Marin County is finally taking steps to set up a sheriff’s watch group
The Marin County Civil Grand Jury recently recommended that the county create an independent Sheriff’s Board of Supervisors with subpoena power and procedures subject to Brown Law, to improve accountability and community confidence in the sheriff’s office.
In its report, “Sheriff Oversight: The Time Is Now,” the grand jury says a civilian board of oversight, along with the leadership change in the sheriff’s office, “presents a rare opportunity to reset relations between the office of the sheriff and the communities he serves.
Assembly Bill 1185, state legislation passed in September 2020, allows counties to establish Sheriff’s Boards of Supervision with subpoena power. Although activists and citizens lobbied the Marin County Board of Supervisors to implement AB 1185, it was slow to respond.
Robert Doyle, who served as sheriff of Marin County for more than 25 years, retired two weeks ago. The former sheriff opposed a transparent public oversight board with teeth – subpoena power – and previously said that as an elected official he only answers to the oversight board during the budget process.
Undersheriff Jamie Scardina ran unopposed in November to replace Doyle. Although Scardina also resisted the idea of a citizen oversight board, he told the Pacific Sun that if created, the sheriff’s office would participate in the process as defined by the board of oversight.
However, Scardina wavers on the issue of policy changes in the sheriff’s office, which was repeatedly recommended in the grand jury report. He said law enforcement agencies across the country have made policy changes in recent years, but there has been little change in the sheriff’s office.
“We are not an organization that needs substantial change, but we will make organizational changes along the way as long as they best serve the sheriff’s office and the community,” Scardina said in an email.
Obviously, the grand jury disagrees. The report provides concrete examples of the need for change, specifically pointing to the activities of the sheriff’s office in the unincorporated town of Marin as justification for the creation of a watchdog group.
Delving into the history of injustice suffered by black residents of Marin City and two recent incidents, the grand jury report says there is a “tense” relationship between the community and the sheriff’s office.
Marin City was founded in 1942, when the federal government built temporary housing for the men and women who built World War II Liberty ships in the nearby Marinship. Black and white families lived together in the community. After the war ended, white workers bought houses. Black families remained in Marin City because of the county’s redlining policy, which prevented them from buying property.
Newspapers from the late 1940s chronicled alleged racial discrimination against black residents, according to the report. Other incidents over the decades reinforced the community’s mistrust of the sheriff’s office that continues today.
The report notes that Marin City currently has a population of 3,126 and 35% of residents are black or multiracial, a much higher percentage than anywhere else in the county. Because Marin City is unincorporated and does not have a police department, the sheriff’s office remains responsible for law enforcement in the community.
Residents say the sheriff’s office is using Marin City as a training ground for new deputies, resulting in excessive policing practices, which include “excessive stops, arrests, citations and warnings,” according to the report. Short-term patrol assignments, less than two years, make it difficult for residents and deputies to develop relationships.
Two recent incidents have further eroded residents’ negative perception of the sheriff’s office. In November 2019, about 60 Contra Costa and Marin deputies descended on Marin City to search for suspects in an Orinda shooting. Ultimately, they arrested two people, according to the grand jury report.
The operation began at 7:45 a.m., just in time for children on their way to school and adults on their way to work to witness their small community being invaded by “armoured vehicles and dozens of agents heavily armed security forces, many of them in tactical gear”. School officials reported that the children arrived traumatized by the incident and many needed guidance. The sheriff’s office canceled an engagement at Tamalpais High School to speak to students about the incident and the conversation was never rescheduled.
Doyle, the sheriff at the time, went on to state that the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office carried out the raid and the Marin County Sheriff’s Office merely assisted. The grand jury agreed that was true; however, he criticized the sheriff’s office for not responding to concerns raised by the community.
The second incident detailed by the report happened two days before the November 2020 election. Hundreds of vehicles participating in a pro-Trump caravan pulled up at the Marin Gateway mall around 11:30 a.m.
Some Marin City residents made their way to the mall parking lot, where Trump supporters greeted them with racial epithets. In return, eggs were thrown at caravans. Traffic was congested in the community and citizens complained of feeling intimidated when trying to use the voter drop box located at the mall.
After the event, the sheriff’s office told the public that they only received notice of the Trump trailer minutes before the vehicles arrived. However, the grand jury obtained documents showing the sheriff’s office was notified of the trailer at least four times, beginning at 7:13 a.m., more than four hours before Trump supporters came to Marin City.
Both incidents demonstrate the need for a sheriff’s board of oversight with subpoena power, the report said. The council is a forum for citizens to express their concerns and for the sheriff’s office to explain their point of view. A supervisory board could also “conduct a full investigation” into the sheriff’s office’s handling of the Trump trailer incident.
The grand jury isn’t the only entity to seek a sheriff’s supervisory board. The Marin County Board of Supervisors tasked the Human Rights Commission with finding a way to implement AB 1185. The Human Rights Commission formed a two-person committee to recommend a way forward. to be continued.
“The committee is recommending an inspector general and citizens’ oversight board with subpoena power,” said committee member Jeremy Portje. “We are looking to create a sub-committee with citizens to work out the details.”
Supervisor Damon Connolly said he met with Portje and engaged other community members on the issue. All spoke passionately about the need for AB 1185. Connolly says the goal is to have the AB 1185 board in place by the end of this year and appoint members early in 2023.
“Table [of Supervisors] has set aside $150,000 under the new budget and continues to work with the Sheriff’s Office, Human Rights Commission, stakeholders and community members on developing a framework for AB 1185,” Connolly said.
Anything can happen before the supervisors vote on the matter. Portje is optimistic, even confident, that Marin will soon have a sheriff’s board of supervisors.
“Everything points now,” Portje said. “Now is the time. The time has come.