Orange County supervisors reversed course Tuesday and decided to continue funding an outside watchdog for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a move that escalated a dispute between Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the deputies union.
At a budget hearing two weeks ago, county supervisors revealed plans to completely strip the funding of the county’s Office of Independent Review (OIR), which monitors use-of-force investigations and complaints at the Sheriff’s Department.
But when it came time to make the final decision on Tuesday as part of their approval of a new $5.8 billion county budget, a majority changed their mind amid a strong endorsement of the office by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
She told supervisors that the small agency, which is headed by attorney Steve Connolly, provides independent, proactive oversight of her department.
She went on to say that if supervisors de-fund the OIR they could increase the risk of the U.S. Department of Justice pursuing legal action against the county – known as a “consent decree” – in which the federal government would declare a pattern of excessive force or civil rights violations at county jails.
In 2008, after the brutal beating death of John Derek Chamberlain by other inmates at the Theo Lacy jail, the Justice Department launched a probe into Orange County jails that continues today.
“My concern is that at this moment, if we leave just a placeholder for OIR and we do not have a person in there continuing to oversee the Sheriffs’ Department, we may have another visit or two or more from [the] Department of Justice. And if they want to put you under consent decree, they will,” Hutchens told supervisors.
“Now, do I think that our jails are in a position where they would put us under consent decree? No. But they have a lot of power to do what they choose to do, and they don’t have to tell us what they’re coming in to look at. I’m not afraid of them looking at our jail, but they put great weight during that process on having – the fact that the county had hired Office of Independent Review.”
She later added: “I would say you would be potentially putting this county at risk by leaving that open, because I don’t think this will be a short exercise” to find a replacement model.
Her comments sparked a sharp rebuke from the deputy sheriffs’ union, which represents sworn jail staff.
“We are shocked and insulted that the sheriff implied the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is teetering on the very edge of a federal consent decree. A federal consent decree imposed against a major metropolitan correctional system is an extremely serious matter which should never be taken lightly,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, in a statement.
“To infer that the only thing standing between the Sheriff’s Department and a federally-imposed consent decree is the work of one person is ridiculous and gives the false impression that no one from the Sheriff’s command staff all the way down to the rank-and-file deputies are doing their jobs.”
As of last March, it seemed the probe was close to wrapping up without legal action against the county. A letter from federal officials said Hutchens and her staff had cooperated with the investigation.
Following the union’s comments, Hutchens said she was in no way suggesting that deputies weren’t doing their job correctly.
“It was not a comment about the work that the deputy sheriffs are doing in the jails. I think they’re doing a wonderful job, but I think the fact of the matter is the case is still open,” she said.
“My point was that, while I don’t think we’re in a position to come under a consent decree, the lack of having independent oversight could” cause more scrutiny from the Justice Department, she added.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do, frankly. We have instituted a lot of their recommendations, and we are very close to closing the investigation. But they monitor local media and what’s happening, and that does influence their decision-making from my perspective.”
Hutchens has regularly supported the OIR over the years, saying it’s worth the cost because it makes her department more transparent and fosters trust with the community that internal investigations are being reviewed.
The OIR office was set up by county supervisors in 2008, following the Chamberlain beating, and was tasked with providing an independent set of eyes for internal investigations, with its findings kept confidential.
Its duties include reviewing the Sheriffs Department’s internal investigations of in-custody deaths, as well as its handling of internal and citizen complaints against deputies and other department employees.
With a budget of about $440,000 this year, the office is one of the county’s smallest agencies, if not the smallest. The only county employee in the department is Connolly’s executive secretary, while Connolly and a part-time investigations analyst work as independent contractors.
But over the years, The office struggled at times to meet the expectations of supervisors. It's role has been confused with a civilian review commission for the Sheriff’s Department, with supervisors often wanting Connelly to have a more public presence. They’ve also often commented that Connelly should issue more reports like his counterpart in Los Angeles County.
The result has been confusion over what Connelly should be doing and threats from supervisors that they would defund his office.
Supervisors made their displeasure clear on Tuesday, but haven't come up with a viable alternative with Connolly’s contract set to expire at the end of August.
“I personally believe that the public has absolutely come to expect that there will be independent and transparent oversight of law enforcement in the United States of America today,” said Chairman Todd Spitzer.
At the same time, he added, “I am adamantly against citizen oversight of law enforcement agencies,” with lay citizens not having the expertise or training to judge law enforcement decisions to use force.
Spitzer wants his colleagues to discuss the issue further, and potentially add other county law enforcement agencies like the District Attorney’s Office and Probation Department under the purview of whatever replaces OIR.
“I do not like a situation where law enforcement gets to investigate itself” when a citizen complaint comes in, without corroboration, he said.
“That is dangerous.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has opposed OIR’s existence for several years, noted that state law restricts outside investigators from reviewing personnel records, which he said means that a truly independent review agency can’t exist.
“The practical reality is, it doesn’t do independent review,” Nelson said.
“The citizens’ oversight is [that] the sheriff stands for election.”
Hutchens, meanwhile, took issue with his characterization, saying Connolly has complete access and monitors shooting investigations “from beginning to end.”
“I would disagree with Supervisor Nelson’s comments that somehow this individual is not independent and that there’s no transparency and that he does not have access, Hutchens told supervisors.
“Because of the OIR model, he literally has access to everything in our department, from the beginning of an investigation.”
The vote tally on Tuesday was 4-1, with Nelson opposing, to keep funding OIR and continue its one county staff position.