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Experts call for beefing up Orange County's sheriff oversight

A visiting booth at the Theo Lacy Facility jail in Orange County, Calif. where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are housed in space that the federal government contracts from the county.
Orange County Sheriff's Department
Visiting booths at the Theo Lacy Facility jail in Orange.

Experts on police oversight and civil liberties told the Orange County Board of Supervisors Friday that it should retain the independent monitor that oversees the sheriff's department and suggested strengthening it by adding more staff, investigatory powers or even a civilian commission.

Supervisors have complained that the Office of Independent Review is not sufficiently independent, and has been late in reporting problems to the board, including allegations of misuse of jailhouse informants. Last month it expressed interest in dissolving the Office before deciding to maintain it temporarily while exploring possible alternatives.

Friday's hearing was part of that process.

The Office of Independent Review, led by attorney Stephen Connolly, reviews internal investigations and advises the sheriff on discipline. He is the sole staffer who carries out those activities.

Orange County officials face a tight deadline to settle the oversight question. Connolly’s contract ends August 31 and the federal Department of Justice has warned it has concerns about there being no oversight if supervisors eliminate the Office without a replacement.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she wanted to keep the Office of Independent Review and Connolly, but acknowledging that the board would rather break ties with him, she asked that a selection committee be formed to find a replacement while Connolly stays in place as an interim solution.

Most of the experts who testified Friday said the Office of Independent Review is adequate but could use more teeth by having subpoena power and more staff to conduct reviews, especially if - as supervisors are contemplating - it is asked to also watchdog the district attorney’s office. 

Dean Erwin Chemerinksy of the University of California, Irvine School of Law said the Office of Independent Review has done well so far, while suggesting that supervisors increase the number of people exercising oversight in the form of a civilian commission.

"The public must perceive that this is a transparent body," he said, "that the oversight commission is truly a watchdog for the public and do will do everything in the public eye and make it as open as possible."

Chemerinsky chaired an independent review of the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s.

Merrick Bob, who monitored the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as Special Counsel to the L.A. Board of Supervisors, disagreed with Chemerinsky about establishing an oversight commission.  Bob, who currently serves as the federal monitor of the Seattle Police Department, suggested creating a large inspector general’s office that would have investigatory powers.

Bob criticized the Office of Independent Review for serving as an adviser to Hutchens.

"I think that’s a dangerous thing," he said. "I don’t think that’s necessary or called for."

The experts said there isn't one model that's been proven to work, but noted that there is a trend of communities choosing a hybrid model of oversight that includes a police monitor or inspector general with some type of multi-citizen review board.

The department of justice has weighed in on the issue as well. It emailed the county suggested principles for establishing an oversight office, including:

  • The oversight office should have full access to records, staff, prisoners, and facilities.
  • The office should be outside the direct chain of command for detention officers, e.g. it should answer directly to the County or Sheriff.
  • Complainants should be able to directly contact the office without having to go through an intermediary.

Orange County Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do will staff an ad hoc committee to review the testimony and will report to the full board on August 4. The supervisors have set Aug. 25 as the date to decide how to proceed.