Two months after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted for policy reforms in the county Sheriff's Office — a response to national calls for stricter law enforcement accountability in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis — there have been no tangible changes within the agency.
According to a 26-page report compiled by the Office of Independent Review (OIR) Group, an outside law enforcement auditing group, major obstacles to meaningful reform include a lack of extensive data collection and inaccessibility to information.
Micheal Gennaco, an auditor for Los Angeles-based OIR and head of the county's new Office of Correction Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) committee, suggested during a board meeting on Aug. 25 that the current lack of data and access from the Sheriff's Office makes it difficult to pinpoint where exactly changes are needed and advised that a better "information-sharing agreement" is one place to start.
"I've been doing this work for 20 years, and with regard to access issues, in my prior experience … we've always been able to work this out in a week or less," Gennaco told the supervisors on Aug. 25. "I'm a little bit stymied here."
One of 10 recommendations outlined in the report is for data to be gathered "on the types of calls and enforcement activity (the county's) enforcement personnel respond to and perform, broken down by time and shift" and for that information to be shared with the public. This could mean showing the number of 911 calls deputies responded to or how much time is spent on traffic enforcement or responding to mental health crises.
Other OIR recommendations included: the creation of extensive reporting protocols for the agency's deputies and officers (e.g., that they provide full accounts of any attempt to de-escalate a situation and write their "supplemental reports independent of any assistance or collaboration with others"); and the release of a list of lethal and less-lethal weapons as well as any "excess military equipment" that is acquired.
The OIR's assessment did acknowledge that the Sheriff's Office largely falls in line with Campaign Zero's 8 Can't Wait model — a package of eight policies aimed to swiftly and cost effectively reduce police violence. (Supervisor Joe Simitian used the model when he developed his proposal for reforms to the Sheriff's Office and presented it to the board on June 12.)
Some of Campaign Zero's policies include a ban on chokeholds, a mandatory warning before shooting, a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, exhausting alternatives before shooting and the requirement that an officer intervene when he or she sees a colleague using excessive force.
According to the OIR report, the Sheriff's Office's policies align with most of those in 8 Can't Wait with the exception of its rule on shooting moving vehicles. Currently, firing at moving vehicles is prohibited except in cases of "a life-threatening situation (that) requires immediate action in the form of deadly force." The agency also makes an exception in its rule against disabling moving vehicles with firearms for its emergency response team, which, according to the county website, responds to "extraordinary criminal events" such as "hostage or barricaded gunman situations."
The 8 Can't Wait agenda, in comparison, provides more specific instructions on how to deal with a moving vehicle. Officers can only fire in instances when the occupants of the vehicle are using deadly force — "the moving vehicle itself cannot be the basis for an officer shooting," the OIR report states. In addition, the 8 Can't Wait model does not make any exceptions to the rule on shooting at moving vehicles with the intent of disabling it.
Along with a recommendation to revise its policy on moving vehicles, Gennaco said a few tweaks would help the law enforcement agency better align with 8 Can't Wait, including an outright ban on chokeholds and strangleholds with no exceptions. (Recently, the Sheriff's Office amended its policy on chokehold and limited its use only in cases where deadly force may be necessary.)
The report also recommended that the Sheriff's Office concretely outline what type of conduct disqualifies an applicant during the agency's hiring process.
"Even though the Sheriff's Office has language that suggests they wouldn't hire somebody with a troubled background, there isn't a direct policy statement," Gennaco said.
But some members of the public, most notably from a group of Stanford University students representing a campus advocacy group, urged the board during the meeting to go beyond 8 Can't Wait and instead consider the policies set forth in a new campaign called 8 to Abolition, which includes defunding law-enforcement agencies.
Simitian said on Aug. 25 he recognized that having the right policies in place is only "a first step." Restating one point made in the OIR report, Simitian said that only "training, oversight (and) implementation of policies" can ensure public safety.
Part of the process of ensuring policy implementation, however, circles back to the need for the oversight committee to collect and have access to more information on the Sheriff's Office's operations.
"Our ability to initiate audits, perform effective monitoring of the Sheriff’s Office internal processes, and respond to concerns or complaints from the Santa Clara community – key functions that are set forth in the Ordinance that established OCLEM – depends on the resolution of access issues and the development of regular lines of communication," the report stated.
Gennaco added at the meeting: "The deeper dive that I've alluded to … we are still not really able to do. We're not able to observe training, we're not able to take a look to see how these policies are implemented (and) how well they're enforced."
Gennaco acknowledged that OCLEM and the OIR group have no authority to make a law enforcement agency adopt reforms. Simitian suggested he would consider using the Sheriff's Office's budget allocation, which is approved by the board, as leverage.
"While there is some limit to the authority of our board, one of the places where we do have clear authority, indeed an obligation under state law, is in the budget," Simitian said. "So I just want to be very clear that I won't be able to support budget allocations for law enforcement functions that are not properly performed based on best practices as recognized in the 21st century."
The board passed a motion on Aug. 25 for the OCLEM committee to provide an updated report on the Sheriff's Office's response to the recommendation in November.