Voters in Sonoma County will decide this election season whether to strengthen the county’s office for civilian review and oversight of law enforcement or maintain its current powers and provisions through the Evelyn Cheatham Effective IOLERO Ordinance, or Measure P.
Passing Measure P would increase the autonomy, authority and resources of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO).
The ordinance would broaden the role of the IOLERO’s community advisory council and allow IOLERO to audit additional subject areas of internal investigations, subpoena records and testimonies, accept whistleblower complaints and recommend discipline of deputies found guilty of misconduct.
Measure P would also authorize the office to independently investigate deputy-involved shootings and cases where the IOLERO director concludes that the sheriff conducted an incomplete investigation and the sheriff refuses to investigate further, according to the county voter information.
Measure P’s approval secures an annual budget of “a minimum of one percent of the total annual budget of the Office of the Sheriff-Coroner,” the text of the measure said. The text does not specify where the funds come from, but the county auditor’s fiscal impact statement said, “According to the 2019-20 adopted budget, the county’s most recently adopted budget, the annual budgets for the Sheriff and IOLERO were $184,091,167 and $589,793, respectively, and IOLERO was 100% supported by a County General Fund contribution.”
The statement was signed by Erick Roeser, county auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector, and said that using the 2019-20 adopted budget to estimate, “the passage of this measure would set the IOLERO annual budget at a minimum of $1,840,912 or a minimum increase of $1,251,119.”
The ordinance was officially endorsed by County Supervisor James Gore, community leader Alicia Sanchez, Rubin Scott, president of the Santa Rosa/Sonoma NAACP chapter, former IOLERO director Jerry Threet and Herman G. Hernandez, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Education.
Formally opposed to the measure are Damian Evans, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association (SCLEA), and Michael Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.
The measure arrives in November after around five months of ongoing local protests against systemic racism and unaccountability of law enforcement.
IOLERO itself was created in 2015 from a proposal by the community task force formed to explore ways to improve community and law enforcement relations after Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus fatally shot 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa in 2013.
Why IOLERO needs more teeth
As it stands, IOLERO can receive and forward complaints to the Sheriff’s Office for review, audit internal investigations of misconduct complaints against the Sheriff’s Office, do community outreach, recommend policies and produce a public report about its findings and recommendations.
But the watchdog is missing teeth, according its first director Jerry Threet.
Threet served as IOLERO director from the office’s opening until early 2020, succeeded by Karlene Navarro. He said it was clear from the beginning that the office did not have the resources to carry out its missions.
A backlog of audits grew without funding for more staff. He said the office had little capacity to do time-intensive community engagement for one of its main missions of building relationships with disadvantaged groups, like undocumented communities, poor communities and Black communities, with historical challenges and distrust with law enforcement.
Threet said he often didn’t have access to information he needed from the sheriff to make policy recommendations. “And so that’s sort of the other piece of it, which is IOLERO depends on the cooperation of the sheriff, and the sheriff is not mandated to cooperate with IOLERO,” he said. Threet said the office can only audit subject areas made in agreement with by the sheriff.
The text of Measure P says IOLERO’s powers and duties would include reviewing, auditing and analyzing “all complaints filed with IOLERO, regardless of the nature of the allegations included in that complaint.”
The text subsequently listed this to include all complaints or investigations or analyses of incidents “that involve a possible violation of the U.S. or state constitutional rights of individuals,” “that involve issues of bias by an employee in policing or corrections,” “that involve issues of sexual harassment or sexual assault by an employee,” “that involve issues of dishonesty” and “every incident of force used by a sheriff’s deputy regardless of whether a complaint is filed with IOLERO or the sheriff-coroner; and every case where a civil lawsuit is filed against the sheriff’s office related to the use of force regardless of whether a complaint is filed with IOLERO or the sheriff-coroner.”
Measure P’s approval would also allow IOLERO to audit “all racial profiling data collected by the Sheriff’s Office in compliance with the Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015 or any successor legislation” and “any other complaints or investigations or analyses of incidents that become a matter of media interest.”
Threet said he had wanted to perform a systemic audit of the Sheriff’s Department because he found significant use of force reviewing multiple videos of responses to mental health calls.
The ordinance would allow the director to “assess and make periodic recommendations, as the director deems appropriate, regarding policies, procedures, strategies, training, and practices based on information gathered in the review process and/or data trends,” according to Measure P’s full text.
“And the significance of that is if you want to make the biggest effect or changes in an agency, you should really look at things in a systemic way,” Threet said. He said the more IOLERO could identify department-wide patterns of practice, the more meaningful their recommendations could be.
