OC Sheriff Gets Advisor to Act as ‘Insurance Policy’ Against Further Scandal

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens speaks to county supervisors in 2013. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Amid an ongoing scandal over misuse of jailhouse informants, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens received unanimous approval from county supervisors Tuesday to hire a “constitutional policing” advisor who would report directly to her.

The job, Hutchens said, will go to a law enforcement expert who will essentially act as an “insurance policy” for the county by proactively examining issues in the Sheriff’s Department that could lead to lawsuits. Her request comes on the heels of the resignation of Steve Connolly, the embattled director of the Office of Independent Review (OIR), which was created in 2008 after the jail beating death of John Chamberlain.

The U.S. Department of Justice began monitoring the county’s jails in response to Chamberlain’s death, and in spring 2014 it seemed to be close to wrapping up without legal action against the county.

But that all changed after the informants scandal made national headlines and supervisors announced plans to de-fund the OIR oversight office – a move they later reversed. In July, Justice Department officials said they would be keeping that jails investigation open as they monitor the informant allegations and the future of the OIR.

That federal scrutiny is a key reason for the new advisor job, Hutchens told supervisors Tuesday before the vote.

“I think it’s an important position, given that we still have the [Justice Department] still looking at our jails, and San Bernardino County was just sued by the Prison Law Office,” Hutchens said.

And though Hutchens didn’t mention the jailhouse informants scandal Tuesday, there have been many calls for increased scrutiny of the department and the district attorney’s office since revelations that sheriff’s deputies and DA prosecutors violated the rights of criminal defendants by not disclosing key evidence regarding informants to defense attorneys. A judge has also accused deputies of committing perjury, which they dispute.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he supported the position as part of a larger effort to increase oversight of local law enforcement. “I think the public has lost of lot of confidence in law enforcement,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer led his questioning Tuesday by asking the sheriff how she plans to recruit for the position.

Hutchens said she’d run an open recruitment, and wants an attorney who is a “police oversight specialist, preferably someone with civil rights experience.”

County insiders have hinted that Connolly, who has drawn harsh criticism from supervisors and others who feel his office has not lived up to its mission, might be Hutchens’ top choice for the new position. Connolly told the Orange County Register this week that he’s considering whether to apply for the job.

Hutchens said her new advisor wouldn’t be advising her on legal cases, but rather how to improve policies and procedures when it comes to deputy-involved shootings and other issues.

The cost impact of the position is estimated to be an extra $123,000 per year.

The growth of Hutchens’ executive ranks was also a subject of discussion on Tuesday, with Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett remarking that it “has really grown.”

Hutchens disputed Bartlett’s assertion, saying that in 2008 when she laid off many members of her command staff, “we were the thinnest” in executive staffing among other local law enforcement agencies, and that the same holds true today.

“I can compare again and show this board and show that we are still, in my estimation, very thin at the top,” she said, adding that the department’s exposure to lawsuits underscores the importance of strong oversight.

“I believe that management supervision is extremely important,” Hutchens said.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union criticized Hutchens for asking for focusing on a new manager before addressing management problems the union says may have contributed to the recent jail escape.

Three inmates, all of whom were accused of violent crimes, were able to break out of the sheriff’s Santa Ana jail complex in January and spend several days on the run. One escapee later turned himself in and the other two were caught in San Francisco after a homeless man recognized them and alerted police.

The union later sued, alleging that mismanagement and negligence by higher-ups may have contributed to the jailbreak.

“It is disappointing the Sheriff made adding another executive to her command staff a priority over correcting the unsafe staffing levels, unreliable radios and other unacceptable safety conditions which continue to persist at the Central Men’s Jail nearly two months after three inmates cut their way out of the jail facility and escaped,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Hutchens’ spokesman declined to respond to the union’s statement.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.