Sonoma County Sheriff’s Out Gay Watchdog Gets Support and Criticism From Board of Supervisors

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors largely agreed Tuesday with how the county’s independent law enforcement watchdog has approached its role over the past year and a half, even amid some lingering critiques that surfaced following the release last month of the agency’s first annual report.While the board signaled support for Jerry Threet, who runs the nascent agency set up to review the Sheriff’s Office, two supervisors, Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, repeated their calls for the watchdog to keep its top focus on one of its roles — audits of internal sheriff’s department investigations.

“The audits continue to be the highest priority, and I think are going to be the most helpful in terms of the Sheriff’s Office as well,” Zane, the board chairwoman, told Threet during his appearance.

Going into Tuesday’s discussion Zane and Rabbitt had questioned whether the office was giving perhaps too much attention to its other board-defined roles, including its say in policymaking and conducting community outreach.

Rabbitt on Tuesday said he accepted the office’s work in those areas as long as it did not come at the expense of audits. Such reviews evaluate internal investigations into deputies’ use of force, employee misconduct or complaints that originate from inside the department or the public.

Threet’s audits are withheld from the public because of a state law that shields law enforcement personnel from disclosures including their identities and disciplinary records, but his findings are summarized annually in a detailed public report.

“To me, the most important thing that the office carries out is the audits, going through the audit, the complaints, answering those complaints to the public and either upholding them, sustaining them or absolving the (Sheriff’s Office). I think that goes to build trust as well,” Rabbit said. “I don’t have a problem with looking at the policy recommendations as long as the audit doesn’t slip by the wayside.”

Zane, for her part, made it clear she sees a constrained policymaking role for the watchdog agency, though it was influential earlier this year in pushing a change in jail policy that now limits sheriff’s department communication with federal immigration authorities.

“Neither your office nor this board have the legal authority to set policies for the Sheriff’s Office,” she said.

“The Sheriff is an independent elected position. We have to respect that.”

The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach was the most high-profile byproduct of a public process spurred by community outcry in the aftermath of a sheriff’s deputy fatally shooting 13-year old Andy Lopez in 2013 as he walked down a street carrying an airsoft gun resembling an assault rifle.

The review agency was intended to help restore fractured public trust and transparency into Sheriff’s Office operations.

Tuesday’s board discussion came about three months after a budget hearing in which Zane and Rabbitt were strongly critical of Threet, citing a backlog in his office of 14 audits internal law enforcement investigations that awaited completion.

Just two audits remain uncompleted, pending a response with more information from the Sheriff’s Office, according to Threet, who also said his agency now plans to present more frequent updates of its auditing activity online and to its Community Advisory Council.

“There have been, frankly, a lot of challenges along the way. It’s not been easy,” said Threet, a former deputy city attorney in San Francisco.

“This is, I’d say, the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’ve had some hard assignments in my career.”

Supervisors took no action Tuesday on the oversight office, which has an annual budget of about $600,000 and just one staff member aside from Threet.

The board was scheduled only to hear and receive the agency’s annual report, along with related presentations from Sheriff Rob Giordano and the department’s community engagement liaison, Misti Harris.

Still, Zane, the longest-serving current board member, used Tuesday’s lengthy public hearing to air two additional critiques of the Sheriff’s Office and its relationship with the watchdog.

First, she took aim at the amount of access law enforcement has afforded Threet, who has typically worked with the head of the sheriff’s professional standards unit. Zane said it was a “huge mistake” to funnel Threet through a single “point person” and stressed that proper collaboration between the agencies could only occur if Threet was granted total access to rank-and-file deputies.

Giordano was receptive to the suggestion.

“Access is an easy problem,” Giordano said. “You can have access. The more Jerry sees what we do, the more he understands what we’re doing, the better off we’re all going to be.”

Zane’s second critique concerned what she characterized as an unacceptable lack of diversity among the Sheriff’s Office workforce, referring to a section of the report from Threet’s agency showing that more than 94 percent of deputies in the sheriff’s law enforcement division are male and nearly 87 percent are white.

“The thing that I took home from this more than anything was how our recruitment efforts, if there have been any — and I question if there have been real recruitment efforts — to recruit nonwhite, female peace officers have failed miserably,” Zane said. “And that has got to change.”

Supervisors Susan Gorin and Lynda Hopkins — who, together with Zane, form the board’s first-ever female majority — also said they wanted to see the Sheriff’s Office move in a more diverse direction with its workforce.

Giordano said he shared the same goal but he described it as a complex challenge that would be difficult to achieve quickly, with “ground up” communication efforts like outreach to local schoolchildren playing critical yet time-intensive roles in encouraging more women and people from minority backgrounds to join the force.

Giordano, who was appointed earlier this year to serve out the remainder of former Sheriff Steve Freitas’ term, took pains to stress the trusting relationship he has with Threet.

“I think his heart’s in the right place. He’s trying to do an excellent job for this community,” he said. “I value the relationship and I have no problem moving forward and working with him.”

Many of those who spoke in the hearing’s public comment period were supportive of Threet’s office, including community activist Francisco Saiz, who had praise for Giordano, too.

“I’ve had past exposure to both of these individuals and I like what I see,” Saiz said.

Threet said he believed his work, despite the challenges, was “entirely worth it,” calling the watchdog agency’s existence a tribute to the Board of Supervisors, the Sheriff’s Office and the community members who pressed for change in the wake of Lopez’s death.

“Director Threet has an impossible job that he has done very well — talk about between a rock and a hard place,” Hopkins said. “There are really passionate feelings on all sides of this issue, and I think that you’re never going to please everyone.”