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Almost a year ago, Orange County’s long-dormant policing oversight office jolted awake, announcing an ambitious set of probes — for the first time in years — into issues like the county Sheriff’s use-of-force policies, evidence booking scandal, and conditions inside the jails.

The Office of Independent Review (OIR)’s true purpose has been mired in confusion and criticism since county Supervisors created it in 2008 in the wake of a controversial jail beating death. 

While taking public credit for setting up an effective police oversight agency, supervisors actually gave the OIR a vague mandate. County supervisors have never been clear whether the agency is meant to provide public reports or just make internal suggestions.

In practice, it’s never done either very well, in the eyes of county officials who have moved to redefine its purpose and scope — and even flat-out defund it — in prior years.

Change is promised by its new leader, Sergio Perez, who county Supervisors hired last March to lead the embattled office after years and years of vacancy. 

Last August, following a wave of police violence protests that swept through Orange County, Perez announced three new planned probes into the county’s criminal justice system and relevant public agencies.

But he wasn’t done there, later tacking other incidents as they surfaced, like the deputy shooting of Kurt Reinhold and the burning of a county jail inmate, onto his existing list of planned inquiries.

It’s been nine months since his initial announcement, and Perez’s office has yet to release a report.

Confidentially, though, it appears he’s made some findings, which were first made public by the Los Angeles Times which details a secret OIR report on numerous and specific instances of excessive force and misconduct by Sheriff’s deputies.

Perez declined to comment on the confidential report, beyond telling Voice of OC that his office may issue confidential reports “where such information is necessary to support the conclusions reached by the OIR in its investigations, and also necessary to make its related recommendations more persuasive.”

In a June 1 phone interview, Perez said people can expect his office’s first public report some time in August, but that’s all “subject to the availability of information.”

“The OIR works to issue public reports whenever possible,” he said.

To civil rights advocates like Daisy Ramirez, the confidential report may hold clues to what the public can expect from OIR’s first public report, whenever it’s released.

“This is the first time since the inception of the OIR, which I believe was established more than a decade ago, that we are hearing about issues that are important to the community and to people that are incarcerated in the jail system,” said Daisy Ramirez, who watches the conditions and treatment of those in the county jails for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

She added: “And I don’t believe that that’s something that previous leadership has taken on.”

Sergio Perez since Day 1 has faced a test of whether his findings will be truly immune from the influence of the supervisors who hired him, especially since they approve the funding and partly oversee the agencies he’s investigating.

His office, after all, has been historically low on supervisors’ list of budget priorities. This past fiscal year, officials budgeted just around half a million dollars for Perez’s office.

To put it another way, that’s 0.01% of the county’s taxpayer-funded general fund.

Thus, the question remains: 

Is the OIR’s new leader working in an agency that county officials have set up to fail? Or can he move around that landscape and walk that fine line with his higher-ups to expose real issues while proposing meaningful changes? 

Asked why it’s taken so long to release a public report, Perez noted there are only two staff attorneys working at his office who have a wide jurisdiction spanning the Sheriff’s and Probation departments, the District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, and the Social Services Agency.

The office is “limited by the resources at its disposal,” Perez said in a June 1 interview. 

Indeed, the limited funding conceded to his office by supervisors has only allowed a total of two staff attorneys to do full-time work there.

“With our expansive jurisdiction and the complexity of the issues we’re reviewing, the OIR needs to speak with authority,” Perez said. “To reach those nuanced and complex conclusions, you do need time and you do need care. And that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Though there are outstanding questions of just how autonomous Perez will truly be in shedding a full light on what exactly isn’t working in the agencies he’s investigating.

Ramirez said it will be “very telling how the office will navigate those difficult relationships, in that landscape.”

Her fellow ACLU policy advocate Jennifer Rojas said “it’s incumbent on the Board of Supervisors to ensure that the Office of independent review is fully staffed and resourced.”

Ramirez points to the confidential OIR document leaked to the Times as a sign of what the public can expect from the office’s first report. 

The confidential document, she said, goes much further than what she herself has seen out of the office under prior leadership. 

The Times’ story details instances such as a deputy slamming a handcuffed 13-year-old into a patrol car; a deputy holding his knee on the back of an inmate’s neck for more than two minutes; and an inmate attempting suicide after being elbowed in the head by a deputy who later denied using any force when questioned by a supervisor.

None of the deputies involved in these incidents were referred to Internal Affairs for investigation or potential discipline, and the incidents were highlighted in the report titled “Special Report on Pressing Use of Force Issues,” prepared by the Office of Independent Review, according to the Times.

Conditions inside the jails and use of force polices for Sheriff’s deputies are two subjects of the OIR’s ongoing investigations. 

Perez said he anticipates “releasing a comprehensive report on the Sheriff’s Department’s use of force policies and practices soon.” 

“That report will include the experiences and insights of various affected communities, including individuals incarcerated in County jails. Those interviews are on-going following significant delays related to the COVID pandemic,” he said.

In a follow-up, written statement on June 2, Perez said he couldn’t comment on the report because “certain state laws restrict the release of sensitive information related to law enforcement agencies.”

“Where such information is necessary to support the conclusions reached by the OIR in its investigations, and also necessary to make its related recommendations more persuasive, the OIR may issue confidential reports,” he wrote. “The law that governs the OIR allows for this.”

“However, the OIR works to issue public reports whenever possible,” Perez said. “Previous OIR’s have been reacting only to incidents that are already public. We are looking for the kinds of things that haven’t already become a disaster. This OIR is proactive, not reactive.”

Perez said the Board of Supervisors is considering growing the office’s staffing levels in its upcoming budget.

“Should the budget go where we hope they will, in line with the CEO’s recommendations, we can hire another two staff attorneys,” Perez said. 

Perez himself said the office “has had a particular history in Orange County of starts and stops, and being staffed and not being staffed at all.” 

“But what the OIR is on now, is a stable path to true oversight here in Orange County.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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