Patrol cut has little impact, sheriff says

10/14/2020

So far, fears of a crime wave after Sheriff Robert Doyle closed the Point Reyes substation at night have not come to pass, but many West Marin residents are still unhappy with the decision.

In September, residents on the coast called the sheriff’s office 117 times between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m., when deputies no longer patrol the area. Most of the calls were for advice or medical aid or were non-urgent reports, and only one call, for domestic violence, required an emergency response with lights and sirens.

“I think it’s going to be fine,” Sheriff Doyle said. “There wasn’t anything really serious.”

The sheriff’s office, which made the change due to budget cuts and staffing shortages, does not track how long it takes deputies to respond to calls on the coast, so the sheriff said he doesn’t know if response times have slowed. Deputies are relying on park rangers and the California Highway Patrol to respond to emergencies first, and themselves respond from the Kentfield, Marin City or Mill Valley substations. The San Geronimo Valley is still covered 24 hours a day.

The sheriff’s July announcement of the cut surprised Supervisor Dennis Rodoni and dismayed first responders, who feared they wouldn’t be able to access a medical emergency in time without deputies there first to secure the scene. That’s still a concern. At board meetings, firefighters have alluded to being unhappy with the sheriff for his lack of support, but they hesitate to criticize him publicly.

Last month’s average of 3.9 calls per night fell below the average since 2018 of just over five calls per night. Of the 117 calls, 45 came from south of Olema, while 72 came from the northern beat.

Supervisor Rodoni said the low call volume demonstrates the logic for closing the substation. Still, he is hopeful the sheriff will reinstate the hours as soon as possible.

“People need to be aware of [the change] and do what they need to do to protect themselves. Certainly, we realize that we don’t have the deputy coverage we once had, so we need to pay attention,” he said.

Originally, Sheriff Doyle said he aimed to reinstate the hours this fall when 14 deputies graduate from the police academy; now, he says the staffing won’t be reinstated until January, because deputies still have to complete 14 weeks of patrol training in southern Marin. The sheriff is paying the trainees but can’t assign them as solo deputies, so their status strains the budget. Since several employees are on disability and a few positions are unfilled, the sheriff’s manpower is reduced by 20 percent. 

Budget cuts pushed him to reduce the number of mandatory overtime shifts needed to patrol the coast at night. Because Marin faced a $10 million budget shortfall this year due to low state tax revenue, the county administrator asked every department to reduce its budget by 5 percent of net county costs, so those that receive more out of the general fund, like the sheriff’s office, had to cut more. 

During the budget hearings, hundreds of activists flooded the Board of Supervisors with calls to defund the sheriff. In response, the board approved just half of Sheriff Doyle’s proposed $3.2 million increase. But the decision was mostly symbolic: The office was going to have to make the cut anyway, so the supervisors’ vote simply sped it up. The reduced funding also meant a hiring freeze for four deputies, four dispatchers and one coroner’s technician. 

Sheriff Doyle was critical of Supervisor Rodoni in an interview this week and encouraged people who are upset about the cuts to let him know.

“It’s no secret that Supervisor Rodoni led the charge to cut our budget, and when I cut hours in an area he is responsible for, he wasn’t very pleased about that,” Sheriff Doyle said. “I’m telling citizens, don’t let a few people decide what kind of services you want. There were some people [that] if they got their way, we wouldn’t be providing service at all, unless it was an emergency.”

He also said his critics do not represent the majority of residents and that having meetings on Zoom gives them a louder voice.

“I’d like to know how many people would’ve shown up in person,” he said. “I counted several who couldn’t even pronounce ‘Marin.’” The vast majority of callers were local residents.

The staffing cuts are not the only changes Sheriff Doyle has faced following the death of George Floyd, which increased scrutiny of law enforcement nationwide. During the budget hearings, he agreed to review use-of-force polices, and he allowed each supervisor to appoint a constituent to serve on an advisory committee charged with its own review. But the relationship between the committee and the sheriff’s office was icy from the start. 

At the first meeting, the sheriff presented a draft policy for the committee to review, but it wasn’t even close to what the committee was looking for. The draft was created by Lexipol, a private company that provides policy manuals, training bulletins and consulting services to law enforcement agencies. Lexipol’s policies aim to reduce the risk of litigation.

Camille Ptak, an Inverness resident who served on the committee, said they wanted a policy that aligned with calls from the California Attorney General and 8 Can’t Wait, a nationwide police reform campaign. Those campaigns aim to limit use of force by putting specific requirements on officers; the sheriff’s policy contains more recommendations. It uses “should” instead of “shall” often, and qualifiers like “expected” and “encouraged” prevent the policy from having teeth, Ms. Ptak said.

Sheriff Doyle said the policy was written in coordination with county counsel so that no litigation would be possible as long as deputies follow its guidelines. 

The final policy will be released in the coming weeks. It contains a continuum for de-escalation, which guides deputies in defusing a situation before using force, and a mandate that deputies report when they see another deputy using excessive force—a practice already in place, Sheriff Doyle said. Deputies will be encouraged to warn individuals before shooting at them, and the rules around shooting from or at cars will be stricter but still allow for the practice in certain circumstances.

Ms. Ptak said the sheriff misses the point by allowing so much discretion, reducing the risk of lawsuits rather than reducing risk for communities. “The point is accountability, so it’s less likely that my two sons, who are mixed-race, are caught up in a use-of-force situation,” she said. “If officers and deputies understand there may be consequences, they may hesitate and take a moment. That’s the whole point of a policy: to make it safer for the community.”

Sheriff Doyle’s refusal to heed the advisory committee reflects his unilateral approach. He refused to back down when it came to ending cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite years-long calls from activists and the Board of Supervisors. And although he greatly reduced the number of inmates transferred to ICE, when supervisors passed a nonbinding resolution that urged an end to the practice completely, he declined to do so.