Sheriff’s watchdog shifts focus to audits amid massive backlog
Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog says her office is in crisis because of backlog of 26 audits she discovered within months of beginning the job, a situation that has forced her to focus on clearing the unfinished work at the expense of other duties.
The backlog includes reviews of internal affair investigations into two officer-involved shootings, one that happened in December 2017 and the other five months later, that were not audited before the watchdog office’s director, Karlene Navarro, stepped into the job in March. She estimates each of those reviews could take four to six months to complete.
Allegations of improper procedure, use-of-force violations, conduct unbecoming of an deputy and racial bias were among the two dozen other backlogged audits. All of the audits in the backlog have exceeded a one-year statute of limitations in which the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has to determine what, if any, discipline to take against deputies accused of wrongdoing, Navarro said.
Navarro, who was aware of a backlog when she began the job, said she zeroed in on its true size in July after piecing together information from emails and spreadsheets left behind from the office’s former director, Jerry Threet, and comparing that with a list of investigations forwarded to the office from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
Threet said he faced significant health issues before he departed the office and therefore was unable to craft a transition memo for Navarro that would have included information about the backlog. He did however offer to meet with her in person and answer any questions, which they did once after Navarro was hired. She declined a separate in-person visit from Threet about how to maneuver the office’s computer files, he added.
Navarro said it will take a year-and-a-half to two years to complete the backlog and additional audits that are forwarded to her office over the next year, which she estimates will average about two per month, Navarro said. The estimate does not factor in time to perform other duties related to her role as the office’s director or two serious officer-involved-shootings from earlier this year that are still under review at the Sheriff’s Office. One of the 2018 cases stems from the Fourth of July shooting of a San Francisco man in Bodega Bay by a deputy and the other involves a deputy who shot a man near the Santa Rosa Plaza mall in August, she said.
“What I’ve had to do in order to try to make this work is focus most of the office’s resources on the audits and triage the rest because we are severely underfunded and over-tasked,” Navarro said during a meeting with The Press Democrat’s editorial board last month. “We are much more effective if we are focusing on auditing what is going on within the Sheriff’s Office, how they are using their current policies and what is missing than we are if we’re only looking at the big picture.”
The county’s independent auditing office is tasked with reviewing certain internal affairs investigations into alleged deputy misconduct, including allegations of biased policing, unlawful stops and seizures and improper use of force. The independent office can also review internal affairs investigations when complaints of wrongdoing are first lodged with them.
The audits typically involves sifting through police reports, recorded deputy and witness interviews and body-worn camera footage, among other things. While the independent office cannot make recommendations on whether a Sheriff’s Office employee should be disciplined, the auditor can agree or disagree with the findings of a Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigation and point out overlooked policy violations.
Besides completing audits of certain internal investigations into alleged deputy misconduct, the office is responsible for reviewing Sheriff’s Office policies and proposing changes if necessary, engaging the community and overseeing a Community Advisory Council that serves as a forum for the public to share their experiences with local law enforcement.
Navarro made the decision to focus solely on the audits after what she called repeated directives from county supervisors to prioritize the audits, including from Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt during a public Sept. 10 meeting, during closed sessions with the board and in emails from Rabbitt and Supervisor James Gore, she said. In those meetings and correspondences, Navarro made it clear to supervisors that the office could not meet all the tasks it was responsible for without additional help, Navarro added.