After overhauling ‘ineffective’ O.C. law enforcement watchdog agency, director Sergio Perez is leaving

Sergio Perez was hired as executive director of the Orange County Office of Independent Review in 2020.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Less than a year ago, the Office of Independent Review published a scathing report on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s use-of-force policies.

The oversight body found that policies generally risked public safety and exposed the county to liability. In addition, deputies were found to have continually filed late or incomplete force reports, and training instructors were found to have spread bias and endorsed violence.

Before that, a confidential report from the OIR that was reviewed by TimesOC uncovered troubling use-of-force incidents by county law enforcement, including a handcuffed 13-year-old boy being picked up into the air by a deputy and slammed into a patrol car, a deputy holding his knee on the back of an inmate’s neck for more than two minutes and an inmate attempting suicide after being elbowed in the head by a deputy who later denied using any force when questioned by a supervisor. The report said that none of the deputies involved in these incidents were referred to Internal Affairs for investigation.

These were the first substantial reports in years from an office that had been criticized for being ineffective and maintaining too close of a relationship with the Sheriff’s Department, an agency it is tasked with overseeing along with the district attorney’s office, public defenders office, probation department and Social Services Agency. The public report was received favorably from justice advocates and rebuked by the Sheriff’s Department. At the time, Sheriff Don Barnes said the report was “lacking in substance and useful recommendations.”

The reports seemed to be a sign that the OIR was finally working as an effective oversight agency. That shift was engineered by Sergio Perez, hired as the executive director of the OIR about two years ago. Now, less than a year after those reports, Perez is leaving to become the first inspector general for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, beginning May 9.

Perez said during a phone interview that he’s content with the work he accomplished at the OIR along with investigations manager T. Jack Morse, Jr., but the opportunity at the DWP “was just too good to pass up.”

“I’m really excited about putting my experience and skills to work for such a crucial public agency in Los Angeles,” Perez said.

Orange County sheriff's deputies in riot gear in 2017.
(Spencer Grant )

Overhauling an ‘ineffective’ agency

During his two years at the helm of the OIR, Perez said he transformed the agency by making it more transparent and forging relationships with community and legal justice stakeholders. The office had essentially been mired in controversy since it was first approved in 2008 in response to the death of John Chamberlain, an inmate who was beaten to death by other inmates in an Orange County jail. Perez pointed out that the two former executive directors, attorneys Stephen Connolly and Kevin Rogan, conducted the bulk of their work internally, without engaging with the public. They were both fired.

Connolly, who served as the first OIR executive director, was criticized for his close relationship with the Sheriff’s Department and was roundly rebuked for not uncovering the jailhouse informant scandal, where the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department were illegally using jailhouse informants to obtain confessions. Rogan replaced Connolly after the office was empty for two years. His tenure at the OIR lasted less than a year, and then the office sat vacant for another two years until Perez was hired.

Perez believes it’s important for the OIR to engage with the community in order to perform effective oversight. He worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Project Rebound at Cal State Fullerton, which helps people who have served time in jail reintegrate onto the Cal State Fullerton campus. Perez also worked with nonprofits Chispa OC, which supports progressive Latinos in Orange County, and Underground GRIT, which seeks to help formerly incarcerated people reenter the community through providing education, vocational training, mental health support services and advocacy.

“Other iterations of the Office of Independent Review were not really focused on building those bridges with community organizations and stakeholders,” Perez said. “So I’m really proud of having done that and showing folks that there is value to local oversight.

”... The Office of Independent Review, its value and its ability to do its work effectively, is completely dependent on it understanding how the county agencies that it oversees are conducting their work, and the impact of that work on community members. Without that consistent and principled engagement with community groups, the OIR is missing a tremendous amount of relevant information. It means it’s limiting itself to just county viewpoints, and that is just one slice of the pie. It’s an important slice, but it’s not sufficient to really understand how the agencies are carrying out their work. That’s where that engagement is absolutely necessary because then you have a full picture of how the work is actually being carried out in the real world.”

