Orange County independent watchdog to probe into use-of-force policies and evidence mishandling

Sergio Perez is the executive director of the Orange County Office of Independent Review.
Sergio Perez is the executive director of the Orange County Office of Independent Review.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Orange County’s independent watchdog recently announced he will be probing into a number of local law enforcement practices, including use-of-force policies, evidence mishandling and the use of psychological evaluations in hiring.

These investigations will be the first for Sergio Perez since he took over as the executive director of the Office of Independent Review in May.

Prior to his hiring, the OIR position sat dormant after being mired in controversy for many years. Some called the position ineffective and claimed it maintained a too-close relationship to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Perez is hoping to restore public confidence in the position with these investigations.

“I’m hoping to show folks what the Office of Independent Review was always able to do but hadn’t quite done over the last couple of years, and to wherever possible, improve the practices of the departments that are at issue in these investigations,” Perez said. “We all want a Sheriff’s Department and a probation department that use force in a manner that not only complies with the law, but with best practices countrywide.

“We all want to make sure that evidence is being handled in a manner that means people are being treated fairly and justly. And we all want to make sure that the peace officers that are employed by the county are given the resources and support that they need and that means psychological evaluations that do what they’re supposed to do — help us identify those who aren’t in a good place to do the work and those who are, and then support them.”

Deputy Michael Devitt, who was caught on video violently beating a Black man, has been placed on administrative leave due to an internal investigation, said department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

Perez’s job has become imbued with all the more importance in the wake of a national movement protesting police violence against Black people. Perez oversees the county’s Sheriff’s Department, district attorney’s office, public defenders office, probation department and Social Services Agency.

Perez’s top priority will be a review of use-of-force policies, training and practices by the Sheriff’s and probation departments.

“As proven by recent events throughout the country and local conversations about law enforcement, the decision to use force, whether lethal or less-lethal, serves as an area of high concern to the public,” Perez said in a report detailing the investigations. “It is also a source of significant risk and liability for the county.”

Perez will also focus on the highly publicized evidence-mishandling scandal, where deputies were found to have routinely booked evidence late or not at all. The public defenders office has been battling it out in court with the D.A. over the scandal.

Perez will investigate the causes of the booking failures, whether “systems” were in place to adequately identify the mishandled evidence and whether agencies are adequately addressing the outfall.

He said he couldn’t discuss specifics about the evidence mishandling issue yet.

“I think it would be difficult to discuss, I can tell you generally that it’s always good to see organizations work to correct the issues,” Perez said. “... I think both the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office have moved to do that. The big question is still having an independent voice say, you know, this is how we got here.”

Lastly, Perez will probe into how the D.A. and Sheriff’s and probation departments use psychological evaluations in hiring candidates to “ensure that the county’s use of the evaluations maximizes the likelihood that it will identify candidates that are unsuitable for service as peace officers, and provide necessary support to its peace officers.”

Perez is working on each of the investigations at the same time. He said it’s too early to know when the reports will be finished.

Perez is currently working alone but is working on staffing his office.

He said the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General — which does similar work to the OIR — has about 30 staff members. That office oversees only the Sheriff’s and probation departments.

Perez pointed out that the county is particularly cash-strapped due to the pandemic economy.

“I do think that the Office of Independent Review here in Orange County ... is going to need to grow to fully deliver on the promise and the value,” Perez said. “But I also understand that the best way to do that is to show what good you can do now.”

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