is I go out to meetings of every group that likes to hear about what we do. I went out to the [Sonoma County] Taxpayers Association. They are not a liberal sort of huggy group. They were pretty skeptical about the reasons for our office. And I go out there and I answer the questions, and I try to actually get some more information out there about what we are doing and why.
With the CAC, I have made every effort to have that group represent the broad spectrum of the county, including ideologies that nobody would say are “progressive” or “lefty” or “out to get the police.” It is the nature of something like this, that people who have more concerns in this area are going to be the people who are more likely to apply for those positions, so I do agree that it is somewhat skewed as far as its perspective, and I’ve tried really hard to get some people that have more of a sympathetic viewpoint to law enforcement on that body, and I would welcome folks to apply to that. I welcome that perspective. There’s just an inability or unwillingness to grapple with a person who has a different point of view than you do, it’s characteristic of leftward leaning people, it’s on both sides of the issue, and I think that’s why we have some much division in this country. Politics has become a blood sport.
How would you characterize your relationship with Sheriff Freitas?
I feel like we have a pretty good relationship, actually. I don’t see it as adversarial in nature. I think that sometimes, given that part of my charge is to look at policies and see if they might better serve the community, I think that’s part of the sheriff’s charge too, to serve the community. But probably the area where there is some tension is something like our Community Advisory Council, which is more oriented toward the community than they are toward the public safety mission of the sheriff’s office. Community members may be less oriented to the public safety model. And, frankly, there are just some folks in the community who don’t think there should be a policing function in our county or our society, and there is one. I don’t happen to share that perspective. I think there is a place for policing, and the way I see this, I’m trying to work with everybody and trying to make recommendations that would improve that model.
How about interactions with rank-and-file deputies? Any characterizing encounters?
I have regular interactions with certain members of the staff, and I have great relations with those folks. On a more limited basis, I’ve had interactions with the line-staff deputies. I’ve been through multiple trainings where I sit with the deputies and have the same training that they have. I’d say that as a general matter—and I’ve shared these conversations with other folks who have the same kind of job I have—there’s probably a look askance, skepticism about who is this guy, why is he here, probably some suspicion that we might be critical or out to get a deputy or something like that. And part of my job is to try and calm those types of fears and concerns, because I’m not out to “get” any deputy—that’s not what this job is about. It’s about providing some kind of confidence to the public, who sometimes have the same skepticism the deputies have—that things are being done in a way that’s transparent and appropriate.
You’ve been on this job for about a year. Is there anything where, “I thought this going in—and now I think this,” any surprises?
I’m not going to say this is a surprise, but my experience going out and talking to folks in the immigrant community has given me a much, much fuller understanding of the layers of alienation of that community, from the general community of Sonoma County and the district that they bring to interacting on many different levels with government here, including law enforcement. When I’ve heard stories from 15, 20 years ago of how they experienced local law enforcement—those are pretty negative stories that they tell, and those are still with the families. So that’s a real kind of a family-system barrier or cultural barrier that’s there that I hadn’t fully grappled with or thought through before really going out and talking with people. And knowing it’s there and knowing where it comes from, it’s not that long ago and I think it’s understandable that they have a certain skepticism today.
And you really have to kind of address it where it is. That did happen, and things are changing. And I think it’s also important for law enforcement to understand that, because if you’re facing that in a community and you have one incident or something goes wrong, that just freshens up those experiences all over again and kind of confirms those things for those folks, so you have to be even more proactive if something goes wrong, reach out even more, knowing that this is the history that people are bringing.
That’s kind of a familiar theme in vulnerable communities: how many generations does it take to undo damage and mistrust that goes back decades?
We [recently] had 50 immigrant parents who showed up in Springs, and deputies were able to sit down in circles with these folks, talk about how they do their job. There was a palpable feeling that people were eager to talk to law enforcement. One of the questions was, “Why did you come here?” One fellow said, “I’ve been here 30 years and it’s always been out there that there’s some possibility that I could get deported, but it was a remote possibility. It doesn’t feel remote anymore; they’re going after everybody for any reason.” And he said, “I’m terrified about ICE coming.” But he also said, “You’re local law enforcement, you’re there to protect me, I want to get to know you, I want you to know who I am.” That’s the kind of interactions that were happening. And the deputies were really welcoming and open to that conversation and trying to reassure folks that they are not here to pick them up or take them to ICE or anything like that.