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San Mateo County Supes Unanimously Approve Civilian Oversight of Sheriff's Office

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The side of a police car.
A San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department squad car is seen in Redwood City on Dec. 11, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Updated 3:30 p.m. Tuesday

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution on Tuesday establishing an independent civilian advisory commission to oversee the Sheriff’s Office, with added language to hire one or more inspector generals to help steer it.

But under the resolution, the seven-member commission will include a sheriff’s appointee and not have any subpoena power, a major point of contention among some residents who argue the body won’t have the authority or independence it needs to spur any real reform.

Belmont resident Beth von Emster was one of nearly 20 people who urged supervisors during public comment to delay the vote and rework the proposal.

“The provision in the resolution giving the sheriff the power to nominate one of the seven commissioners is astonishing,” she said. “That nomination power robs the commission of its independence from the very department it’s purporting to observe.”

The board’s vote comes after months of debate over which oversight model would work best for the county. A group of criminal justice advocates pushed for the commission — which will include five community members through an application process — and has argued that it should have subpoena power to hold sheriff’s deputies accountable. Critics of that proposal, however, said such power should be reserved for county-elected officials, as is currently the case.

“Its purpose is to advise the Board of Supervisors, so if there was a specific issue they were concerned about, they would just come forward and advise us. We would [then] consider it, debate it and take it from there,” said District 4 Supervisor Warren Slocum, one of the resolution’s sponsors, who favored a commission without subpoena power.

Jim Lawrence, executive director of Fixin’ San Mateo County, a nonprofit advocacy group working to create stronger police oversight in the county, said he does not believe the advisory board will use subpoena irresponsibly because there will be other approaches on the table beforehand.

“We believe that using subpoena power will be the last resort. We really want this organization to build a relationship with the sheriff’s office to ensure there is open dialogue,” Lawrence said.

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Several other counties have established similar oversight boards — including Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Napa and Sonoma. Some have subpoena powers in place.

Lawrence pointed out that in the last couple of years, the county has paid millions of dollars in settlements to civilians who’ve sued over negative interactions with the sheriff’s department. He added that there could be a better way to improve relations between the public and local law enforcement.

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According to a county spokesperson, the largest settlement of this kind — $4.5 million — was in response to a 2018 case. Deputy Joshua Wang tased and killed 36-year-old Chinedu Okobi for allegedly resisting arrest. Okobi died of a cardiac arrest. No deputies were charged for his death.

Last year, the county also paid $750,000 to Odette Riegman after deputies arrested her in 2019 following a car accident. Deputies believed that Riegman was under the influence but failed to recognize she instead had a medical emergency.

Lawrence and other activists also want this board to help prevent the deaths of people in custody. In October, there were two deaths within two days at the Maguire Correctional Facility, which the county sheriff’s department administers. In one case, a 34-year-old man who was part of the behavioral health unit, which launched this year, is reportedly a suspected suicide.

“Those types of incidents in our jails where we’re supposed to be taking care of people, something has to be done,” Lawrence said.

He added that he is concerned about staffing shortages, given other reported deaths by suicide at the facility in recent years, as reported by the California Department of Justice. (At least two San Mateo County grand jury reports in 2005 and 2012 cited overcrowding at the facility.)

From 2005 to 2022, the San Mateo Sheriff’s Department reported 19 deaths of civilians in custody to the California Department of Justice (most of them are labeled “natural causes”).

A deputy’s mental health is among the top priorities for San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus, who has served in the role since 2022 when she was elected the county’s first female sheriff. She said she’s against the oversight board proposal, arguing for other ways to improve community relations. She added that the department is working on hiring more deputies, improving training and creating its own advisory boards composed of civilians.

“It takes changing from within, and I just don’t want it to be a divisive, dysfunctional process, which will then hold up the way I can lead the organization,” Corpus said.

KQED’s Nik Altenberg contributed reporting to this story.

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