Tasked with reforming Santa Clara County law enforcement, the Sheriff's Office presented a number of changes it has made regarding policing, use of force and emergency response since last November, according to oversight reports brought before the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Last June, Supervisor Joe Simitian developed a reform package proposing the sheriff's office adopt the 8 Can't Wait policing reforms developed by the nonprofit Campaign Zero in response to the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota a month before. Floyd died after police knelt on his neck for nine minutes, using a carotid restraint. Simitian's package included looking at five additional policy reforms and for the sheriff's office to comply with two new state statutes, SB 230, AB 392 on policies regarding the use of deadly force.
The board unanimously approved the package and called for oversight reports after three months, six months and every six months thereafter. The county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) assessed the sheriff's office's operations and provided recommendations to meet the proposed reform goals.
Last November, the sheriff's office adopted two of the recommendations in the package: making public a list of all lethal and less-lethal armaments owned by county departments and listing any acquisition of military-style weapons and equipment.
The Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring report on Tuesday found that since then, the sheriff's office has been "satisfactory" in incorporating additional recommendations, including prohibiting the use of chokeholds, strangleholds, carotid restraints and other methods that cut off a person's air supply or blood flow — which is also banned by AB 1196, adopted in 2020.
The sheriff's office has also adopted additional reforms in Simitian's package: requiring deputies to intervene if another officer is using excessive force and to immediately report unnecessary use of force; prohibiting deputies from shooting at moving vehicles unless there are no other means to stop a threat from a vehicle or other deadly force; requiring incident reports to include accounts of efforts to de-escalate a situation or explain why no such efforts were made; requiring use of force reports to be based on the deputy's own knowledge and to be written without assistance or collaboration; and requiring deputies to report a use of force any time they point a firearm at someone.
The sheriff's office has still not developed a policy that expressly lists conduct that disqualifies a potential applicant for employment as a deputy or correctional officer, the report found. The department also still hasn't adopted a recommendation to gather and make public data on the types of calls and enforcement practices officers respond to and perform so that the county can consider alternate non-law enforcement responses (such as mental health interventions).
Simitian said in a statement that the sheriff's office has "made strides."
"It is good that the Sheriff's Office has undertaken these changes, in particular, to a number of 'use of force' policies. Reforms like these are long overdue, and there is still a lot left to do. Lasting reform is a continuing process, one that has to be grounded in the culture of every law enforcement organization," he said.
Michael Gennaco, project manager for the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, said the oversight agency is hopeful the remaining recommendations can be put in place before the next reporting period.
Simitian also said work is ongoing to address the additional, "more ambitious" proposed reforms: prohibiting hiring enforcement and correctional officers with a history of excessive force or serious misconduct complaints; limiting the acquisition of "military-style" weapons and equipment; banning or restricting the use of tear gas and rubber bullets as a crowd-control technique; and restructuring county emergency response to ensure that county employees who are best trained and suited to handle a given situation are able to respond, such as a mental health response team during a psychiatric crisis.
County Public Defender Molly O'Neal said in the joint statement with Simitian that despite a long delay, the sheriff's reforms "send a clear message that force should only be used when necessary and the amount of force should be proportionate to the situation."
"The murders of George Floyd and others like him at the hands of law enforcement are completely avoidable and must be avoided. Implementation of these announced reforms must be intentional, and must be closely monitored as police culture will not change without robust determination from law enforcement leadership," O'Neal said.
Simitian also stressed the importance of maintaining oversight to ensure that the sheriff's office goes beyond written policy and embeds "reform culture" in its training and operations.
"Taken together, each reform is an important step, but there are systemic changes that are going to be required if we're ever going to get to the place we need to be. We now need to focus on the more difficult — but ultimately more significant — task of rethinking what 21st century policing looks like," Simitian said.