Jacob Reisberg, policy counsel with the ACLU of Southern California, said this week that Perez led the OIR with “integrity.” His organization would reach out to Perez when they found out about particularly egregious situations in Orange County jails.

Given Perez’s focus on community outreach, Reisberg said it’s critical the next executive director continues engaging with community stakeholders and advocates.

“I don’t think that one can have meaningful oversight of entities … by talking to those entities alone,” Reisberg said. “You need to speak to the people, to the family members, to the community groups, who are most affected by those entities. So I think the only way for the Office of Independent Review to conduct meaningful oversight is to have exactly those conversations.”

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes speaks during a media briefing.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes speaks during a media briefing.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to fostering ties with the community, the OIR’s published use-of-force report made noise in the county. Sheriff’s spokesperson Carrie Braun said in an email this week that the department made changes to policy, report writing and procedures following the OIR report.

“This included the department reiterating the procedure that any use of force that includes a suspected use of force policy violation will be forwarded to Internal Affairs for investigation,” she wrote. “In the last two years, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has responded to more than 400 requests for information from the OIR. We are committed to transparency and welcome recommendations that are in keeping with law enforcement best practices.”

Braun did not provide details about the specific policies that were changed. She also did not respond to questions about if the Sheriff’s Department adopted any recommendations from the OIR’s public report or if any of the deputies involved in the incidents laid out in the confidential report have since been disciplined or referred to Internal Affairs.

“I wish Sergio the best in his future endeavors,” Barnes wrote in the same email. “The Sheriff’s Department will continue to cooperate with the OIR in our shared mission of providing exceptional public safety and sound policy to the residents of Orange County.”

County Supervisor Don Wagner said over the phone that Perez was a valuable addition to the county and his department “does good work.” Wagner also said that the use-of-force investigation was an “important report” that brought up some good issues, though it and other reports from the OIR should not be taken as “gospel.”

“I do recognize the sheriff ... looked at some of the issues a little bit differently,” Wagner said. “And that’s healthy, that’s fine. The opportunity is there for the [Board of Supervisors] to evaluate the report. I think having an OIR gives us a fresh set of eyes who can do some digging and help make the Sheriff’s Department or the D.A. or any of the departments he looks at more functional, identify what best practices are and get us to a point where we can nip problems in the bud before they become serious issues.”

Orange County Sheriff's Department Headquarters and jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters and jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Challenges moving forward

During his time as the director of the OIR, Perez added three positions to the office, including Morse and two staff attorneys that will begin in May. But Perez contends that a primary challenge the OIR faces moving forward is a lack of staff. The OIR oversees five complex agencies with about 10,000 employees, he said. Once a new executive director is hired, the OIR will have four staffers. Some comparable oversight agencies have much larger staffs. For example, the Los Angeles Police Commission’s Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the L.A. Police Department, has 27 staffers.

Perez said the practices of each agency the OIR oversees tend to be “high risk and often involves serious harm to the folks that are interacting with the agencies, whether it’s use of force, decisions to incarcerate or criminally prosecute somebody, or a decision to remove a child or other dependent outside of a home.”

“They present all sorts of difficult and thorny issues of discretion,” Perez continued. “Given that challenge, the office is quite small. So that presented a real difficulty in addressing everything that needed to be addressed in a timely fashion. So it meant constantly prioritizing and triaging the work, which I think we did effectively. But that’s not an ideal situation for an oversight agency.”

In contrast to the staff he oversaw in Orange County, Perez will have a staff of 18 to 24 people in Los Angeles.

“Because the DWP is really serious about building up necessary oversight structures, there’s a clear commitment of resources and institutional support,” he said.

Morse echoed Perez’s concerns about a lack of staff.

“Right now, we don’t even have one person per agency, and that’s including the director,” Morse said. “So I think the addition of two staff attorneys is a start. I think it makes sense to, each fiscal year, continue to expand our footprint.”

