Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office struggles to clear violent crimes as supervisors hear ‘defund’ message
Despite receiving a lion’s share of county revenue, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office solved few rapes, robberies and burglaries last year, continuing one of the bleakest crime-clearing records of any law enforcement agency in California.
According to the California Department of Justice, a reported crime is “cleared” when a suspect is arrested or charged. That means that someone doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime for it to be considered “cleared” by the Justice Department’s standards. Yet, even with that more generous definition, the Sheriff’s Office only cleared 38% of violent crimes in 2019, well below the state average of 45.7%.
The Sheriff’s Office’s success rate is even worse in forcible rape cases. Sheriff’s detectives cleared only 9.3% of the 161 sexual assaults they investigated, the department’s third worst clearance rate since at least 1985 and well below the statewide clearance rate of 35.9%.
Similarly, the Sheriff’s Office only cleared 5.6% of the 8,067 property crimes it investigated, including 5.5% of 2,276 burglaries. Both clearance rates represented the second worst for the department in at least 20 years.
The department hit historic lows in several clearance rate categories in 2016, when it solved the fewest homicides, rapes, robberies and burglaries in at least 20 years, according to figures reported to the state Justice Department.
The one bright spot last year came in the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to clear the most serious crime—murder. It cleared 32 out of 36 homicides last year, a clearance rate of 88.9%.
A sheriff’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question about why the department has had success with homicide cases but struggled with other violent crimes, particularly sexual assault. Clearance rates can sometimes be skewed by arrests in cold cases, as in 2009, when the Sheriff’s Office’s clearance rate for homicides exceeded 100% (113.9).
Outside of homicides, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office had worse rates than other California sheriffs’ departments of its size or those with larger populations and more crimes. SN&R was unable to find another law enforcement agency with a worse record when it came to investigating sexual assaults. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department cleared 136.4% rape cases last year, indicating that it closed multiple cold cases. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department cleared 77.8% of the rapes it investigated last year, while smaller, less funded sheriffs’ departments in Kern and San Bernardino counties reported rape clearance rates in the 20s.
Yet, despite civil unrest over systemic police brutality and one of the worst economic crises on record backstopping calls to defund traditional law enforcement, an agency’s ability to solve crimes rarely comes up during budget hearings.
Urging divestment, but no mention of unsolved crimes
That held true last month, when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved a placeholder budget that included an additional $3.1 million for the embattled Sheriff’s Office.
Supervisor Phil Serna cast the lone dissenting vote, repeating a futile protest from last fall.
“Again, last September there was not a recommendation from either the CEO or the sheriff for body cameras, so I couldn’t in good conscience—representing the people of the first district—support the budget of the sheriff,” Serna said at the June 16 meeting. “So I will continue not to support the budget with this carry-over for the sheriff’s unit.”
Sheriff Scott Jones has long dragged his feet on bringing body-worn cameras to his department, opposing them outright for several years before softening his position and saying he had concerns about their cost and usage.
He has also hobbled efforts to allow external oversight of his department through a county inspector general and fought a losing effort to maintain a lucrative immigrant detention contract with the Department of Homeland Security.
County CEO Nav Gill told supervisors that he and Jones were working on bringing a financing proposal for body-worn cameras to them in September, when a final budget is to be adopted.
“That is a priority I heard from you loud and clear,” Gill said.
The Sheriff’s Office receives more than $400 million a year, making it one of the most well-resourced agencies in the region.
By comparison, the Sacramento Police Department is slated to receive $157 million in 2020-21.
Approximately one third of the Sheriff’s Office’s budget goes toward running two jails, but that still leaves hundreds of millions of dollars to solve crimes. And even with crime rates dropping over the past two decades to some of their lowest figures in that span while the sheriff’s budget has remained stable, the department has struggled to solve crimes.
Despite receiving less than half the budget of the Sheriff’s Office, the Sacramento Police Department actually investigated more violent crimes last year (3,223) and cleared more of them (40.4%).
According to a budget appropriation document, the Sheriff’s Office could receive more money than it has in at least six years when a final budget is adopted in September. That appropriations document lays out $553 million for the department in 2020-21.
At last month’s board meeting, 124 members of the public submitted written comments, most of those demanding supervisors to defund the Sheriff’s Office and reallocate those resources into community services.
Serna said those comments represented the “tip of the iceberg” and that his district had received thousands of emails since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“Some of those stories that were told in those emails were very poignant, some of them very sad and some of them would probably anger anyone,” Serna said.