Last week the city of Half Moon Bay submitted a letter to the state attorney general requesting an independent investigation into the fatal shooting of 56-year-old Sandra Harmon by San Mateo County deputies.
The letter claims seven irregularities from the district attorney’s investigation that the community members and council members who authored the letter hope the attorney general will be better able to answer. The concerns range from inconsistencies in the location of recovered evidence and the omission of information.
The city’s request places Half Moon Bay among the ranks of other cities across the United States, from Vallejo to Minneapolis, where residents are putting greater trust in attorneys general to conduct a fair investigation into such shootings.
“What we’re seeing is a trend toward attorneys general getting and accepting more cases because of the increased transparency that is required around police misconduct allegations,” said Jim Tierney, the founder of StateAG, an online resource specializing in the office of the attorney general in the United States, and the former attorney general of Maine.
“No one should be more apt to become more guilty by an attorney general or not guilty by a district attorney,” Tierney said.
Both offices operate under the same rules, he said. “It’s the same law, same statute, same facts,” he added.
But Tierney admitted, in practice, attorneys general offer two key advantages that district attorneys don’t necessarily have: distance and additional resources.
California’s Attorney General Office includes more than 4,500 lawyers, investigators and other staff. Each lawyer and investigator typically has a lighter case load than staff at a district attorney’s office, Terney said.
Following San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe’s presentation to the City Council on Sept. 15, the council directed the city attorney to draft a letter to the attorney general’s office. The letter was revised by the public safety subcommittee on Sept. 23 with input from the public.
The letter was submitted on Sept. 28 and is under review by the attorney general.
Councilman Harvey Rarback, who chairs the public safety subcommittee, said among his chief concerns was the absence of the log files from one deputy’s body camera “that would confirm if the camera was turned off when it was said it claimed to turn off.”
“Having read the whole report, it’s set to completely exonerate the deputies’ actions. It doesn’t seem to be written in a fair and unbiased approach,” Rarback said.
Other concerns surfaced from one resident’s independent analysis of the crime scene. David Eblovi prepared a report that suggests three shell casings, believed to belong to one deputy’s gun, were tampered with.
Eblovi supported the move to ask the attorney general to investigate the shooting itself and “how the shooting was manipulated criminally, I believe, by tampering with evidence.”
“I ask that both things be investigated because both are critical to establishing the narrative of what happened here,” Eblovi said.
City staff and residents who drafted the letter initially struggled with whether to include such a detailed list of concerns.
“We don’t want it so general that we get a general report back. These are the things we want them to look at. These are the things we want them to respond to,” said Councilwoman Debbie Ruddock, co-chair of the public safety committee.
City Attorney Catherine Engberg said she believed, from a prosecutor’s perspective, the attorney general’s office will “go where the facts will lead them.”
The final letter ultimately included a list of specific concerns followed by an acknowledgement: “It is beyond the scope of the city’s capabilities to evaluate the evidence presented by community members in support of their claims. Yet these open questions make it difficult for the Half Moon Bay community to heal from this tragic event.”
In an update from the office of California’s attorney general, a spokesperson said there was no new information available and couldn’t say how long it would take for the city to get a response. In similar requests over the last few years, a response from Attorney General Xavier Becerra came within days, as in the case of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, or within a month of a request, as in the case of Sean Monterrosa earlier this year in Vallejo.
This version corrects spelling of Jim Tierney.