'Absolutely Horrifying': Civil Rights Advocates React to Admission That Alameda Sheriff Hired Deputies Who Failed Psych Exams

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a glass-paned wall that reads 'Alameda County Sheriff's Office'
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office in Oakland. Civil rights advocates reacted Tuesday to the news that nearly four dozen sheriff's deputies had been hired despite failing their psychological exams, with some hirings dating back as far as 2016. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Bay Area civil rights advocates were reeling after Monday's revelation that dozens of Alameda County sheriff's deputies had failed the required psychological exams administered during the hiring process.

Jose Bernal, organizing director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland nonprofit, called the disclosure "absolutely horrifying and extremely disturbing."

"It begs the question of how many of these deputies were involved in what incidents," said Bernal, whose organization has long called for increased transparency from the sheriff’s office, especially concerning allegations of poor conditions inside Santa Rita Jail.

Since 2014, there have been more than 50 in-custody deaths in the massive county Dublin-based lockup, he said, a facility "plagued with abuse after abuse." Santa Rita was the subject of a scathing grand jury review released in June, just months after a federal judge placed the jail under court supervision for at least six years over conditions there.

The reaction from Bernal's group and other activists comes less than a day after the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced it had stripped 47 deputies of their guns and arrest powers after an internal audit found those officers' test results deemed them "unsuitable" to serve as peace officers, under state law.

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Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said Monday that each of the deputies will be retested, and will continue to receive pay and benefits in the interim.

Lt. Ray Kelly, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, told KQED on Tuesday that it was appropriate for the public to be concerned by the news. “We will remedy it and, moving forward, it won’t happen again," he said.

Kelly said the district attorney will be involved in reviewing cases where the affected deputies were involved.

Bernal, however, voiced serious concerns about the retesting process.

"It felt like a wink. Like, we're going to make sure this gets taken care of and you'll be back," he said. "The whole situation major raises accountability questions, not just for deputies, but also for  the leadership that has allowed this to happen for this long."

The internal investigation was sparked by an incident earlier this month in which an off-duty sheriff's deputy allegedly shot and killed two people he knew. Multiple sources told KTVU-TV that the deputy, who was hired a year ago, had failed his psychological exam, despite recent claims by Kelly that he had passed it.

John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney, described the psychological exam in question as one of the most important tests an officer must pass to get hired.

"Psychological makeup is important, because it really can affect how you do your job," said Burris. "Whether you appreciate deescalation, whether you respect the community that you're living in. Are you a hothead? Are you cool or not in under-pressure situations? Do you overreact? These are critical issues that you want to know when you hire someone.

"Officers who fail a psychological profile should definitely not be hired and certainly not be trusted with a gun and a badge," Burris continued, adding that it was "disturbing" to learn the county had allowed some of these deputies to be on duty for as many as six years.

"They were basically playing Russian roulette with the community," he said.

James Burch, deputy director of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project, called the revelation "horrifying but not surprising."

"We must now determine how many community members have been stopped, harassed, detained, harmed, or killed by deputies who, according to the law, should never have interacted with them in the first place," he said in a statement. "We can only imagine how the families ... feel after hearing that the officers responsible for their loved ones' deaths were quite possibly not authorized to use force under color of state law.”

Attorney Burris noted, however, that the disclosure could ultimately be positive.

"Better late than never," he said. "I'm hoping this will mean there may be fewer officers who are not able to handle the job psychologically. And maybe it's better treatment for the inmates. Better treatment for the people on the streets."

The U.S. Deputy Sheriff’s Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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