Santa Cruz County’s sheriff will soon be subject to independent oversight

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office building on Soquel Avenue.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office building on Soquel Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Figuring out a proper oversight model for sheriffs — themselves elected officials — has challenged counties across the country. A state bill passed in 2020 finally offers California counties some tools, and Santa Cruz is readying to take advantage.

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The question of sheriff oversight and accountability has long loomed large for local jurisdictions throughout the country. Sheriffs are democratically elected, which makes governing bodies, such as a county board of supervisors, practically powerless in holding them accountable. As long as a wayward sheriff falls in favor with voters, they are likely to remain in power as the county’s top cop.

Heightened scrutiny over sheriffs and law enforcement generally led California legislators in 2020 to pass a bill giving counties an avenue for tighter oversight. Now, Santa Cruz County is on its way to being an early adopter. This week, the board of supervisors will vote to finalize the creation of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which will act as an independent auditor and investigator over the sheriff’s department.

At the same meeting Tuesday, the supervisors are expected to OK negotiations with the lone bidder for the contract, OIR Group, a Playa Del Rey-based firm that works with local governments for law enforcement oversight.

Once in place, the OIG will have the power to issue subpoenas and broad authority to monitor and investigate the work of the sheriff’s office, its employees and how it operates the jail. The OIG and the board of supervisors will remain powerless when it comes to disciplining the sheriff or deputies — the power to discipline deputies sits with the sheriff; the power to discipline the sheriff over how it operates the department sits with the voters. However, for the county government, the OIG will offer an extra and thorough set of eyes over the sheriff’s office that will report to both the board of supervisors and the public.

For example, the OIG can open an investigation and subpoena witnesses in cases of excessive use of force, inmate deaths at the county jail — such as the death of inmate Mark Van Beckner on Nov. 1 — any shooting involving uniformed officers, and in-custody deaths. The OIG can also review investigations initiated by the sheriff’s office in any of these cases.

The notion of sheriff oversight has caused some tension between county boards and law enforcement. The board of supervisors in Monterey County, which censured its sheriff last year after a misuse of funds, had been debating the creation of an independent citizens oversight board. The contentious effort never found favor with the incumbent sheriff, and the board voted to table the issue until after a new sheriff was elected in November. In Los Angeles County, outgoing Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has publicly resisted any attempts at oversight, banned the inspector general from entering the sheriff office’s facilities.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County has been a different story. Sheriff Jim Hart, elected to a new four-year term in June, has welcomed the pursuit of additional accountability. He has said he would cooperate with any investigation or audit initiated by the inspector general.

“If you look across the country, we should really look favorably at how our local law enforcement has been so transparent and open in not just allowing for independent oversight but a willingness to participate in these processes,” District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend said.

Still, some in the community told supervisors they were concerned with what they read as an ability of the sheriff or county counsel to deny the inspector general’s effort to independently investigate. Rev. Beverly Brook, a chaplain at the county’s juvenile hall, urged the board of supervisors last Tuesday to hold off on creating the inspector general’s office until they were clear that the inspector general could independently initiate investigations into the sheriff’s office. She also pushed for the county to create an independent citizens commission as an additional arm of oversight.

Before the supervisors gave unanimous initial approval to create the office and its duties, District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig pressed Deputy County Administrative Officer Melodye Serino as to whether the inspector general would have the power to “independently” initiate investigations into the sheriff. The ordinance does not specifically use the word “independent” when referring to the OIG’s powers to investigate incidents. When the OIG’s power to investigate is mentioned, the ordinance says investigations first require a request from, or authorization by, the sheriff or the County Administrative Officer.

“Does the inspector general, with the way this ordinance is written, have the authority to independently initiate investigations?” Koenig asked.

“Yes.” Serino confirmed. County Counsel Jason Heath pointed to a specific section of the ordinance — 2.17.030 — that outlined an extensive list the OIG’s duties. Although the term “independent monitoring” is used in this section, the power to independently initiate an investigation is not explicitly listed.

“It was the intent of staff to bring your board what your board asked for,” Heath told Koenig. “We believe your board asked for independent authority to conduct whatever investigations were necessary and that’s what I think we produced.”

The board of supervisors is set to hold a final vote on creating the OIG office on Tuesday.

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