The community has come a long way since a deputy who was in my opinion trigger happy at the very least killed Andy Lopez. We are now at a turning point for starting up a citizen oversight board that would have some sort of oversight on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. A community task force will make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors and propose that an Office of Independent Auditor be created that would “review policies and internal complaint investigations against Sheriff’s Office personnel, probation officers and correctional officers.” (Sonoma County task force readies proposal for civilian oversight of Sheriff’s Office, April 4, 2015, The Press Democrat.)
I really admire what the task force has come up with, which is a comprehensive set of proposals for achieving greater communication between the community and law enforcement by getting to know each other and learning to listen to each other. I recently attended a presentation by Sonoma County’s Women in Law where Phyllis Rosenfield, a member of the task force, spoke about listening as a key element to a healthy dialogue.
That seems simple, right? But just was does it mean to listen? Does it mean you sit and simply nod your head or would an occasional response or acknowledgement be helpful? If so, would it be appropriate to include opinions as well? At least initially, my understanding is that a healthy listening means among other things not using language that can be construed as judgmental. During the presentation Phyllis had us break into groups and discuss some of the proposals being made to the Board of Supervisors. I was paired up with a family law practitioner whose first name I learned was Bert and we chose to contemplate initiating more mental health awareness to law enforcement. It was a fun exercise and highlighted what it is like to have a conscious dialogue, that is, to consider how I am listening, what I am doing, am I helping or hindering the discussion.
I hope the Board of Supervisors adopts the proposal, which would include a requirement that the Sheriff’s Office hand over its completed internal investigations into to officer involved shootings, jail deaths, and other critical incidents for independent review as to their completeness and accuracy. I think this is appropriate as long as the confidential information of the officers is kept from public disclosure. Believe me, I have represented many people who were blatantly abused by the officers on the scene, whether from just a derogatory comment or to actual use of excessive force and I would love to know what those officers’ personnel records hold.
By the way, if I represent a person who tells me the officer used excessive force on them, I do as an attorney have a means to access that officer’s personnel records to see if there is anything there useful to my client’s defense. It’s called a Pitchess Motion and the last one I filed resulted in a complete dismissal of the prosecution against my client. But to disclose such things to the public would expose everyday hard working honest officers to danger from the criminal element they worked so hard to protect us from. I am not for that, but I am for an independent oversight board and healthier dialogue between law enforcement and the community. I hope the Board of Supervisors adopts the community task force’s proposals!