Orange County Supervisors, apparently intent on defunding the Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department, are raising eyebrows amid the current climate of national protests about civilian oversight of police and even drawing public concerns from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
Yet they are right to save taxpayers $450,000 each year by eliminating this service.
At least in the manner it’s currently being run.
Any county insider will tell you OIR was never meant to be anything more than a quick spackle job on the dented public image of the Sheriff’s department (which by OIR’s own accounting has seemingly been fixed by Hutchen’s reforms) after a bloody jail beating death at Theo Lacy jail in 2007.
This is what former county supervisors excelled at.
OIR was among their best work.
Amidst the public outcry over revelations from the ensuing trials over the killing of inmate John Derek Chamberlain – beaten to death while deputies slept and watched videos – county supervisors like then-Chairman John Moorlach were under pressure to do something.
Yet beyond political fix it jobs, supervisors really didn’t focus OIR on offering taxpayers much value.
Nervous about anything resembling a civilian review commission, or anything resembling real auditing, supervisors opted for an independent reviewer -- housed within the Sheriff’s Department and connected to their budget.
Thus, OIR was never very independent at all.
But supervisors let everyone – even some of their colleagues – think that it was.
OIR Executive Director Stephen Connolly spent the next seven years explaining to one supervisor after another something they readily knew: OIR is not a civilian review commission.
That meant he didn’t interact much with the public. I never could figure out how he was supposed to even log public complaints.
And while Sheriff Hutchens argues OIR is important (the deputies union disagrees), I never heard her offer to pay for the function out of her budget.
Connolly readily admitted he needed to step up and play a more public profile, and he won a 4-1 budget vote in 2012 from supervisors crediting him for doing better outreach.
But he never really did much for in terms of public outreach.
Consider the fact that Orange County Sheriffs’ officials are today locked in a disagreement with the federal Justice Department over their continued use of the carotid control hold, known more broadly as a “choke hold.”
It’s the last remaining issue in the ongoing federal jail probe that began in 2008 after the jailhouse beating death of Chamberlain in Theo Lacy jail.
With last year’s death of Eric Garner in New York, the use of chokeholds is being debated across the nation.
Apparently, it’s also been the subject of heated debates inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Except no one on the outside has ever really been made aware of the issue, much less asked to join the debate.
And apparently, it’s quite the old back and forth.
Sheriff deputy union officials are furious over the new policy on choke holds, saying it puts officer safety at risk, all to mollify a public concern that is just plain wrong.
Hutchens, under pressure from the FBI and I’m sure wanting a clean bill of health before she leaves the scene, has attempted to adopt a hybrid choke hold policy.
While she won’t go with the feds and just eliminate the technique, she did change it.
Deputies can now only use a choke hold if they are being attacked. So they have to wait for a confrontation before using the technique.
That, union leaders argue, puts officer safety at risk.
While Hutchens has imposed the change, union leaders say that’s a change in their work and has to be negotiated. Regardless of it’s impact on the federal jail probe, it’s clear that the issue will be fully debated as part of the deputies next labor contract, which has certain reopeners already coming into play this summer.
And again, the public won’t be anywhere in sight on this debate.
It was only in reviewing past OIR reports that I even saw the issue mentioned -- a few paragraphs in the update reports (October 2014 and March 2015) tucked away in OIR’s hard-to-find section titled, “Web reports that never get any kind of circulation.”
Both those reports were under 10 pages, which was about par for the agency. Most years only saw about four very brief reports out of OIR.
Connolly was always friendly to reporters. But he never really said much. And he never published much (even though he admitted to Voice of OC that he needed to do a better job of that).
And that’s what ultimately killed his job. He followed the unwritten rule for county managers: just be quiet and blend in.
So add Connolly to the list of milquetoast auditors (Performance Auditor Philip Cheng) who are now being fired by a new board of supervisors because they are just too Vanilla.
The biggest question is how will this new board replace those slots (Performance Auditor is still vacant).
And remember, future Performance Auditor, when they tell you to play it smart, be quiet, make the brand look good…just remember, that’s a perfect way to get fired, regardless what the current crop of county supervisors tell you about protecting the county family.
Instead, think of your own.
And stay aggressive.
Or there’s no point for you.
And for those of you who have just lost any faith that Orange County supervisors can do anything of meaning, there’s a new movement brewing.
A group led by campaign finance watchdog Shirley Grindle (author of Orange County’s 1978 campaign finance ordinance) has already established a website and is moving toward getting signatures needed to place an ethics commission on the ballot in November 2016.
“Orange County has a number of ethics-type ordinances, but none of them are currently being monitored or enforced,” reads the website. “An independent body such as an Ethics Commission is vitally needed to take over this responsibility.”