Stephen Connelly, director of the Orange County Office of Independent Review, is on the clock.
In August, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve a six-month extension to Connelly’s contract. But the board supervisors made it clear that they want more action and more communication from Connelly’s office, which is charged with monitoring Sheriff’s Department investigations of deputies’ misconduct.
“I too have struggled with continuing this resource in our annual budget discussions,” said Supervisor Pat Bates after offering the motion to extend Connelly’s contract. “Not only has the office not reported regularly to the public as promised but even the reports to our board offices have been lacking.”
It is also apparent that the supervisors themselves are uncertain of what they want from the agency.
Following his contract extension, Connelly answered questions about his mission and what he has accomplished.
Q: When this office was set up a few years back in the wake of the Chamberlain jail beating death, there seemed to be confusion among county supervisors regarding the role of the office. Can you explain what the Office of Independent Review does on a regular basis?
A: OIR monitors every Sheriff’s Department investigation into allegations of officer misconduct. So far, that has encompassed over a thousand individual cases. OIR helps ensure that the investigations are appropriately rigorous and that the outcomes are reasonable based on the available evidence. I’m there to make sure OCSD is following its own protocols but also to bring an outside perspective to the cases. While that’s the core of the assignment, I also review critical incidents [like shootings or in-custody deaths] and work with the department on systemic reforms.
Q: What are your biggest accomplishments since taking office?
A: I arrived at a time when my notions of law enforcement “best practices” fit very well with the directions Sheriff [Sandra] Hutchens wanted to take the department, in terms of both misconduct issues and risk management. OIR has contributed to some major reforms in how OCSD conducts itself and holds its people accountable. The Department is much better than it used to be about acknowledging performance deficiencies of all kinds and pushing itself to fix problems and learn from mistakes. OIR plays a part in that every day and strengthens those processes by adding an outside voice.
Q: Why does the Orange County Office of Independent Review not release public reports similar to those seen from your counterpart in Los Angeles?
A: I have definitely wrestled with how to handle reporting in the most useful ways. My approach has gone through some different phases in the three years, depending on the needs I’ve perceived and the feedback I’ve gotten. I think a better plan going forward is just to commit to a regular schedule of published reports or appearances at [Board of Supervisors] meetings as a way of ensuring that public outreach is happening.
Q: How do you react to the sharp criticisms leveled by some county supervisors that the office isn’t fulfilling the role they intended?
A: The supervisors are a very important audience obviously. I think the gap between what I’m accomplishing and how effectively I’m communicating that or emphasizing the points that might matter to them individually is something I can realistically hope to bridge. I’ve already had some productive conversations with different districts.
Q: After the narrow 3-2 vote in August, county supervisors said they would review your progress in six months. What might they find next time they look at the OIR?
I hope they won’t have to wait that long. I know that they are looking for assurances that OIR is truly independent and making a difference. To the extent that’s been a communication issue, I take responsibility for that. I think I can address it, even with the confidentiality issues that apply to individual cases. I also recognize that the activities of the office can and should keep evolving as conditions change. It’s a different Sheriff’s Department than it was in 2008, and so OIR’s projects and focal points are changing too.
— Interview by NORBERTO SANTANA JR.