Subpoena the Sheriffs

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The high-profile debate over a bill to change the standard for police use of force has obscured another important bill, to affirm civilian control over county sheriffs and their departments.

There is one thing that both supporters and opponents say about AB 1185: it shouldn’t be necessary. The law makes explicit what already should have been true, according to previous law and court decisions—that sheriffs’ office are subject to civilian oversight.

The trouble is that many California sheriffs, in practice, refuse to accept real oversight. Indeed, sheriffs often are our greatest scofflaws. In recent years, we’ve seen sheriffs flouting state laws protecting immigrants, a new L.A. County sheriff who ignores civilians in hiring back problematic sheriff’s employees, a Sacramento sheriff locking out an inspector general, and even a San Joaquin County sheriff who had the hands removed from corpses in office-involved deaths. (That last one is a long story).

Sheriffs say they don’t have to answer to anyone because they answer to voters—they are elected. But when you look at the law and constitution, they are part of county governments, not apart from them. And they should answer to the state Department of Justice as well, to the extent they enforce state law.

But sheriffs often behave like a law unto themselves. They produce nasty political fights and scandals over the treatment of citizens and the people they hold in their jails. And they’ve often been able to intimidate other officials.

AB 1185 is a smart way to restore balance. The legislation has many detailed provisions on civilian oversight, but its most important one is that it gives subpoena power to civilian overseers, like county boards or citizens’ commissions or inspector generals.

Subpoena power provides a true measure of accountability. Sheriffs need it, because they should not be above the law.

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