The Marin County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal last week to create a community working group to collaborate with the Sheriff’s Office on improving its services and developing trust with the public.
Although the community working group concept was favored by the sheriff, the supervisors’ decision to nix it came after two dozen community members at the meeting advocated for a stronger independent oversight model, which would create a committee with the power to issue subpoenas. The Sheriff’s Office is not obligated to comply with any recommendations made by either group; however, subpoena power will allow the oversight committee to find and publicly expose wrongdoings.
Assembly Bill 1185, state legislation which passed in September 2020, allows counties to establish sheriff’s oversight committees with subpoena power. Last June, Marin’s board of supervisors formed a subcommittee—including two board members and the sheriff—to review AB 1185 and make recommendations. No one from the community was selected to serve on the subcommittee.
AB 1185 lets a county set up a sheriff’s oversight committee composed of civilians or an office of inspector general, “either by action of the board of supervisors or through a vote of county residents.” Both entities are given subpoena powers for persons, officers and documents pertaining to the sheriff’s office. Still, the authority given to the oversight committee or inspector general is limited, as neither is permitted to obstruct the investigative functions of the sheriff.
Across California and the nation, county sheriffs hold immense power, often with no oversight. In Marin County, the board of supervisors has previously said that the only authority they have over the Sheriff’s Office is controlling the budget.
Marin is the most racially disparate county in the state. For years, local activists and concerned residents have maintained the Sheriff’s Office discriminates against BIPOC and poor persons. Black people are pulled over in Marin City at a higher rate than white people. Ditto for Latinx people in San Rafael. From 1990 through 2020, the Sheriff’s Office referred Black people for prosecution at over eight times their demographic presence in the county.
“When I started serving on the Marin County human rights commission, the lion’s share of complaints were allegations about law enforcement misconduct, mostly from the Sheriff’s Office,” Cesar Lagleva, a longtime community activist, said in an interview. “We tried to resolve these complaints, but Sheriff Robert Doyle was hostile to the human rights commission when we brought this to his attention. He denied any wrongdoing by his department or officers.”
Doyle, who has served as sheriff for 24 years, has conducted resident surveys and, in the early 2000s, created a civilian advisory council to offer feedback on the department’s performance. Still, it appears these efforts may have been window dressing.
“In fact, MCSO [Marin County Sheriff’s Office] officials told us that their Policy Committee [an internal group made up of Sheriff’s personnel] does not consider citizen input,” according to a Marin County Civil Grand Jury report issued in 2006.
In 2020, the board of supervisors appointed a civilian work group to meet with the Sheriff’s Office on a use-of-force policy. After just two meetings and an exchange of draft proposals, the Sheriff’s Office sought to terminate the group, according to an October 2020 email from Captain Scott Harrington to a group member. The group replied that they did not want to stop the process prematurely, but the Sheriff’s Office released its new use of force policies the following month.
During the last two years, the Sheriff’s Office has received only four complaints, all exonerated or not sustained after internal investigations. Lagleva alleges BIPOC and poor people are too intimidated to file grievances about their experiences with the Sheriff’s Office and jail.
Proponents of AB 1185 say the subpoena power it offers is crucial. State Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, author of AB 1185 and other police reform bills, wrote that it “strengthens County Sheriff oversight bodies.”
However, Undersheriff Jamie Scardina, who is running unopposed for sheriff this year, said in an interview that implementing an oversight committee with subpoena power is unnecessary because the Sheriff’s Office will make available any documents it can legally provide.
As a member of the board subcommittee that advocated for the working group option, Scardina said he envisioned the Sheriff’s Office working collaboratively with the group to build trust. More tangible suggestions from Scardina about what the group could focus on included examining the recidivism rate at the jail, discussing complaints received by the Sheriff’s Office and taking group members on ride-alongs.
“The best they could come up with is a working group with a set of offerings to try to strengthen public trust in the sheriff’s services,” Lagleva, the activist, said. “On the face of it, it looks cute, but it has no teeth. This recommendation has little or nothing to do with services. Some of it is sound, but [using this model] we can’t begin to address the injustices suffered by BIPOC and poor people at the hands of the Sheriff’s Department.”
Doyle disagrees. The longtime sheriff sees the community working group as a good compromise between AB 1185 and what the Sheriff’s Office thinks is appropriate. In addition, he does not believe the law will deliver what residents and activists want.
However, the vast majority of those who provided public comments at last week’s board of supervisors’ meeting were clear that a working group is unacceptable. More than 20 people strongly supported an oversight committee with subpoena power, while only one person said the working group was “good public policy.”
It appeared the board of supervisors was listening. By the end of the meeting, all five supervisors agreed that the subcommittee will remain intact and dive deeper into AB 1185.
Supervisor Damon Connolly, who serves on the subcommittee, said in an interview that his goal is to include community members who have “lived experience” with the Sheriff’s Office in the oversight process. Connolly doesn’t just want to hold the sheriff accountable; he thinks the board of supervisors should be accountable, too.
“I believe it’s crucial that there be a meaningful way, a transparent way, an accountable way, an independent way to trust law enforcement in our community,” Connolly said. “I’ve heard from community members that there needs to be a higher level of trust.”
The board did not give a date when the public can expect to hear the subcommittee’s next recommendation. The activists and residents who spoke at last week’s meeting said they will accept no less than subpoena power.
“No systems or institutions can, in good faith, say they are working towards meaningful equity without first acknowledging racist policies,” Lagleva said. “It is an issue of ethics and morals. If this sheriff’s office operates clean, then what are they afraid of?”