Amid outcry, supervisors halve sheriff's budget ask

David Franklin
People protesting police brutality and systemic racism marched down Bolinas Beach last Sunday, holding signs and making noise. This week, county supervisors gave the sheriff’s office half its requested budget increase after hearing a flood of calls for defunding.  

On one side, Sheriff Robert Doyle, the unapologetic head of county law enforcement who proudly defends his department from criticism. On the other side, a mass of impassioned people of color and their allies, desperately pleading for the defunding of the sheriff’s office, an institution they call inherently racist. In the middle, the five-person Board of Supervisors, tasked with setting the budget for the next year.

This week’s budget hearings were the culmination of a month of protests and a swell of civic engagement in Marin. While several departments gave presentations on their work, public attention was laser-focused against a proposed $3.2 million increase for the sheriff. 

At the end of the three-day hearings, the board voted unanimously to raise the sheriff’s budget by $1.5 million, with the $1.7 million they did not approve directed to a fund for racial equity initiatives. Supervisors said the vote was just the start of shifting resources away from policing. 

“I just want to make certain that by approving [that] increase in funds, it’s very clear to all of us that we will be back, and we will be continuing the conversation about reallocating resources in very specific ways,” Supervisor Kathrin Sears said.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni echoed the sentiment. “We know the status quo is not acceptable anymore,” he said. “We have heard you, and we know that our priorities need to change.”

Sheriff Doyle had asked for $76 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, up from $72.8 million last year. The increase was meant to cover inflated costs of living, pension costs and overtime, rather than more services or positions. Because he only got about half of that increase, the equivalent of eight deputy positions will be cut, county administrator Matthew Hymel said. 

For the past three weeks, hundreds of residents called in to voice their opposition to a budget increase. On Wednesday, after the administrator amended the budget to give only a partial increase, residents called the action a symbolic gesture. They vowed to continue to fight for change.

African-Americans from Marin City and Latinos from the Canal area shared stories and described how they felt racially profiled by police. They talked about how they are afraid when their children begin to drive, because they may get pulled over. They said that deputies seem to have a greater presence in poorer areas, and that the sheriff’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement creates a collective fear among immigrants. They shared personal tragedies when the police let them down.

The overarching sentiment was that the money for the sheriff would be better spent on other county services. When department heads of other agencies presented, like the Marin County Free Library or Health and Human Services, they talked about what they were doing to advance racial equity, and speakers followed by calling for reallocating money to those areas.

Sheriff Doyle began his appearance before the board on Monday evening by applauding the supervisors’ patience and apologizing for the angst his budget had caused them. He likened the tone of the commenters to that of President Donald Trump. He offered supervisors the opportunity to appoint a constituent to work on a committee tasked with developing new use-of-force policies, and he read a statement on the death of George Floyd, pushing back on comments that his office is racist. 

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “It’s really unfair to our organization, because we’re a very proud organization, we’re a very dedicated organization, and we’re made up of a team of professionals… We believe we have a culture that we know right from wrong.”

He said the past month has been especially difficult for younger employees.

“It’s hard for them to understand why they’re getting flipped off at the store, they’re getting yelled at, and when they help out at demonstrations, they’re being pelted with rocks and bottles,” he said. Protests in Marin have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

The sheriff said his deputies receive 96 hours of in-house training each year, four times what is required by the state, and said force is used sparingly. Last year, deputies self-reported 92 uses of force; 60 were on patrol, 26 were in the jail and six were in the court. All instances were internally reviewed and found to be in compliance with policy, Sheriff Doyle said. None of them resulted in a citizen complaint. There were two complaints last year, and neither was related to use of force.

On police militarization, he said his department has received roughly $50,000 worth of military equipment, mostly items like binoculars and tents for search and rescue. He said the $370,000 purchase in 2013 of an armored vehicle was prudent because the vehicle serves as a regional asset available to Napa, Solano and Sonoma Counties for special emergencies.

Addressing the three-year call for his jail to stop telling ICE when inmates are released, he justified his cooperation by listing the charges against the immigrants he handed over: rape, sodomy, domestic violence and felony threats. He said the jail allows ICE into the booking area because when inmates were released in the lobby, it led to issues there. He is willing to take a second look, but added that the downside would be the jail would have no knowledge of how many people ICE picks up. 

Cooperation with ICE has declined: the jail turned over 72 inmates in 2018, 27 last year, and six so far this year. County counsel will explore options for Marin becoming a sanctuary county, Mr. Hymel said. Supervisor Rodoni called on counsel to return within 60 days with an ordinance that offers immigrants the maximum protections allowed under the law.

The sheriff’s budget is largely driven by salaries, so the sheriff took time to defend why his office has 320 positions, and 153 deputy sheriffs. The equivalent of 102 full-time employees work in the jail. Sheriff Doyle conceded that jail staffing could be reduced in the future because the population has gone down during the pandemic, but said it is too early to take action. Normally, the number of inmates fluctuates between 280 and 310, but this week there were 131. The decrease has been driven by a zero-bail initiative by Marin courts and suspended sentences due to Covid-19.

The board and the criminal justice system will explore closing one of six jail pods in the future, Mr. Hymel said.

The second largest and the most visible area of staffing is the patrol division, with 85 employees. Sheriff Doyle justified that number by saying that deputies have over 400 square miles to cover and staffing the coast full-time is necessary because of its size. At any given time, a quarter of deputies are either in training, at a police academy or on disability, or the position is vacant.

The sheriff said certain calls for service could be met by non-law enforcement personnel, including reports of mental health crises or homeless issues.

After he spoke, Supervisors Damon Connolly and Dennis Rodoni voiced opposition to his cooperation with ICE, and callers once again commented for hours against the budget increase. Some raised their voices, some attacked individual supervisors for inaction, and some called out Sheriff Doyle for turning his video off during public comment. At the end of an 11-hour day for the board, the sheriff chose not to respond.