A year ago, amid an evidence scandal becoming public later caused prosecutors to drop over 60 convictions, OC Sheriff Don Barnes promised to start holding monthly news conferences where he’d answer questions from reporters.

He’s since shut down public questioning of himself, including about how his $830 million department operates.

Instead of taking questions, Barnes is now holding an online monthly briefing where he’s not asked questions by reporters or anyone else.

While his staff invited written questions ahead of time, none of the questions were asked at his most recent monthly briefing.

It’s no longer a press conference, but a “virtual community briefing.”

“This is an opportunity for the Sheriff to speak directly to the community (including the media),” said Barnes’ spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

It stands in contrast to Barnes’ prior briefings last year, as well the county’s weekly coronavirus briefings where there was a phone line reporters could call to ask questions.

Barnes’ spokeswoman didn’t respond to a message asking why he stopped taking questions at his news briefings.

Barnes has called for reforms so law enforcement is only a last resort when it comes to drug addiction.

Yet while low-income addicts face waitlists to get treatment in Orange County, the most-prosecuted crime is possession of drug paraphernalia for using drugs, such as meth pipes, according to local court data Voice of OC requested and obtained.

Voice of OC sought and obtained the data from court officials for free after Barnes’ office demanded $1,000 in order to release data on what people are being jailed for the most in Orange County.

His staff cited the need for 10 hours of “custom programming” to extract the data from an old mainframe computer system.

Here are the questions Voice of OC emailed Barnes’ spokeswoman a couple of hours before his latest news briefing – which he was never asked at the briefing. Several of them are based on questions local residents sent in to Voice of OC:

  1. Do you believe low-level drug cases, like possession for personal use and being under-the-influence (not while driving), should be handled differently? Or do you support the status quo? Should more treatment options be made available? If so, how would that be paid for?
  2. Groups like the Reason Foundation point to Portugal as an example of reducing overdoses while helping addicts become productive members of society again. What is your opinion of how drug addiction is addressed in Portugal?
  3. You’ve called for changes in how mental health crises are dealt with. What specific changes do you want to take place, and when will those be implemented?
  4. Why is your policy to destroy internal investigation files of wrongdoing by your law enforcement officers after just five years? Don’t you want to know which deputies have been found to lie and violate other policies more than 5 years ago? Wouldn’t it be extremely low cost to store the documents, given how inexpensive data storage is now? And are you concerned that the 5-year destruction policy is essentially denying the public information about misconduct that it’s entitled to under the transparency law SB 1421?
  5. The county has a call-in line for reporters to ask questions at its coronavirus news conferences. Why don’t you have that as an option for today’s news conference?
  6. Court data shows Orange County’s number one most prosecuted crime in the most recent fiscal year is possession of drug paraphernalia, such as meth pipes. What do you think about that, as the leader of the county’s largest law enforcement agency, and given your calls for law enforcement to be the last resort on addiction? Do you feel some of the resources on paraphernalia could be better spent on treatment? Or is the status quo appropriate?
  7. Do you agree or disagree with those who say drug addiction should have more of a health response than a criminal justice response?

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

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