In a major setback for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to place two measures on the fall ballot, one to create a tough citizens review board to monitor deputy sheriffs, and the other granting supervisors the power to set up a civilian Department of Corrections to run the jails.
In casting their votes, all five board members expressed their frustration and disgust with persistent allegations in the past two years of abuse by sheriff's deputies, both inside the county jails and out on patrol.
"Peace officers are not the law; they enforce the law," said Supervisor Susan Golding, who is leading the drive for a citizens review board with subpoena powers and the right to recommend discipline for deputies who abuse civilians.
"But there have been times over the last couple of years where the peace officers have indeed believed they were the law," she said.
Supervisor Brian Bilbray added:
"The greatest tool the law enforcement officer has out in the streets is not his gun or his badge, but the trust and confidence of the general public. And to some degree, peace officers in San Diego County have lost some of that confidence level. Right now, the confidence in this system has been very strongly hurt, if not decimated."
With both measures scheduled for the November ballot, San Diego County voters this fall will face a total of four law enforcement-related issues. In addition to the review board and Department of Corrections measures, a new sheriff will be elected for the first time in 20 years, and the city of San Diego is planning to add a proposal for new taxes to hire more police officers.
Outgoing Sheriff John Duffy--who has adamantly opposed both a review panel and a new Department of Corrections--did not attend the board hearings Tuesday and declined to comment later about the action. But he did send some of his high-ranking assistants, who argued fervently against both measures.
Also addressing the board were Assistant Sheriff Jack Drown and Sheriff's Capt. Jim Roache, the candidates in the runoff to succeed Duffy, who said they would support a weaker advisory review board with no subpoena powers and no role in meting out discipline.
Drown urged supervisors not to create a Department of Corrections, and, while Roache did not speak to the board on that issue, he has said in the past that he opposes taking the jails away from the sheriff.
It was the matter of the review board that drew the longest testimony from the public and the sharpest debate from supervisors.
Roberto Martinez, co-chairman of the Coalition for Law and Justice, told the board that inmates in the jails who have not been tried or convicted are often abused by deputy sheriffs.
"We have documented over the years many abuses and deaths in the jails," he said. "And we feel that people within the jails should have some manner of redress. This is an idea whose time has come. It's long overdue."
Judy Hejduk, an Encinitas mother who has alleged she was chained, hogtied and beaten in the Vista jail after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, said of the abuse: "It has to stop."
The supervisors weighed three different formulas for a review board.
One was an advisory panel, similar to the San Diego Police Department's review board, which would simply review how well sheriff's internal affairs officials investigate citizen complaints. But supervisors dismissed that type of panel as too weak.
Another alternative was the creation of a second county grand jury, but county staff members warned that this approach would require a statutory amendment to the penal code in Sacramento.
The third form, embraced by supervisors, would create a nine- to 15-member review panel with subpoena powers and the right to issue recommendations on discipline for deputies deemed guilty of misconduct.
The panel would review complaints of brutality, excessive force, discrimination and any discharge of a firearm by a deputy. In addition, the group would automatically review all deaths of citizens involving deputies, regardless of whether a complaint were filed.
Its key purpose, supervisors said, would be to restore public confidence in the Sheriff's Department by making errant deputies accountable for their misconduct. That confidence has eroded in recent years, they said, hitting a low mark when the county grand jury confirmed widespread abuse by deputies in the jails.
"In the last couple of years, an extraordinary number of allegations have been raised, some true and some false," Golding said. "And we have had a very difficult time in getting answers to these allegations. And had the internal affairs unit done what it should have done, then we would not be here today."
"The objective of all this," she added, "is to give the public the right to know what is happening and restoring public confidence in our peace officers. We all want to be safe on the streets of San Diego. And this review board will allow the public to have that confidence."
Bilbray said that just a few years ago, before the abuse allegations surfaced, he would have voted against any form of review board for the Sheriff's Department. "But times change and things happen," he said.
Assistant Sheriff Richard W. Reed, speaking on behalf of Duffy, argued that "there are no known effective review boards in existence today that oversee an elected office."
"They are basically paper tigers," he said. "They will cost the taxpayers of San Diego County a third of a million dollars a year and will yield nothing."
County administration officials projected the cost of a new review board at $347,500 the first year, $30,000 of which would be one-time start-up money. But representatives of the Deputy Sheriffs Assn. and the candidates for sheriff suggested the costs would be much higher, with Roache predicting the price tag would go as high as $600,000.
On the second issue of a new corrections department, the supervisors were careful to phrase the ballot question so that voters would be granting them only the power to create the new agency, should they decide to do so later.
Although the county counsel said the supervisors have the power now to create a new corrections department, he advised that a charter amendment as proposed in the ballot measure would waylay future legal challenges to the new department. The supervisors also said they wanted to first see how well the new sheriff, who takes office in January, manages the jails before making any changes.
Under the supervisors' plan, they could appoint either a civilian director, the county probation director or the sheriff himself to run the new department. The department head would report to the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor George Bailey said, "I can't think of a worse job for a person to have." Nevertheless, he said, the board should exert its control over the jails if abuses and other problems continue in the detention facilities.
"I've had deputy after deputy say there is a tremendous morale problem of taking street deputies and having them sit in the jails," he said. "Certainly, those frustrations will continue until we get a new set of procedures for running the jails."
But sheriff's officials and other detractors, including Drown, attacked the notion that an independent agency could better run the jails. They also sharply criticized the supervisors' projected cost savings of $383,000 a year with a Department of Corrections.
They noted that the sheriff already has agreed to replace deputy sheriffs in the jails with civilian correctional deputies, and that 44% of all jail positions are now filled with the correctional deputies, who have limited peace officer duties.
"This county is currently in a budget crisis," Randall Dibb, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Assn., told the supervisors. "I urge you to allow the sheriff to run the jails and not waste more money creating a new department."
Assistant Sheriff Ken Wigginton, who heads the sheriff's detention facilities, said a new department would cost the county more in overhead and administration by creating yet another layer of bureaucracy. "It will not save any money," he said. "In fact, it will cost more."
But the supervisors said that if the voters grant them the power to create a new corrections department, it will be a tool they can wield in the future if the new sheriff does not run the jails effectively.
"This gives us an option that a year or two years ago we didn't have, when there were allegations of abuses in the jails," Golding said. "Perhaps it's a hammer of sorts."