This story was updated at 11:35 a.m. to include reactions from county supervisors and again at 12:45 p.m. to include a reaction from Sheriff Department Spokesperson Carrie Braun.
An Orange County Supervisor helped hamstring the county watchdog office after it probed and reported on a “troubling” use-of-force culture at the OC Sheriff’s Department in 2020, according to an OC Grand Jury Report.
It was a reaction to the Office of Independent Review’s first report in years, which also detailed instances where Sheriff training instructors allegedly diminished policy or endorsed mistreatment tactics – and use of force incident reports either lacked details or were filed late.
But the report was received negatively by Sheriff Don Barnes’ office, Grand Jurors wrote in findings released Thursday, and as a result, a “prominent” unnamed county supervisor contacted county CEO Frank Kim’s office and requested a hiring freeze on the office.
At a time when the office had planned to bring aboard more investigators.
“Despite the support publicly expressed by several Supervisors, a prominent member of the BOS reacted to the OCSD’s displeasure by contacting the Orange County Chief Executive Officer (CEO)’s office and requesting that a hiring freeze be placed upon the OIR. The CEO’s office complied with the Supervisor’s request,” the report reads.
To read the full Grand Jury Report, click here.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee said he hadn’t read it yet and doesn’t know who pushed for the hiring freeze when asked about the report Thursday morning.
“It could have happened. I don’t know everything. I did not do that,” he said. “We don’t communicate all the time. The Brown Act doesn’t allow us to do that so I’m not aware of anybody doing it. And that’s not saying that didn’t happen. I’m just unaware of that. It was not me if it did happen.”
Chaffee is not the only supervisor to deny calling for a hiring freeze.
“I am not the supervisor who gave that direction,” said Supervisor Don Wagner in a Thursday phone interview.
He said the Office of Independent Review positions have since been approved.
“I think the question was kind of let’s wait until the next budget cycle. We have since approved those positions. It wasn’t ‘oh my gosh we’ve got to stop the hiring,’” Wagner said. “But it wasn’t me who made the request.”
In a text message, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett also denied being the supervisor to direct the county CEO to put a hiring freeze on the office of independent review.
When reached for comment Thursday, Supervisor Katrina Foley also denied being the Supervisor who called for a hiring freeze.
“The (office of independent review) is an important department. The (Board of Supervisors) voted unanimously to fund 2 new staff positions which were hired recently. We are in the process of hiring a new director and need to review some of the challenges previously,” she said in a text message.
“I’m looking forward, not backward.”
Supervisor Andrew Do didn’t respond to emails, texts or phone calls about the issue. Neither did his chief of staff or spokesperson.
Sheriff Spokesperson Carrie Braun said in an email that the grand jury report did not accurately reflect “the department’s transparent relationship with” the Office of Independent Review and denied that they lobbied the OC Board of Supervisors.
“The Sheriff discussed with the Board of Supervisors concerns with inaccuracies in the report and the Department’s response to issues raised in the report. Any decision to freeze positions is a policy decision by the Board, and was not at the request of the Sheriff,” she wrote.
Braun said the department continues to provide information to the Office of Independent Review and maintains constant communication with them
“We are committed to having a cooperative relationship between the Department and the (Office of Independent Review) as it is in the best interests of the community we serve,” she wrote.
Although grand jurors didn’t name the county supervisor, the report says Kim’s office “complied” with the hiring freeze request.
Kim did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.
County spokesperson Molly Nichelson declined to comment on Thursday morning.
Grand jurors say the hiring freeze is also why the Office of Independent Review doesn’t have a director anymore.
Sergio Perez, who was hired to lead the office in May 2020, left earlier this year to become the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s first inspector general.
The grand jury believes Perez may have resigned “in part from the prolonged and untimely hiring freeze,” the panel wrote in its report.
“The effect of that unwarranted hiring freeze appeared to undermine the credibility of the OIR and challenge its independence. This interference with the OIR through budgetary means repeats a pattern that began with its first iteration dating back over a decade. The decision to place any restrictions on any department’s budget, hiring, or operations should not be under the control of a single Supervisor,” the report reads.
Close to the publication of the first report, Perez expressed optimism for the future of an office whose true purpose was historically mired in confusion and criticism since county Supervisors formed the panel in 2008, in the wake of a controversial jail beating death.
While taking public credit for setting up an effective police oversight agency, county supervisors have never been clear about the agency’s true purpose and scope, moving to redefine and even defund it over the years.
As a result of their findings, Grand Jurors recommended that the County’s Board of Supervisors appoint a new executive director.
The jury also recommends that, by Oct. 1, supervisors create a new policy that requires all supervisors to vote on any changes to the office’s budget.
Chaffee said the search for a new executive director is already underway.
“We are already recruiting for a new executive director and that recruit started a month ago or something like that using the same recruiting firm that recruited the previous one and it is a national search,” he said. “We’ve hired two new staff people, I don’t know if they’ve started up yet.”
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.
Nick Gerda contributed to the reporting in this article.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.