A rarity is now taking place on the powerful Orange County Board of Supervisors.
The newest supervisor, Vicente Sarmiento, was heavily opposed by the sheriff’s deputies’ union in his election – the opposite of the typical dynamic of who gets voted in as supervisors.
As mayor of Santa Ana until recently, he repeatedly clashed with his city’s police union president.
And he voted for creating Santa Ana’s first police oversight commission.
In a recent interview, he said he’d like the county take a similar step:
Establish a civilian oversight commission that examines the Sheriff’s Department.
“I think we need to have a robust oversight commission to be able to address the number of concerns people have with the way the department operates,” Sarmiento said.
The county’s existing civilian oversight is “understaffed and underfunded” at the Office of Independent Review, he said.
A commission, Sarmiento said, could address “not just the problems with informants, but also with excessive force violations and other problems that the department’s had.”
Federal authorities issued a scathing report in October finding a failure by local officials to thoroughly examine “systematic” violations of constitutional rights by sheriff officials and prosecutors in an illegal jailhouse informant program.
The informants scandal caused at least a half dozen convictions for murder and other serious crimes to be overturned or dismissed from 2007 through at least 2016.
Federal investigators called on Orange County to create an independent panel to take a deeper look at the informant violations.
“Nobody wants to be punitive on the department,” Sarmiento said. “If anything, what the public wants to see is accountability.”
Voice of OC asked for Sheriff Don Barnes’ comment on Sarmiento calling for a civilian oversight commission.
Barnes responded that he looks forward to working with the newest supervisor.
“As a County elected official, I have worked alongside the Board of Supervisors, City and County Departments to provide the finest law enforcement services to Orange County residents,” Barnes said in a statement provided by his spokeswoman.
“My hope is we can continue those efforts with Supervisor-Elect Sarmiento by engaging in meaningful and productive dialogue on accountability in policing,” he added in the statement, which was provided before Sarmiento was sworn in.
“I look forward to partnering with Supervisor-Elect Sarmiento as he transitions into his role.”
The sheriff’s deputies’ union president, Juan Viramontes, didn’t respond to messages for comment.
While county supervisors have set up an Office of Independent Review (OIR) to look at the Sheriff’s Department, most of its leaders haven’t developed much of a public profile.
The office has only issued one public report since being formed more than a decade ago.
One of the biggest decisions facing OIR is whether to engage the public and press with reports and interviews, or not.
The recently-hired OIR, Robert Faigin declined Voice of OC’s request for a phone interview.
Before he was hired in Orange County, Faigin was the longtime top attorney for San Diego County’s sheriff.
Among the accountability controversies at the Sheriff’s Department in recent years was an evidence booking scandal that unraveled 67 criminal convictions and charges.
Deputies testified the emphasis at their stations was on making arrests, not ensuring evidence was booked properly to make sure it stands up in court.
The county grand jury found the widespread evidence mishandling stemmed largely from a “failure of leadership,” including “no policy in place to provide management oversight.”
“Therefore supervisors were not held accountable,” the grand jury found.
Sheriff’s officials testified to the grand jury that supervisors knowingly allowed deputies to book evidence late in violation of policy.
But only deputies were punished, not managers, according to the sworn testimony.
Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College professor who closely follows local government, said that sent a message:
“When people get caught, it’s only the lowest level people who get held accountable.”
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