Morse said that he will miss Perez’s expertise, but he and the new attorneys will continue identifying “high liability and high risk issues” to improve the policies and protocols of the agencies the OIR oversees.

“These attorneys will bring insight and experience to OIR that our office has not had previously,” Morse said. “So in the very near future, we will be growing in a way that this office has not grown before, and we will have expertise that we haven’t had before.”

As part of its duties, the Office of Independent Review provides oversight of Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer's department.
As part of its duties, the Office of Independent Review provides oversight of Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer’s department.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

One of the new attorneys, Jennifer Puckett, worked as an assistant district attorney in Boston and as a deputy probation officer and deputy district attorney for Marin County. Morse said she will add value to the OIR because she has worked in some of the types of agencies that the OIR oversees. The other attorney, Rachael Melford, worked as a public defender in Yuba County. Morse said that neither he nor Perez had experience working in a public defenders office. He said he’s hoping to eventually add somebody to the staff who has experience in social services and a data analyst who can help track trends and identify systemic issues.

“So we’re expanding in ways to greatly fulfill our mission to oversee not just the Sheriff’s Department but the D.A.’s Office, probation department and public defender,” Morse said. “I hope that we will continue to grow in the future, so that we bring even more expertise to bear.”

Morse is currently the investigations manager, so he will be managing the two new attorneys. He has not been made the interim director and his understanding is that the office will operate without a director until the Board of Supervisors appoints a new one.

Morse said he doesn’t know when the board will hire a new director, but he is considering applying for the role.

In response to questions about the possibility of the county appointing an interim director and an estimate on when a new director will be hired, county spokesperson Molly Nichelson said in an email Wednesday that the staff at the OIR “are currently fulfilling the duties of the director” and “a search for a new director will take place at a later date.”

Wagner said that he doesn’t think there will be an interim director.

“We’re not going to likely do an interim, we’re going to do a search and find a replacement,” he said. “We’re going to have somebody heading up that department full time, but I don’t think we’ll be going through an interim.”

Wagner said his preference to hire the next director would be a “full-scale search.” He said it doesn’t matter whether it’s an internal or external candidate.

“We’re just going to look for the best candidate we can find,” Wagner said.

Reisberg said that he hopes that the Board of Supervisors appoints a director who doesn’t have ties to Barnes, local political leaders and isn’t ex-law enforcement. This could hurt their objectivity, he said. In his view, the best way that the board can conduct the hiring process is to be transparent and allow community members to give input.

Reisberg believes that the statute that empowers the OIR provides the office with minimal power. While it allows the OIR to give status reports and conduct investigations, the power to actually make changes is almost entirely in the hands of the Board of Supervisors, he said.

“So I think, for there to be meaningful change, we need a Board of Supervisors that’s willing to not only select someone who’s going to give them fair, impartial and independent reports, but then actually act on those findings,” Reisberg said.

Wagner is the only Orange County supervisor who agreed to be interviewed for this story.

In the meantime, Morse will continue working on a number of investigations that Perez began, including an assessment of police psychological evaluations and hiring practices, looking into evidence mishandling issues regarding the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office and investigating alleged racist comments made by Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer during a case against a Black man. The OIR is also currently “well into” a review of force policies and practices of the probation department. That report is expected to be published later this year.

In addition to those investigations, the office will continue to perform ongoing tasks like constantly assessing and offering recommendations to the five agencies regarding policies, practices and training. The OIR also continually reviews and critiques internal investigations, receives and assesses complaints from the community to determine whether they are indicative of systemic issues that need to be addressed and takes part in critical incident and coroner’s death reviews. The OIR also regularly attends meetings of the agencies it oversees and holds meetings with their representatives to discuss ongoing issues of concern.

“Even with the addition of two attorneys, it’s still a small agency with a lot of work to oversee five agencies,” Morse said. “But we will do everything we can to fulfill its mission to keep the current investigations ongoing, while also being cognizant of new issues as they arise, and do what we need to do to address systemic issues in the five county agencies moving forward.”

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