A new report says there are “troubling cultural currents” in use of force training and policy at the OC Sheriff’s Dept. that may fuel deputy misconduct, harsh treatment toward people already in custody or in mental health crises, and a lack of internal probes into unauthorized use of force.
It’s the Office of Independent Review (OIR)’s first probe into a county public agency in years, also detailing various issues where some training instructors diminish policy or endorse mistreatment tactics, and use of force incident reports either lack details or are filed late.
The Office of Independent Review’s Executive Director Sergio Perez — appointed to the office last year after years of vacancy — and Investigations Manager T. Jack Morse, Jr. compiled the report.
Perez, in an interview with Voice of OC, described the report as one unlike those released under prior office leadership.
It’s a report, he said, which “proactively” looks at systemic issues while, for the first time, including the perspectives of people in the community, such as formerly incarcerated people:
“We believe that these are systemic issues,” Perez said.
Sheriff spokesperson Sgt. Ryan Anderson declined to comment on the report over the phone Wednesday, deferring instead to a prepared statement by Don Barnes, issued later in the day, which seemed to dismiss the findings into his shop:
“I welcome oversight and am open to making changes to policy where appropriate, but I find the report to be lacking in substance and useful recommendations.”
“Commentary in the report shows an unfamiliarity with contemporary legislative changes and minimizes the extent to which de-escalation is utilized,” Barnes later wrote, after saying “the OIR perspective will continue to be considered, and evidence-based recommendations rooted in best practice will be adopted.”
Barnes said out of 309,009 calls for service and “thousands of other daily public interactions, force was used in the community only 372 times, or 0.1 percent of calls for service.”
“Refinement of policies, practices, and training must and does occur on an ongoing basis,” he wrote in his statement, later adding “de-escalation is currently a component of our use of force policy, is part of our training, and is part of the day to day practice of deputies.”
“In taking this approach, we are following the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force. De-escalation is trained on and used proficiently, but what matters is how de-escalation is used in practice,” he said.
Despite the issues the OIR identified in its report, Perez’s office commended the department for having in place “many critical components that effectively govern use of force by its deputies.”
The report recounts one instance the OIR learned about where deputies found a way not to escalate one potentially-deadly encounter with an unruly hotel guest who grabbed a deputy’s holstered gun, and effectively avoided a lethal use of force.
It’s a contrast to when a Sheriff deputy tasked with homeless outreach shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, during a jaywalking stop in San Clemente last year.
Sheriff officials in the following days argued Reinhold grabbed a deputy’s gun when the encounter turned into a struggle.
Perez’s office in its report also made several recommendations for the department in light of its findings; those include:
Creating “stand-alone” de-escalation policies, discontinuing deputies’ practice of firing warning shots, clarifying in policy what constitutes lethal force, and auditing use of force incident reports, among other suggestions.
‘Take it Like A Man‘
People who are or used to be in the county jails told Perez’s office in interviews about retaliatory and unnecessary violent treatment while in custody:
“In one instance, a formerly incarcerated person, without prompting by OIR staff, detailed being subjected to painful wrist and finger manipulation. According to this person, following the booking process, a deputy took her into a small room and applied a pain-compliance technique, manipulating her hands and fingers behind her back, even though she had been compliant throughout the process.”
There were other similar stories, the report states, where people identified places within the county jails that are “known to lack cameras as sites for such treatment.”
“Another incarcerated individual told us of going through the jail booking process when he was weak with withdrawal symptoms and ‘not a threat to anyone.’ Regardless, he said he was ‘tuned up’ by deputies with joint locks and minor movements — that would not be captured on camera — and was told to ‘take it like a man.’”
A former correctional services assistant at the jail “also told us that deputies would ‘twist up’ incarcerated individuals for no justifiable reason, putting them in wrist locks because the deputies felt ‘disrespected,’” the report reads.
The correctional services assistant told Perez’s office deputies could “‘really screw someone’s wrist up without having to write a report,’” the OIR report states. “These allegations are troubling and merit changes to Department training.”
