Santa Clara Sheriff to Get Long-Awaited Civilian Oversight

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The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office is set to get long-awaited civilian oversight, one of many reforms spurred by the beating death of Michael Tyree, an inmate in the county's Main Jail. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

More than four years since the beating death of a mentally ill inmate spurred widespread reforms, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office is moving forward to get a new, long-awaited civilian oversight body.

The county’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to put the Los Angeles-based OIR Group in charge of the new Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, which will have the power to audit sheriff’s operations, inmate complaints and internal investigations.

“The beating death in our jail highlighted the need for monitoring on both the correctional side and the patrol side of operations,” Santa Clara County Board President Joe Simitian said in a written statement.

He acknowledged that establishing the new office “took longer than I hoped.”

“Meaningful civilian monitoring is an essential component of the reform effort that has been under way,” Simitian said. “We’re finally ready to deliver on the promise of civilian oversight.”

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The new civilian oversight office will open pending a final agreement between the county and OIR Group, which applied for the role.

Michael Tyree died Aug. 27, 2015, shortly after three deputies entered his cell. The 31-year-old was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and addiction and was being held at the Main Jail in San Jose awaiting transfer to a treatment facility.

A sheriff’s investigation found that inmates in the same housing unit reported hearing Tyree scream for several minutes and also heard, "sounds of thumping, wall banging and what sounded like blows on a person's body."

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Tyree’s body found that he died from blunt force trauma that caused his spleen to rupture.

The three deputies last seen with Tyree were arrested just days after his murder.

Santa Clara County Jails

A jury convicted each of them of second degree murder, and they were sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.

The brutal beating death also prompted county officials to establish a temporary commission to investigate and improve conditions for inmates.

Investigators for the commission surveyed nearly a thousand inmates and over 30 jail staff and reported widespread abuse by officers, lax oversight and a disciplinary system that failed to punish serious misconduct.

Establishing independent oversight of the Sheriff’s Office was one of more than 100 policy recommendations the commission made the year after Tyree’s death.

“It is my hope that the work of the OIR will be transparent, with regular and detailed reports to the Board of Supervisors and to the general public,” retired Santa Clara County Judge LaDoris Cordell, who chaired the commission, said in an emailed response.

She wrote that the new civilian oversight office should include people of color and be based in Santa Clara County.

“Long-distance monitoring will not work,” Cordell wrote.

"My office will support the work of the independent monitor," said Sheriff Laurie Smith in a written statement. "My jail reform plan included an oversight component and I believe this additional level of transparency into the good work of our sworn and professional staff is a step in the right direction."

In a press release, Todd Kendrick, the President of the Santa Clara County Peace Officers Association wrote that the union "has been and will continue to support the reforms and changes necessary for the Sheriff's Office, while ensuring our members have the best working conditions possible."

Kendrick urged the OIR Group to address the needs of a growing number of inmates with mental illness.  He said deputies working in the jails have been "forced" to become "mental health first responders."