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Sheriff’s watchdog shifts focus to audits amid massive backlog

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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.

The office, which opened in April 2016 in response to the fatal shooting of a Santa Rosa teen by a Sheriff’s deputy 2½ years prior, was historically funded for a sole auditor who runs the office and another person. Supervisors granted Navarro funding for a third full-time employee to help with administrative duties in October, though Navarro says the position will likely not be enough accomplish the work expected of the office.

Threet, who retired in March due to health concerns, said a lack of resources was the main contributor to the backlog that developed during his three-year tenure as the county’s first law enforcement auditor.

He also noted the Sheriff’s Office sent him several time-intensive audits in his last year as auditor, among them a three-month audit of a complaint that alleged correctional deputies at the Sonoma County Jail used excessive force against several inmates under the guise of a two-decade old “yard counseling” policy. The case was the basis of a federal lawsuit filed in 2015 that resulted in Sonoma County agreeing to pay a $1.7 million settlement.

Threet was left without an administrative assistant in September 2018 after that employee took another job. He hired a temporary assistant but he was not able to access Sheriff’s Office internal affairs investigation records for more than a month in October because that person had not undergone a full background check, a requirement for all employees of the auditing office due to concerns about who has access to deputies’ personnel files. The issues was resolved when the temporary worker was moved to another part of the building to ensure the worker had no access to those files, Threet said.

Threet and other community activists last month launched a push for a ballot measure that would dramatically increase the office’s current budget, among other things. The effort will need to collect upwards of 21,000 signatures by next spring to get on the ballot.

“I think the contributors (to the backlog) were the same ones that are there now,” Threet said. “You can’t expect (the office) to compete the audits if there aren’t sufficient resources.”

Now, nine months after Navarro first stepped into the role, her narrow focus on completing audits has led to the cancellation of two monthly Community Advisory Council meetings in October and November. The council’s chairman, Rick Brown, said he disagreed with the move.

While he acknowledged auditing was an important function of the office, he said that goal should not come at the expense of other important components of the office. Terms for council members end next month. They’ve secured a final meeting on Monday to gather public input on their recommended changes to the Sheriff’s Office use-of-force policy.

“I think sacrificing that public involvement, and that public input process, I think it’s a problem,” Brown said. “I’m sorry that’s the choice (Navarro) has had to make.”

Through Thanksgiving, Navarro has received 11 new audits since stepping into the office and has completed five since completing mandatory audit training in June, she said. She has agreed with all but one of the findings by internal affairs investigators at the Sheriff’s Office thus far, she said. Navarro said she hopes to hire a new position for the office by January at the earliest, and among that person’s first duties will be collecting new applications for a new Community Advisory Council, she said.

Rabbitt, the board chairman, said supervisors will meet with Navarro in early December for a performance evaluation, in which the group will likely talk about the next steps for the office. While he did not know what direction the board will ultimately take, he said the decision boils down to two options.

“The choice is really simple. Either add more money ... or change the job description,” Rabbitt said of the auditing office. “It’s one or the other.”

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