Pressure to defund sheriff persists, met with pushback

06/17/2020

For the second week in a row, speaker after speaker called on the Board of Supervisors to shift funding away from the sheriff’s office and toward social services when the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget is considered next week. 

But in an interview with the Light this week, Sheriff Robert Doyle pushed back on the idea, saying that citizens calling for defunding the police are motivated by that singular goal—and don’t have a plan for responding to the tens of thousands of calls his office receives each year. “People have an agenda, and the agenda is to lower the law enforcement budget and to have less people, because somehow they know better—that there are a lot of calls for service that we shouldn’t answer,” he said. “Their end goal is they want to reduce budgets of police, that somehow we are the problem.” 

Sheriff Doyle has asked for $76 million, $3.2 million more than last year, despite a decrease in tax revenue. The hike is meant to keep up with inflated costs of living, pension costs and overtime, and is not intended for more services or positions. 

The third largest county budget item, the office has the equivalent of 320 full-time employees, the bulk of whom work in the jail or on patrol. Sheriff Doyle said that calls related to mental health and homeless people have risen over the past decade, while staffing has slightly declined. 

“We have taken on all these responsibilities, and they never gave us anything else,” he said. “I never have the luxury of, ‘Gee, I have too many folks.’” 

If workers outside the sheriff’s office could respond to issues such as mental health crises or homeless complaints, it would give deputies more time to patrol and interact with the community, Sheriff Doyle said. He questioned where any cuts should be made and said that policing in Marin should not be compared to places like Minneapolis or Atlanta, because the training and the culture are different. He told the Light that it was “a dumb question” to ask whether what happened to George Floyd could happen here.

He has worked in the office for over 50 years. He was appointed to the top position in 1996; since then, he has run unopposed in all but one election, in 2010. He was elected with 97 percent of the vote to his sixth four-year term in 2018.

Last week, the office suspended the use of the carotid restraint, which restricts blood flow to the brain and renders a person unconscious. He said a team is reviewing use-of-force policies, and that more changes are likely. 

A number of proposals to reform policing were put on the table this week at state and federal levels. California Attorney General Xavier Beccara announced a broad agenda to improve use-of-force policies, and both the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-led House have introduced their versions of police reform bills.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that sets conditions on grant funding for police departments. The order pushes departments to seek credentials for their use-of-force and de-escalation techniques, employee performance management, and best practices regarding community engagement. The order calls on the attorney general to create a shared database that tracks instances of excessive use of force, and to increase the capacity of social workers working directly with law enforcement. That includes co-responder programs, in which social workers or other mental health professionals work alongside law enforcement officers so that they arrive and address situations together.

Marin County citizens have particularly criticized Sheriff Doyle for his ongoing cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement; in 2018, he turned over 72 inmates to ICE. Last year he turned over 27. So far this year, he has transferred just six. 

The group ICE Out of Marin wrote a letter to the supervisors last week calling for a “fundamental redirection of public resources away from policing… toward a new, full-spectrum definition of public safety, rooted in community care.” 

The sentiment was echoed by dozens of speakers who spoke for hours on Tuesday while supervisors listened. After the comments, the board made no commitment regarding the budget, but said they appreciated all of the engagement, especially from the many younger speakers. 

The budget hearings will start at 9 a.m. on Monday with a general overview; the sheriff’s office will be the first department to present, at 1:30 p.m. Supervisors will take final action on the budget on Wednesday afternoon. To watch, visit facebook.com/countyofmarin.