Among the many other benefits of living in beautiful and bountiful Sonoma County are our relative low level of crime and a feeling of safety in our neighborhoods, towns and highways. We should neither take this sense of security for granted nor disregard how dear a price we pay for our law enforcement and safekeeping.
More than half of our taxes paid to local cities and the county government goes to police, sheriff and criminal detention. This is true in Cloverdale, Windsor, Healdsburg, Sebastopol and for all of unincorporated Sonoma County. Almost one-third (28.8 percent) of the county’s general fund is allocated to the sheriff’s department and more than half ($237.5 million) goes to overall public safety.
If the relative low rate of crime and overall sense of safety is for real, then we must agree we are getting our money’s worth or possibly even a bargain. Which is it?
Until very recently, the average citizen had no way to measure how good a job our police or sheriff deputies were doing. We tended to judge their work by personal anecdotes, run-ins or occasional news accounts of big arrests, alleged bias or excessive force. But in 2015 the County of Sonoma created the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) in the wake of the Oct. 22, 2013 killing of teen-aged Andy Lopez by deputy Erick Gelhaus. The city of Santa Rosa also created an office of independent auditor for its law enforcement activities.
Both of these offices now provide external and citizen-based review of local law enforcement. The creation of these new agencies answered several years’ of demands by local citizen activists for public oversight. But, after delivering their required annual public reports in the last two weeks, both of these independent watchdogs are being threatened with termination or tighter restraints.
There is much irony here because both independent reports confirm our local police and deputies do an excellent job and have taken proactive measures to do more community outreach and training to reduce use of force or bias. At the same time the reports do include criticisms for how some uniformed officers accept the use of body cameras and other expanded citizen oversights.
We endorse the overall performance of all our local law enforcement departments and especially note their willingness to better engage more members of the public, especially the disenfranchised.
At the same time we urge our local governments to support transparency in our public safety operations and not weaken the independent watchdogs. Mark Essick, our new sheriff who is taking office this month, pledged to work closely with IOLERO and to expand community-based policing and outreach. The voters who just put him in office expect him to keep his word.
The county sheriff’s department includes 216 uniformed sworn officers. Almost all (97 percent) are male and 87 percent are white, with just 9.3 percent Latino. This imbalance of ethnic makeup must be addressed, even as we acknowledge the current challenges of job recruiting.
Essick won his election this year over Ernesto Olivares, a Latino candidate, and John Mutz, who called for increased public oversight and a change in the status quo.
We like the part of the current status quo that is about low crime and safe neighborhoods. But we endorse the recommendations of outgoing IOLERO director Jerry Threet who called for better cooperation by the sheriff’s department in investigating citizen complaints, more transparency and for increasing community outreach.
The county sheriff’s office’s stated mission is to provide “firm, fair and compassionate public safety services with integrity and respect.”
To this, we say, “trust but verify.” The push for citizen oversight must go forward, not backwards.
Rollie Atkinson is the publisher of Sonoma West Times & News, The Healdsburg Tribune, The Windsor Times and the Cloverdale Reveille.