Crime & Justice

Orange County seeks a new oversight model for its sheriff's department

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens argues that
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens argues that "you have to have cooperation" between the sheriff and any oversight agency.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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What kind of oversight should there be of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department?

That’s the topic of Friday’s meeting at the Orange County Board of Supervisors. They’ve invited Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, the president of the deputies' union and outside experts to weigh in on which oversight model they believe the county should adopt.

Attorney Stephen Connolly has been executive director of the Orange County Office of Independent Review since it was established in 2008 after inmates inside the Theo Lacey jail beat inmate John Chamberlain to death in 2006 as deputies neglected their duties.

The scandal led to an ongoing federal investigation into Orange County jails that started in 2008.

The Office of Independent Review monitors complaints against sheriff's department employees, reviews internal investigations and advises decision makers on discipline. The Office has access to department records, but it doesn’t conduct its own investigations and has no power to force the department to take action.

It issues quarterly reports to the supervisors.

The call for a new type of oversight model arose in June when the supervisors expressed their interest in dissolving the Office of Independent Review by eliminating its $450,000 annual budget.

Supervisors complained that the office is not independent of the sheriff’s department and is late in identifying problems to the board. Chairman Todd Spitzer pointed to the recent allegations that the sheriff’s department was misusing jail informants

A course reversal

Last month the supervisors reversed course and decided to keep funding the Office of Independent Review. At the same time, they expressed their intention to end Connolly's contract, which expires at the end of August. And in the meantime, the board will study whether it should start fresh with a new oversight model.

The decision to maintain funding for the Office of Independent Review for the time being came after Sheriff Hutchens told the board the federal Department of Justice was concerned about having no external oversight of the sheriff's department if the Office of Independent Review were eliminated and not replaced with something else. 

"That might jeopardize our ability to have this [ongoing] investigation closed," Hutchens told KPCC. 

Hutchens favors continuing to use the Office of Independent Review. She said she meets with Connolly every Tuesday to go over cases. The department and the Office have an attorney-client relationship, which doesn’t allow for certain information or documents to be made public. 

"Some people may say that’s too close to law enforcement," said Hutchens. "But I don’t think that’s the case at all. For a successful model, I think you have to have cooperation between both the sheriff and or chief and the oversight model."

Because Hutchens is an elected official, she doesn’t have to agree to work with an oversight body, even though the board of supervisors controls her budget. But she said some type of oversight is needed.

"It’s important for me as a sheriff for transparency with the public," she said.

A call for training

For his part, Spitzer has suggested that oversight could be extended to the district attorney, probation and public defender offices. 

The Orange County sheriff's deputies union opposed the creation of the Office of Independent Review because it felt there were already enough layers of oversight, including local, state and federal prosecutors who can investigate the department.

But Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, acknowledged that oversight is a political reality. 

"We’re hoping that whatever model that Orange County adopts includes some kind of training component to help our guys do a better job," he said. 

Another possible approach, a purely civilian oversight board, has not gained traction with the supervisors, Hutchens or the deputies' union.

Also invited to speak to the supervisors on Friday are: former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department monitors Merrick Bob and Michael Gennaco; Dean Erwin Chemerinksy of the University of California Irvine’s School of Law; and Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The public will have an opportunity to comment.