Per the text of the measure, IOLERO’s review, audit and analysis process would allow the office to “directly access and independently review any and all sources of investigative evidence to ensure that the investigation is complete and all material evidence has been secured and analyzed by investigators in reaching their investigative findings.” IOLERO could also “independently subpoena records or testimony, as the director deems appropriate, to complete an adequate investigation.”
When IOLERO audits a complaint, the sheriff compiles information from a personnel database of deputies and all related evidence and grants access to the single file to the director, according to Threet. “So whatever’s in that file, you have to take on good faith that that’s the only thing relevant to this investigation.”
Threet said, “Anytime someone opposes greater transparency and accountability, my question is, ‘What do they have to hide?’”
Is it oversight, or over reach?
Those opposing the measure largely cite the impact of allocating SCSO funds to IOLERO, a rushed and incomplete process of putting the measure on the ballot and lack of evidence confidentiality as reasons for their opposition.
Damian Evans, president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association (SCLEA) formally opposes Measure P. Evans also serves on the board of directors for the Peace Officers Research Association of California, or PORAC.
He joined Michael Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association in a statement in the county’s voter ballot information. Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association essentially operates as a police union.
The statement they signed said Measure P’s approval would cut safety and emergency services, waste taxpayer money, create more bureaucracy, increase response time to emergency calls and lower protection from robberies, sex crimes and disasters. The statement also said the measure diverts IOLERO from its core functions.
The measure’s text does not specify where in the budget the funds would come from or that the changes would result in cutting services or programs. The text of the measure states that, “IOLERO shall not be authorized to: interfere with the performance of the powers and duties of the sheriff-coroner as prohibited by law.”
Measure P also clarifies that IOLERO could access any investigator for a complaint being audited by IOLERO, any employee who is a witness or possesses relevant records to an incident IOLERO is investigating, any supervisor of an employee under an audited investigation and staff gathered for training, in cooperation with the sheriff.
Evans and Vail’s statement also claims that the county board of supervisors violated state law and placed the measure on the ballot without input from law enforcement.
Evans said the board of supervisors violated the collective bargaining rights of law enforcement employees by putting the measure on the ballot without seeking their input first. He clarified this move was separate from Sheriff Mark Essick’s recent request for an outside attorney to examine possible legal deficiencies in the ordinance.
Essick was not available for an interview the week of Oct. 11, according to a staff member who works with Sergeant Juan Valencia, public information officer of the Sheriff’s Office.
Evans said he could not discuss Measure P in depth because SCLEA filed a complaint against the board of supervisors with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Members of associations filing the complaint will provide testimonies at a hearing in Sacramento in October, he said.
“I think what could have happened that didn’t happen was there was supposed to be an ad hoc committee that would have had multiple stakeholders at the table,” Evans said, such as the sheriff, the public defender, the probation chief and IOLERO.
He described the SCLEA as supportive of oversight and best practices for transparency and said the county would benefit from law enforcement advocacy on this measure.
He did not offer specific examples of how the consultation would benefit the community, but he said he was receptive to community-focused reforms in general.
“Not IOLERO itself,” he said.
Evans said Measure P did not take into account that victims sometimes have interactions with law enforcement at the worst point in their lives.
“And those are private moments where they’re entitled to confidentiality as well,” he said.
According to the measure’s text, IOLERO would be permitted to “directly access and independently review any and all sources of investigative evidence to ensure that the investigation is complete and all material evidence has been secured and analyzed by investigators in reaching their investigative findings.”
The measure’s text said IOLERO could also “directly access and review all body worn camera videos and be authorized to post every body worn camera video where force was used on IOLERO’s website. Public posting shall be determined on a case by case basis to the extent allowed by law, in consideration of victim privacy rights and active investigations.”
According to the text of Measure P, IOLERO would not be authorized to “disclose any confidential and/or privileged information to anyone not authorized to receive it, as prohibited by law.”
Evans said that the measure reached the ballot in a legally deficient way and that it could not be feasibly implemented.
“In this case, about $2 million per year is what the initial cost is going to be, at a minimum. Will the board of supervisors be able to change it in the future? No, because they wrote it to where they wouldn’t be able to,” he said.
The text of Measure P states that the IOLERO budget will be set at a minimum of 1%. “While this amount is a minimum, IOLERO’s budget allotment shall be sufficient to allow IOLERO to perform effectively all of the functions set out in this ordinance,” it says.
Regarding how SCLEA and law enforcement could demonstrate transparency and accountability to community members with significant doubts, Evans said “I think it’s a combination of communication, sometimes. Law enforcement and associations, we’re really good at doing the work, but not promoting ourselves, we’re not good at self-promotion.”
He continued, “And I think in these new times where (there is) the social media and instant availability of video and information, that a lot of members are focused on service delivery, and there’s a lot of confidentiality involved of victims, of suspects, of employees, and when you’re trying to mix that all together, not everything is releasable.”