Editor’s note: Blank check

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department headquarters downtown. (Photo by Foon Rhee)

Sacramento sheriff’s department racks up legal bills while fighting oversight

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones wants to have it both ways: He resists having anyone looking over his shoulder, yet his department is racking up sizable legal bills for alleged misconduct.

But it will take a rare act of political courage—and probably a change in state law—for county supervisors to do much of anything about it.

From 2014 through mid-August, Sacramento County paid out a total of nearly $26 million in civil judgments or settlements involving allegations against deputies, jailers and other sheriff’s department employees, according to figures I requested from the county.

In 2016, a Sacramento County jury found that the department had retaliated against four female jail deputies who complained about discrimination and improper relationships. That one case cost $8.9 million in damages and attorneys’ fees.

In a statement to SN&R, sheriff’s Sgt. Tess Deterding pointed out that the total payout over five years is less than 1% of the department’s budget just for one year. She also said that settling a case “doesn’t necessarily reflect misconduct on the part of any personnel,” but are decisions made by the county, sometimes based on the cost savings of avoiding a trial, as well as a potential award. “Jury trials are uncertain, and verdicts have gotten larger in recent years,” the sheriff’s department spokesperson said.

Because the sheriff is independently elected, county supervisors have limited power over him. As part of approving each department’s budget, supervisors cover the sheriff’s department payment to the county’s liability insurance fund. Similar to a premium, the payment is based on each department’s number of employees and seven-year history of claims.

If supervisors don’t approve that payment, that would force the sheriff to cut programs or staff to make up the difference. And you can be sure that Jones would accuse supervisors of endangering public safety.

On Wednesday, Supervisor Phil Serna voted against the county’s revised budget because of the sheriff’s department allocation.

Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, who has been critical of Jones, says if the board tries to withhold money for legal judgments, there is a “real possibility” that patrols in neighborhoods will be cut back.

That’s why, Kennedy says, he supports Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s bill to authorize sheriff oversight boards through action by supervisors or voters. Assembly Bill 1185 passed the Assembly on May 29 and the Senate Public Safety Committee on July 2, with the deadline for a bill to pass this session on Sept. 13.

In Sacramento County, Jones won re-election last year and has stared down supervisors over oversight of his department.

Jones publicly feuded with Rick Braziel, then the inspector general, after the former Sacramento police chief released a report last year criticizing three sheriff’s deputies who fired 28 shots and killed Mikel McIntyre in 2017.

In August 2018, the sheriff locked out Braziel from department facilities. After Braziel’s contract expired, Jones has been jockeying with supervisors over the authority of the next inspector general. Only one candidate applied; supervisors have hired a headhunter to try to get a replacement on the job this fall.

In July, the Sacramento County Grand Jury, a group of citizen-volunteers, declared that Jones didn’t break the law by blocking Braziel. But the grand jury also said that supervisors aren’t doing enough to hold the sheriff accountable. It called for supervisors to create a new oversight commission, similar to the one proposed in McCarty’s bill.

All the legal bills are only more evidence of why a closer watch on the sheriff’s department is warranted.

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