The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office headquarters
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office now under oversight, but some worry it doesn’t go far enough

The new Office of Inspector General opened July 1 and promises regular, independent reporting on the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, with the ability to probe, with subpoena power, officer-involved shootings, internal affairs investigations, citizen complaints and jail conditions. The local ACLU chapter, among others, welcomes the step but would have liked to see a supervisor-appointed citizens oversight board.

For the first time in Santa Cruz County, the sheriff’s office now operates under the watch of an independent set of eyes. The new Office of Inspector General, which opened July 1, will now oversee and report on how Sheriff Jim Hart’s office enforces the law from the North Coast and mountain communities down to the berry farms in South County.

A long time coming, this new arm of law enforcement accountability has been welcomed by community groups, county officials and even Hart himself. However, some local advocacy groups are concerned that the scope of its influence is too limited.

The issue of meaningful sheriff oversight has long frustrated counties throughout the country because of the unique power a county sheriff holds among the ranks of law enforcement officers. Police chiefs and sheriffs are brought on to enforce the laws set by city councils and supervisors. However, in cities, a police chief is often hired and fired by either the city manager or mayor; in counties, only the ballot box determines whether sheriffs lose or maintain their jobs.

An inspector general’s office won’t change that. Yet, run by Los Angeles County-based OIR Group, it brings the promise of regular, independent reporting on the sheriff’s office, and the ability to probe, with subpoena power, officer-involved shootings, internal affairs investigations, citizen complaints and jail conditions.

Bernie Gomez met the rough conditions of the Santa Cruz County jail during several stints between 2004 and 2017. The Watsonville native told me that in jail, he and other inmates were pushed to make “extreme decisions” in order to advocate for better conditions, such as going on extended hunger strikes. The problems he saw firsthand, such as violence, inmate deaths and crimes by the correctional officers, were reflected in a 2021 civil grand jury report, which called for better management of the jail and independent oversight of the sheriff’s office.

Ballots are due Thursday from property owners in Branciforte Fire Protection District, just north of the Santa Cruz city...

Now, as program coordinator for the local MILPA Collective, an advocacy organization led by the formerly incarcerated and those who have been affected by the justice system, Gomez says he hopes the inspector general will limit the need for hunger strikes to improve how the jail treats inmates.

“Hopefully, this office can bring to light in the community these conditions or break through the code of silence among law enforcement officers,” Gomez said. “When these grievances are raised, people tend not to believe someone who has been labeled a criminal or gang member or addict.”

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

Openness to oversight is not necessarily common among sheriffs. Monterey County pushed to establish an oversight arm but received consistent pushback from former sheriff Steve Bernal. In Los Angeles County, former sheriff Alex Villanueva at one time banned the inspector general from entering the sheriff’s office. The fact that both sheriffs were pushed out of office perhaps says something about accountability at the ballot box.

Peter Gelblum, chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said Hart deserves credit for welcoming the establishment of an inspector general’s office. And although an inspector general is progress, he said its abilities and budget ($100,000 per year) are too limited. The inspector can only make recommendations; it cannot implement new policies. Despite promising to publish annual reports and audits, the inspector general is limited by law on what information it can reveal to the public. And, although it has subpoena power, OIR Group has run into issues in other communities with obtaining confidential information during its investigations and audits.

The ACLU and other local organizations wanted the county to go further and establish a supervisor-appointed citizens oversight board. However, Hart’s concerns of the board becoming politicized put the idea on the back burner.

“We really wanted members of the community being policed to be involved with the process, and for them to have access to inside information into the sheriff’s office,” Gelblum said. “We’re one of the first counties to establish any kind of oversight, so it’s something. It’s a big step forward. This will be successful if there is thorough reporting to the public on what’s happening in the sheriff’s office.”

Gelblum agreed with Gomez that the inspector general needs to prioritize the jail.

Hart, the sheriff’s office and OIR Group did not respond to requests for comment.