.Marin County finally takes steps toward implementing a sheriff’s watchdog group

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury recently recommended the county create an independent sheriff’s oversight board with subpoena power, and proceedings subject to the Brown Act, to improve accountability and community trust in the sheriff’s office.

In its report titled “Sheriff Oversight: The Time Is Now,” the grand jury states that a civilian oversight board, along with the leadership change in the sheriff’s office, “presents a rare opportunity to reset relations between the Sheriff’s Office and the communities it serves.”  

Assembly Bill 1185, state legislation which passed in September 2020, allows counties to establish sheriff’s oversight boards with subpoena power. Although activists and citizens have lobbied the Marin County Board of Supervisors to implement AB 1185, it has been slow to respond.

Robert Doyle, who served as Marin County sheriff for more than 25 years, retired two weeks ago. The former sheriff opposed a transparent public oversight board with teeth—subpoena power—and had previously stated that as an elected official, he only answered to the board of supervisors during the budgeting process.

Undersheriff Jamie Scardina is running unopposed in November to replace Doyle. Although Scardina also has resisted the idea of a citizen oversight board, he told the Pacific Sun that if it is created, the sheriff’s office would participate in the process as outlined by the board of supervisors.

However, Scardina is wobbling on the issue of policy changes in the sheriff’s office, which was recommended repeatedly in the grand jury’s report. It indicated that law enforcement agencies across the country have made policy changes in recent years, yet there has been little change in the sheriff’s office.

“We are not an organization that needs substantial change, but we will make organizational change along the way as long as it best serves the Sheriff’s Office and the community,” Scardina said in an email.

Obviously, the grand jury disagrees. The report provides concrete examples of the need for change, specifically pointing to sheriff’s office activities in unincorporated Marin City as justification for establishing a watchdog group.

Delving into the history of injustice experienced by Black residents in Marin City and two recent incidents, the grand jury’s report states there is a “strained” relationship between the community and the sheriff’s office.

Marin City was founded in 1942, when the federal government constructed temporary housing for the men and women building WWII Liberty ships in nearby Marinship. Both Black and white families lived in the community together. After the war ended, white workers bought homes. Black families remained in Marin City because of the county’s redlining policy, which prevented them from buying property.

Newspapers from the late 1940s chronicled alleged racial discrimination against Black residents, the report stated. Other incidents over the decades have reinforced the community’s distrust of the sheriff’s office, which continues today.

The report noted that Marin City currently has a population of 3,126 and 35% of residents are Black or multiracial, a much higher percentage than anywhere else in the county. Since Marin City is unincorporated and has no police department, the sheriff’s office remains responsible for law enforcement in the community.

Residents say the sheriff’s office uses Marin City as a training ground for new deputies, resulting in over-policing practices, which include “excessive stops, arrests, citations, and warnings,” according to the report. Short-term patrol assignments, under two years, make it difficult for residents and deputies to develop relationships.

Two recent incidents further eroded residents’ negative perception of the sheriff’s office. In November 2019, approximately 60 Contra Costa and Marin deputies descended on Marin City looking for suspects in an Orinda shooting. Ultimately, they arrested two individuals, according to the grand jury report.

The operation began at 7:45am, just in time for children on their way to school and adults going to work to witness the invasion of their small community by “armored vehicles and dozens of heavily armed law enforcement officers, many in tactical gear.” School officials reported that children arrived traumatized from the incident and many needed counseling. The sheriff’s office canceled an engagement at Tamalpais High School to speak with students about the incident and the talk was never rescheduled.

Doyle, the then-sheriff, continued to state that the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office led the raid and the Marin County Sheriff’s Office merely assisted. The grand jury agreed that this was true; however, it criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to address concerns raised by the community.

The second incident detailed by the report occurred two days before the November 2020 election. Hundreds of vehicles participating in a pro-Trump caravan stopped at the Marin Gateway Shopping Center shopping at around 11:30am.

Some Marin City residents went to the shopping center parking lot, where the Trump supporters greeted them with racial epithets. In return, eggs were tossed at caravan vehicles. Traffic was snarled in the community, and citizens complained they felt intimidated when trying to use the voter drop box located at the shopping center.

After the event, the sheriff’s office told the public that it only received notice of the Trump caravan a few minutes before the vehicles arrived. However, the grand jury obtained records that showed the sheriff’s office was informed of the caravan at least four times, beginning at 7:13am, more than four hours before the Trump supporters came to Marin City.

Both incidents demonstrate the need for a sheriff’s oversight board with subpoena power, according to the report. The board is a forum that would allow citizens to express their concerns and the sheriff’s office to explain its perspective. An oversight board could also “conduct a full investigation” into how the sheriff’s office handled the Trump caravan incident..

The grand jury isn’t the only entity calling for a sheriff’s oversight board. The Marin County Board of Supervisors tasked the Human Rights Commission with finding a way to implement AB 1185. The Human Rights Commission formed a two-person committee to recommend a path forward.

“The committee is recommending an inspector general and a citizen’s oversight board with subpoena power,” Jeremy Portje, a member of the committee, said. “We are looking to create a subcommittee with citizens to iron out details.”

Supervisor Damon Connolly said he has met with Portje and engaged other community members about the issue. All have spoken passionately about the need for AB 1185. Connolly says the goal is to have the AB 1185 oversight board in place by the end of this year and appoint members in early 2023.

“The Board [of Supervisors] has set aside $150,000 as part of the new budget and is continuing to work with the sheriff’s office, the Human Rights Commission, stakeholders and community members on developing a framework for AB 1185,” Connolly said.

Anything could happen before the supervisors vote on the issue. Still, Portje is optimistic, confident even, that Marin will soon have a sheriff’s oversight board.

“Everything is pointing to now,” Portje said. “The time is now. The time is right.”

Nikki Silverstein
Got a Hero or a Zero? Please send submissions to [email protected] Toss roses, hurl stones with more Heroes and Zeroes at pacificsun.com.

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