Who monitors sheriffs? Proposed law would place that power firmly with counties

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva with Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Across California and other states, elected leaders and law enforcement are mired in debates about the authority of counties to monitor elected sheriffs.

Some sheriffs argue that they are accountable only to the ballot box, and say acquiescence to any oversight by a local government is largely voluntary and limited. In Sacramento, the sheriff deactivated the key card of an appointed inspector general, effectively running him out of office after a critical analysis of a police shooting last year. In Los Angeles, the civilian oversight board is struggling to compel the sheriff to release information it needs to do its job.

State lawmakers are now considering a proposal that makes it clear that that counties — through their elected supervisors — have the authority to both create oversight commissions for sheriff’s departments and grant those commissions subpoena power.

Assembly Bill 1185, which may be voted on by the Assembly this week, would not require counties to take any oversight actions. Instead, it highlights a desire among supporters of open government to see boards more readily use the powers they already have by dispelling any uncertainties. It is necessary, say proponents, because law enforcement has fought against strong civilian boards and especially subpoena powers despite existing case law allowing that supervision.

“We’ve seen more than one sheriff recently bristle at the idea of independent entities providing oversight,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of California, which supports the bill. “That kind of independent oversight is part of the system of checks and balances, and sheriff’s departments should absolutely be no exception to that.”


The proposal would codify into state law a 1994 California Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of counties to create oversight boards with subpoena powers under the state Constitution, a case involving a San Diego taxpayer who sued the county to stop it from creating one such entity.

Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the California State Sheriffs Assn., called the bill “unnecessary” because it is redundant to existing rules and said his organization opposes it.

David Mastagni, a lawyer who works with law enforcement unions, added, “It seems like they are passing a law just for the sake of passing a law.”

Critics of the measure also argue that a civilian board with the power to compel testimony and documents could cause chaos and conflict with ongoing investigations, such as that of an officer-involved shooting.

Salzillo said AB 1185 could increase tension between supervisors and sheriffs because it “creates this pressure [for county supervisors] to have this adversarial relationship with another county office.”

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill’s author, said lack of oversight can also create tension.

“Clearly it’s a sensitive issue,” McCarty said. “One of the big tenets of this are more transparency and more oversight. I know law enforcement thinks this brings more animosity, but I don’t think so. I think it brings more sunshine.”

AB 1185, he said, is in response to an incident in Sacramento in which a sheriff’s deputy shot a black man in the back as he fled, leading to a countywide crisis about oversight.

The 2017 incident began when police were called after Mikel McIntyre fought with his mother, Brigett McIntyre, in a strip mall parking lot. She said her son was having a mental health crisis, and his family had earlier in the day called the police for help.

When officers arrived, McIntyre hit a deputy in the head with a rock before fleeing to a nearby freeway underpass. He encountered a canine officer and threw another rock that hit the dog in the muzzle and the deputy in his leg. That deputy fired on McIntyre as he ran. The deputy hit McIntyre seven times from the rear, continuing to fire as McIntyre reached a distance of 100 feet.

A second deputy, who recognized McIntyre from the earlier mental health call, fired 18 shots across a freeway, missing each time.

Rick Braziel, the Sacramento County inspector general, deemed that the number of shots fired at McIntyre was “excessive, unnecessary, and put the community at risk.” Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert ruled the shooting justified.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones attacked Braziel as having political motivations and locked him out of the department.

Despite community uproar and a call for tougher oversight, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors split on the issue, with some members expressing that they didn’t believe they had the power to compel Jones to allow the inspector general access. The role of inspector general remains vacant, according to county spokeswoman Kim Nava.

Los Angeles County supervisors have also seen heated debates over the issue and have — even when forming oversight boards — declined to give them subpoena powers.

Three years ago, revelations about abuses in Los Angeles County jails and the increased national attention paid to law enforcement’s use of force prompted county leaders to craft a civilian oversight commission to increase accountability at the Sheriff’s Department.

Today, that panel remains legally unable to compel cooperation from the department in the most sensitive cases, such as those involving deputy cliques or Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s controversial recent efforts to reinstate those fired for past misconduct.

Its members sent a letter to Villanueva last week, accusing his department of “dissembling and stonewalling” in its transparency with records about internal policies on investigating and stopping deputy cliques linked to misconduct.

“The COC cannot fulfill its oversight mission in any meaningful manner without timely and complete access to all relevant information,” the letter read.

Robert Bonner, an attorney and member of the oversight commission, said he initially didn’t support the idea of granting the panel subpoena power, especially if the department agreed to provide data to perform its mission. The department’s handling of deputy’s cliques has changed his mind, he said.

“It is becoming clearer that subpoena power, although not a panacea, would be helpful to the oversight commission,” he said.

Last year, Los Angeles organizers collected more than 240,000 voter signatures to force the subpoena issue before voters in 2020. The Board of Supervisors voted to allow the measure on the ballot, rather than exercise its right to enact it into law based on the significant number of signatures.

“We understood that subpoena power is one tool in the toolbox to get us closer to transparency,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and an activist pushing the measure under a coalition called Reform L.A. Jails. “It doesn’t rely on a single elected official to change or uphold the standard. We should be able to have that standard already.”