The job is to serve as a civilian watchdog over the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and other powerful county law enforcement agencies – identifying systemic problems so they can be fixed.

But the new head of OC’s Office of Independent Review is drawing questions about his background in a neighboring county – and whether he’s committed to transparency in his new role.

Until his appointment to the OC watchdog role this October, Robert Faigin was the top lawyer for San Diego County’s sheriff for 21 years.

Two decades into his watch at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, state auditors raised alarms last year about “the high rate of deaths in San Diego County’s jails compared to other counties,” citing failures to meet its constitutional duties to fix “systemic” problems.

Faigin said he was unavailable for an interview about his record in San Diego County and his vision for his new OC job.

His hiring to oversee the OC Sheriff’s Department has some police reform advocates on edge. 

Daisy Ramirez, a senior police advocate and organizer the ACLU of Southern California, said she has no confidence in Faigin. 

“If the office is going to be run by someone with the history that Robert Faigin has, what is the point?” said Ramirez.

“Oversight is only effective when people are willing to call out the injustices,” she added. “And Robert’s history shows that he has clearly taken the side of the sheriff.”

The OIR search that led to Faigin’s hiring was led by supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee, both of whom saw some of their biggest election campaign support from the sheriffs’ deputies’ union.

Chaffee told Voice of OC that Faigin’s role in OC is different from San Diego.

“In San Diego, Mr, Faigin worked for the Sheriff who was his client,” Chaffee told Voice of OC.

“In OC he will be working for the Board of Supervisors to help improve the procedures and practices of the departments he will review.”

Do didn’t return a message for comment.

Faigin is coming into the Office of Independent Review as the county Sheriff’s Department has faced numerous controversies over the past decade.

They include the jailhouse snitch scandal that caused at least half a dozen murder and attempted murder cases to fall apart, and an evidence booking scandal that caused criminal cases to be dropped against 67 people.

A Controversial History Under His Watch in San Diego

In a scathing report last year, state auditors found the San Diego County department failed to take action to fix known problems in following its constitutional duties in the jails – and that as a result, people likely died unnecessarily.

The state probe came at a time Faigin had been the department’s top legal advisor for about 20 years.

“The Sheriff’s Department has failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in its custody,” state auditors wrote in their report.

“The high rate of deaths in San Diego County’s jails compared to other counties raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and practices,” they added.

Auditors found inmates’ medical and mental health needs weren’t being met –  and San Diego Sheriff deputies did a poor job of visually checking on the health of incarcerated people.

“Furthermore, the Sheriff’s Department has not consistently taken meaningful action when such deaths have occurred.”

The auditors also found that an incident review panel Faigin was part of “has failed to provide effective, independent oversight of in‑custody deaths.”

That panel, they wrote, “also failed to investigate nearly one‑third of the deaths of incarcerated individuals in the past 15 years, which means that dozens of deaths have not been subject to a key form of review outside of the Sheriff’s Department.”

Faigin also has advocated for putting attorneys on police incident review panels so their discussions can be protected as secret under attorney-client privilege.

In at least one case, a judge found Faigin was wrong about that.

OC’s previous Office of Independent Review director, Sergio Perez, was known for engaging with the public and publicly issuing an investigation report in 2021 calling out “troubling cultural currents” in use of force training at the Sheriff’s Department.

He left last spring to become the first inspector general of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which had been embroiled in a high-profile bribery scandal.

How Transparent Should a Watchdog Be?

Vicente Sarmiento, the county’s newly sworn-in supervisor, has been vocal in supporting more resources for OIR and potentially adding a panel of citizens for civilian oversight of county law enforcement.

“I certainly think there is a role for the public to play in this,” said Sarmiento, who was opposed in the November election by hundreds of thousands in spending by the sheriff’s deputies union.

“For me, more disclosure is always better than less. So that’s the premise I begin with,” he added.

“So if it is more public reports, or access by the public [and] he public also having an opportunity themselves to make their own assessment – all of those things I’m going to consider.”

As for Faigin himself, who was hired before Sarmiento joined the board, Sarmiento said he hadn’t yet met with him and wants to “give him a fair chance to sit down and talk to me.”

Supervisor Don Wagner said Faigin was the best person who applied for the job.

“He is an outstanding candidate, the best in the pool of applicants we had,” Wagner told Voice of OC in a text message.

As for transparency concerns in San Diego, Wagner said Faigin won’t be touching those issues at the OC Sheriff’s Department.

“He won’t be handling PRA/transparency issues for the county,” Wagner said.

Wagner also said there needs to be more openness with the public about the Sheriffs’ Department.

“I’ve been clear that we should be more transparent,” Wagner said. “We shouldn’t look like we have something to hide when we have nothing to hide. That position won’t change no matter who sits at the top of the OIR.”

Jennifer Rojas, a policy advocate with the ACLU, says the supervisors’ choice of Faigin is the opposite of what’s needed for transparency.

“By hiring a former attorney for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the OC Board of Supervisors shows they are more concerned with shielding law enforcement from liability, over the core tenants of civilian oversight: transparency and accountability,” Rojas said.

She questioned if Faigin can handle overseeing a department that’s been plagued by controversies over the years, like the jailhouse snitch scandal. 

“The OCSD and OCDA have been at the center of numerous scandals and OC residents deserve meaningful and effective oversight of the departments that receive over 50% of the county’s discretionary dollars.”

Perez’ 2021 report found that the OC Sheriff’s 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.

Perez is encouraging Faigin to issue public reports for transparency.

“The people of Orange County deserve a proactive OIR that works towards more transparency and accountability for its justice-related systems,” Perez said in a statement to Voice of OC.

“The only way to do that is with steady community engagement and honest public reports. I trust that Mr. Faigin will work towards those goals, and I hope the Board supports him and his staff.”

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

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.