San Diego County Sheriff Jim Roache has refused a civilian oversight board permission to inspect the county jails, setting the stage for a possible legal showdown between the board and a sheriff who endorsed the citizen group when he ran for office in 1990.
The sheriff's decision has angered members of the review committee, which was approved by voters the same year Roache was elected to office.
One review board official, who asked not to be named, said Roache has been an "absolute obstructionist" ever since the board was formed.
Through his attorney, Rick Pinkard, the sheriff has told the review panel that it will not be able to tour the jails as scheduled next week. A panel subcommittee wanted to inspect the jails and report its findings to the County Board of Supervisors, which appointed the review board and gave it the authority to tour the jails on its behalf.
"He hasn't a choice" on whether to allow inspection, said Marilyn Lassman, chairwoman of the citizens board. "It's in the ordinance. If he wants to take on the Board of Supervisors and the people who voted for us, I guess he can do that."
Pinkard said Tuesday that Roache is following sound legal advice and has nothing against the review board.
The right to inspect the jails, Pinkard said, is granted through state law to an advisory committee of the County Board of Supervisors.
Although an ordinance that created the review board also usurped that advisory committee's authority, he said, the law still gives the sheriff the right to choose one-third of the membership of whatever group inspects the jails.
"That's our interpretation," Pinkard said. "If a judge tells us we're wrong, then we'll be receptive and responsive" to opening the jails to the review board.
Members of the review board, including its executive director, say Roache is being intransigent.
"It's inappropriate of the sheriff to resist the will of the Board of Supervisors in this way," said Tim Haidinger, chairman of the review board's subcommittee assigned to inspect the jails. "We didn't seek the responsibility to review the prisons. The Board of Supervisors did."
The sheriff's decision followed by less than a month another strained episode between department and review board.
Eileen Luna, the board's executive director, personally invited Jim Painter, the sheriff's corrections chief, to a meeting to discuss the jail inspection.
Luna said she called Painter's secretary twice, asking him to the Aug. 18 meeting, which included a representative of the jails advisory committee and the ACLU. Pinkard returned the call, Luna said, saying Painter would not be in attendance.
Painter said Tuesday that he knew of no Aug. 18 meeting.
"It doesn't ring a bell at all," he said.
Roache's denial of the inspection is the latest in a series of battles between the board and the department, ranging from whether deputies will be forced to testify at review board hearings to whether hearings or information gathered from investigations should be made public.
By law, the review board is permitted to examine allegations of official abuse or deputy misconduct. Unlike the city's police review panel, the county's board has subpoena power and conducts its investigations separate from the department's internal affairs division.
Although the county's civilian board can only make recommendations to the sheriff, the Board of Supervisors and the county's chief administrative officer, it can differ publicly with the sheriff over what discipline a deputy should receive.
"The difference with us is that if we find misconduct and the sheriff does nothing, we can say that an independent panel found differently," Luna said.
The labor union representing the deputies, called the Deputy Sheriff's Assn., has challenged the review board on two legal fronts.
In one lawsuit, which challenged the review board's existence, a Superior Court judge ruled that supervisors had a right to create the board and to issue it subpoena power. The president of the DSA, who filed the suit, is appealing.
In a second lawsuit, a judge ruled in the DSA's favor, saying the county failed to "meet and confer" with deputies before placing the measure on the ballot. Although the two sides are meeting, it is unlikely the labor union will agree to allow deputies to testify, causing further legal action.
Even without deputies' testimony, the review board can investigate any cases it sees fit. Since May, when it hired seven staff members, the 11-member board has investigated 50 cases, most of them allegations of abuse and excessive force.
If Roache continues to refuse the review panel access to the jails, it will be up to county supervisors to challenge the sheriff over the ordinance that permits the review board such inspections.
Both Lassman, the review panel's chairwoman, and Betty Wheeler, the director of the San Diego County chapter of the ACLU, said they are surprised by Roache's recent actions.
"Sheriff Roache, who certainly campaigned on civilian oversight, now appears to be placing so many roadblocks in the way of it," Wheeler said. "That was one of the major differences between Roache and his opponent during the election."
Roache endorsed a civilian review board without subpoena powers similar to the San Diego Police Department's, which investigates cases that have already been examined by internal affairs. The police review panel has been criticized as being too weak and some of its members are frustrated by its apparent ineffectiveness.
The sheriff did not return a call for comment but Pinkard, his attorney, said Roache has cooperated completely with the review board until the issue of jail inspection.