OC Supervisors Accused of Failing to Hold Sheriff’s Department Accountable

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Orange County supervisors at a May 2019 meeting. From left: Michelle Steel, Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do, and Doug Chaffee.

Orange County supervisors were accused Tuesday of failing to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable for a series of scandals, including keeping widespread evidence misconduct secret for two years. The supervisors did not respond.

Activists, speaking to supervisors during public comments at their regular meeting, urged supervisors to exercise their oversight authority, pointing to the evidence scandal – which could affect thousands of criminal cases – and testimony by a retired sheriff’s sergeant that dozens of reports alleging misconduct and crimes were intentionally buried to protect certain deputies.

“The deep corruption and lack of accountability is outrageous,” said Daisy Ramirez, the jail conditions and policy coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“There is no external oversight of the Sheriff’s Department,” she added, pointing to the months-long vacancy at the county’s Office of Independent Review, which supervisors have touted as their independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Department.

“As the supervisors of this county, you control the budget. You can exercise your legal authority and power to rein in the sheriff. With such a horrible track record, we cannot trust [the Sheriff’s Department] to police itself. We cannot trust [the Sheriff’s Department] to oversee a bigger jail,” Ramirez added, referring to plans approved by the supervisors to build hundreds of new jail beds for people with mental illnesses and drug addiction.

As the county’s top civilian elected officials, state law gives the county supervisors authority over the Sheriff’s Department’s budget. The supervisors also are in charge of defending the Sheriff’s Department from lawsuits and legal claims – including any lawsuits that may arise out of the evidence delays – and finding the taxpayer money to pay out settlements and court judgements that arise from misconduct allegations.

Four of the county supervisors – Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do, Don Wagner, and Doug Chaffee – were present for the public comments and did not respond. The other supervisor, Michelle Steel, was scheduled to join her colleagues later in the day and didn’t return a phone message for comment.

The Sheriff’s Department has faced controversy in recent weeks over revelations that an internal audit found hundreds of cases where deputies failed to follow policy in booking drugs, cash, photos, and videos in criminal cases by the end of their shift.

In nearly 300 instances, the audits found evidence was booked more than a month late. The delays can raise questions about whether evidence was contaminated and the ability of prosecutors to verify to courts that evidence was truly collected. And in at least 57 cases, a second audit found deputies lied about booking evidence that they did not actually book.

Department officials knew about the evidence issues for nearly two years before they acknowledged it publicly.

In response to the evidence revelations, Sheriff Don Barnes said the department was proactive in auditing the issue and disputed that the evidence problems could affect thousands of cases.

Sheriff officials have said their evidence audit led them to refer 15 criminal investigations related to the evidence issues to the District Attorney’s Office for possible charges, and that DA officials declined to prosecute.

“We have been working with the District Attorney’s office throughout this process,” sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun said last week, adding that four deputies have been fired, seven were disciplined, and four internal investigations continue.

District Attorney Todd Spitzer has said his prosecutors were not alerted to the widespread nature of the violations and he’s started a review of cases impacted by the evidence problems.

“I have concerns that my office may have filed and prosecuted criminal charges against individuals based on [Sheriff’s Department] reports that inaccurately stated evidence had been booked,” Spitzer wrote on Nov. 21, asking for detailed information about affected cases.

Also last month, a judge found the Sheriff’s Department was improperly shackling all inmates in court holding cells, regardless of their danger, under a new policy that started in October. The county, whose litigation is controlled by the supervisors, appealed the ruling, which now is on hold until an appeals court makes a decision.

And last week, the Orange County Register reported on testimony by a retired sheriff’s sergeant who said reports alleging misconduct and crimes by his colleagues were intentionally buried to protect certain deputies.

Braun, the sheriff’s spokeswoman, disputed the testimony in a statement to the Register, calling it “factually inaccurate and completely without merit.” She said said every case “that was referred to internal affairs was reviewed, sent through the appropriate channel, and action was taken where applicable.”

Former Sgt. William West, testifying in a confidential personnel hearing, said an audit found over 60 internal affairs complaints were not investigated between 2013 and 2018, the Register reported.

“Despite all of this and more, the Board [of Supervisors] continues to provide funding for jail expansion, raises for deputies, DNA databases, shackles and settlements due to misconduct,” said Gianni Castellanos, an activist with Transforming Justice Orange County, during public comments at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.

“The office of independent review was created because of misconduct. It’s meant to provide accountability for the sheriff, DA and more. The office has been vacant for some time,” he added.

“Please stop accepting endorsements and campaign contributions from the sheriff, law enforcement unions, and businesses with vested interests in harming and incarcerating people,” Castellanos said to the supervisors.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union has been one of the largest campaign donors to the Board of Supervisors, according to campaign finance records.

Activists also raised concerns Tuesday about a series of jail deaths this year that have yet to be explained – particularly Anthony Aceves, who died six months ago.

“There have been five deaths in [Sheriff’s Department] custody this year. The sheriff-coroner is responsible for investigating these deaths. Anthony Aceves died in May. We still don’t know what happened,” said Castellanos.

Sheriff officials said they haven’t released how Aceves and other inmates died because those cases remain under investigation by the District Attorney’s office.

“We take seriously the charge to provide for the inmates in our custody. Inmate deaths are not common, but in an institution that houses more than 5,000 people on a 24/7 basis, they can occur,” Barnes said in a July statement. “A full investigation is completed to determine if there are any opportunities for increasing the safety and security of our jails.”

One supervisor has publicly raised concerns about the evidence issues: Don Wagner, who said he first learned of them in a Voice of OC column last week.

In an interview, Wagner said last week there was “not in any way, any suggestion [from the sheriff that], ‘Oh this is a serious problem’” before to the recent news coverage.

“The concern, of course, is that you jeopardize convictions and you jeopardize the rights of individual defendants to a fair trial. And neither of those are acceptable,” said Wagner, an attorney who is married to a Superior Court judge.

“It’s worth taking a look at why it’s happening,” Wagner added. “Is it a systematic problem? Is it a series of one-offs – [which is] hard to believe given the numbers.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.