Trust, accountability and transparency through sheriff oversight

06/09/2021

On Jan. 1, 2021, Assembly Bill 1185 went into effect. This law, Cal. Gov. Code Sec. 25303.7, enables county boards of supervisors to create sheriff oversight bodies or an office of inspector general and gives subpoena power to both. We believe the Marin County Board of Supervisors should consider establishing a civilian oversight body of the Sheriff’s Office. 

For the past year, we’ve been meeting with a small group of friends and neighbors—Renée Cormier, Molly Livingston, Camille Ptak and Richard Vallejos—to learn about how meaningful independent oversight and monitoring of sheriff’s departments can increase government accountability and transparency, enhance public safety, and build community trust in law enforcement. 

Below we answer questions that commonly arise. Our understanding comes from research and conversations over the past year, along with our study of the work of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE, a nonprofit that for over 25 years has supported building meaningful civilian oversight that leads to more effective policing and safer communities.

Why does Marin County need sheriff oversight when we have not heard about the major policing issues that have been evident elsewhere? Marin has an election for sheriff in 2022, so why not focus on electing a more progressive sheriff?  

Although many civilian oversight bodies have been formed in response to a single event, such as the use of deadly force, we believe proactively establishing oversight could help prevent serious issues. We currently have very little knowledge of sheriff’s office misconduct in Marin. Electing a new, more progressive sheriff is important, but doing so is not an either-or proposition with establishing civilian oversight. The two can coexist. Evolving practices, policies, and culture in the sheriff’s office will take many hands and minds, beyond what a single sheriff can do alone. 

There are other reasons why civilian oversight would benefit Marin. 

First, it would provide a safe place to report misconduct. Currently, one must report questionable conduct directly to the sheriff in person or by mail. Yet our collective history of racism and the systems and cultures in which it persists are manifest in law enforcement, exemplified by the disproportionate arrests of and use of force against people of color in the United States. It is unacceptable to expect people of color to feel safe reporting sheriff office misconduct directly to the sheriff’s office. A civilian oversight body can be that safe space.

Second, accountability. Sheriffs in California are elected every four years with no term limits. During their tenure, most have minimal supervision or meaningful oversight. This is true in Marin. An election every four years is insufficient oversight. Additionally, a civilian oversight body can conduct independent analyses of data to expose issues and recommend improvements. 

Third, we believe the Marin County Sheriff’s Office should evolve. For example, the office’s use-of-force policies are based primarily on those developed by Lexipol, a private, for-profit company that has been criticized for policies protecting officers from litigation rather than protecting the communities they serve. Marin can do better: sheriff’s policies should be crafted with true community input. We believe any evolution of law enforcement must include meaningful—not performative—community input, and civilian oversight should primarily be conducted by the most impacted communities. 

Don’t civilian oversight bodies regularly fail the people they are established to help? Why would this be different in Marin?

There are many examples where oversight bodies have failed. Although there are many reasons for this, three prominent reasons include that the civilian oversight body: 1) lacks power, 2) lacks adequate funding, and 3) was not established using best practices. In California, until this January, the source of authority and power for county sheriff civilian oversight bodies was unclear. 

Marin County can approach civilian oversight in a way that avoids these and other pitfalls. 

First, Marin can take advantage of the way A.B. 1185 specifically addresses one of the critical issues of lack of power—namely, the law explicitly provides subpoena power to oversight bodies. 

Second, any consideration of civilian oversight should ensure adequate funding to cover staff, training, and other expenses, such as consultants. Funding can come from a variety of sources. For example, Sonoma County requires its board of supervisors to set the oversight budget at 1 percent of the sheriff’s office’s annual budget. 

Finally, establishing civilian oversight is complicated and needs to be done in a way that is not rushed, is individualized to Marin, has community-defined goals, ensures independence, and more. We believe it is essential to engage with professionals in this space, such as NACOLE, to establish civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office that is right for Marin.

A sheriff’s civilian oversight body can help transform law enforcement in ways that better serve all residents of Marin County. We hope our next sheriff welcomes independent civilian oversight and sees it as essential to the pursuit of an equitable and evolved definition of public safety. 

We encourage you to attend a community forum on A.B. 1185 hosted by the Marin County Human Rights Commission from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 17. Register at https://bit.ly/2RBd9EK.

 

Tom Gardali is a conservation scientist and Marianne Recher is a lawyer. They both live in Inverness.