It’s Orange County’s only watchdog agency rooting out systemic issues in local law enforcement and recommending reforms.

And right now, there’s no one in charge.

The county Office of Independent Review (OIR) is tasked with providing accountability at the Sheriff’s Department, DA’s Office, Probation Department, Public Defender’s Office and Social Services Agency.

For the last two years, it was led by Sergio Perez, who issued an investigation report last summer calling out “troubling cultural currents” in use of force training at the Sheriff’s Department.

Perez left in recent days to become the first inspector general of the LA Department of Water and Power, which is embroiled in a high-profile bribery scandal that sent a former top executive to a six-year term in federal prison.

The last time the top police watchdog job was vacant in Orange County, it took county supervisors two years to hire a replacement – during which the watchdog work ground to a halt.

This time around, county supervisors are thinking about picking an interim director to head up the agency’s work while they recruit for a permanent replacement.

A decision on an interim director could come today during the Board of Supervisors’ closed session.

Supervisor Katrina Foley says she wants to find someone who is just as qualified as Perez was for the job.

“I want to find somebody who will be objective, thorough, responsive and provide quality substantive recommendations that can actually be implemented,” Foley told Voice of OC in an interview.

She said whoever is chosen as the next OIR director shouldn’t simply give in to what department heads – or the Board of Supervisors – want to hear.

“I think it’s important to be able to tell us what’s working, what’s not working and some proposed solutions and then we all work through that,” Foley said.

“I don’t think it would be helpful if we had an individual who either acquiesced to the board or acquiesced to a particular [department] director.”

Foley was the only county supervisor to return messages for comment.

In a statement to Voice of OC, Sheriff Don Barnes promised to continue cooperating with the watchdog agency.

“I wish Sergio the best in his future endeavors. The Sheriff’s Department will continue to cooperate with the OIR in our shared mission of providing exceptional public safety and sound policy to the residents of Orange County,” Barnes said.

Two supervisors – Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee – are now taking the lead on recruiting a permanent replacement as OIR director, Foley said.

OIR, which was created in 2008 after an inmate was beaten to death by other inmates – was largely quiet in its first decade, rarely issuing any public reports or statements.

But Perez – who was hired in 2020 – issued a scathing public report last summer that called out “troubling cultural currents” in use of force training and policy at the OC Sheriff’s Department while also crediting the department for being transparent and cooperative with the probe – “with few exceptions.”

Perez’ report found that the department’s culture may be fueling 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.

Excessive force claims have cost Orange County taxpayers over $13 million in payouts over the last decade, with total sheriff lawsuit payouts topping $40 million, a Voice of OC review of county payout data found.

Among the claims are multi-million-dollar payouts over shootings of unarmed people.

That includes not just payouts for excessive force allegations, but also on claims of deputies engaging in wrongful arrests, sexual assault, civil rights violations, malicious prosecution and injuring people after running red lights.

Among the excessive force payouts in the last decade were:

Taxpayers also are on the hook for $3.4 million a jury ordered the county to pay over the shooting of an unarmed man in Yorba Linda, an amount that wasn’t included in county payout data provided to Voice of OC in response to a public records request.

Among the most serious problems, according to Perez’ report, is a policy letting deputies use “alternative” force that they’re not trained on and that’s not described in policy.

“These vulnerabilities increase risk for the public, the Department, and the County,” the report states.

Additionally, the report states, “OCSD policies do not provide enough information on de-escalation and other critical areas, including the use of lethal force.”

Sheriff’s officials say they’ve implemented a number of changes to their policies after the report brought these issues to light.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has made changes to policy, report writing and procedures related to use of force following the OIR’s report,” said a statement provided by sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

“This included the Department reiterating the procedure that any use of force that includes a suspected use of force policy violation will be forwarded to Internal Affairs for investigation,” she wrote, adding the department has responded to more than 400 requests for information from the OIR over the last two years.

“We are committed to transparency and welcome recommendations that are in keeping with law enforcement best practices,” she added.

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

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