Such accounts were reflected in “troubling anecdotes” by training instructors at the department in making certain points — “often without cautionary language to prevent trainees from misunderstanding the intended message,” the report reads.
Perez’s office says it observed one training instructor describing the importance of knowing where recording cameras were placed inside jail facilities, in the following way:
“‘In my day,’ the instructor said, ‘you knew just where to go in order to tweak a problem inmate’s fingers while you were handcuffing them’ […] The instructor did not state such behavior was inappropriate, or that such retaliatory conduct violates the law and OCSD policy.”
Lacking Use of Force Incident Probes, Disclosures
“Most troublingly,” Perez’s office said Sheriff’s deputy use of force incidents found to be unauthorized or “out-of-policy” by department supervisory reviews were not always referred to Internal Affairs for investigation.
That’s despite the fact that “OCSD’s stated protocol requires supervisors to refer potential out-of-policy force violations to Internal Affairs for review,” the OIR report reads. “Instead, in these limited instances, supervisors elected to provide counseling to the deputies at issue.”
“The OIR also identified a frequent practice of late reports during the review period, which raises concerns about the Department’s efforts to ensure deputies comply with its policies,” the probe found.
Deputies’ use of force reports also lacked a complete picture of the incident at issue, the report states.
“Several active OCSD deputies also shared these concerns with the OIR, noting that — on occasion — junior department members working in the jails are made to write a ‘main’ force reports even when they didn’t use force or were not the primary deputy involved …”
Multiple deputies filed reports describing events around use of force as “‘tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving’ […] But without any supporting information for reviewers and other readers to understand why, for example, a situation was ‘uncertain,” the report states.
It adds that one report merely stated “‘force was used to control the subject,’ without stating the type of force used or what justified it.
“The use of such general language and lack of detail make it difficult for reviewers to determine whether the force was reasonable and within policy,” the report reads.
Many reports detailed the conduct of the person who a deputy used force on, “but provided little or no narrative regarding the deputy’s own actions,” Perez’s office said — especially the case for instances in which more than one deputy used force.
Policy Issues and Bias
“Most troublingly,” the report states Perez’s office observed some instructors using language or relying on concepts “that could potentially stigmatize individuals with long-term mental health needs,” describing one instructor “unfairly” and “alarmingly” typecasting all people with mental illness as “potential murderers.”
Perez’s office observed one academy instructor describing a motorist during a vehicle stop, from an anecdote while on duty, as “‘dripping parolee, if you know what I mean,’” the report states.
Deputies “might see such an example as implicit encouragement to trust general, undefined instinct above the kinds of observable facts that are necessary to support a vehicle stop. Such anecdotes can serve as an invitation to engage in biased behavior,” the report adds.
Sheriff officials lack clarity on guidance for de-escalation and the use of lethal force, according to the report, while allowing what the OIR calls “avoidable high-risk force practices” like warning shots and “alternative” use of force techniques not covered by policy or training.
The OIR report details what the office sees as a culture of diminishing department policy. In one instance, an instructor at the department expressed that “not all policies are created equal and identified the ‘uniform policy’ as one that ‘doesn’t need to be carefully read.’”
Perez’s office called that instance “particularly concerning given the controversy that erupted following footage of an OCSD deputy donning an insignia associated with extremist groups, while on-duty and in department uniform.”
“Training guidance that discredits particular policies may lead some deputies to disregard them, increasing the likelihood that violations will take place,” the report reads, adding Perez’s office “alerted the Department of this incident shortly after it occurred and received assurances that it would address the issue with the instructor.”
Certain courses, including those on interacting with people in mental health crises, “lacked hands-on components or information relevant to deputies working within the jails,” the report states.
The report says that throughout OIR’s investigation, Sheriff’s deputies and command staff were transparent and cooperative — “with few exceptions.”
OCSD’s responses to OIR requests for information and access were generally timely and complete, according to the report, and that Barnes and top staff often “chose collaboration” rather than “obfuscation” — “this report would not exist if the department was not dedicated to securing and maintaining the benefits of external oversight.”
Perez’s office is still reviewing certain “individual force incidents involving the department,” the report states. “And that work is ongoing.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.