A controversial drafted ordinance that would restrict the activities of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in Half Moon Bay has stalled, but city leaders are looking at installing a local police chief that could potentially have some oversight of the law enforcement contract and deputy behavior.
City staff requested at last week’s City Council meeting that the drafted policy changes, which would restrict how the San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies enforce the law, deal with altercations and conduct traffic enforcement, be sent to the Public Safety Subcommittee for further review. The Sheriff’s Office and some in City Hall believe that the proposed policy changes aren’t possible simply by drafting an ordinance. Instead, the council opted to examine the option of hiring a police chief who could enact some kind of police reform through the Sheriff’s Office.
Councilman Harvey Rarback, who presented the proposed ordinance with Councilman Joaquin Jimenez, said he believed the changes detailed in the ordinance would improve public safety while limiting pretextual traffic stops — those that are merely a pretext for a search — which reform advocates say disproportionally target minorities.
“That’s the correct mechanism so that we can get what the city wants in terms of policing policy,” Rarback said.
The idea of appointing a police chief immediately raised questions about the job description. Though council members said they wanted to appoint a chief of police who represents the interests of Half Moon Bay, it’s not entirely clear how effective or legal that option is given the fact the city contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for policing. The staff plans to examine what authority and responsibilities that chief would have and how they would report to the City Council. For example, city staff plans to look at whether the chief could hire, fire or discipline law enforcement officers working for another agency. The council voted unanimously for more research and to discuss it at a future meeting.
Under state law, general law cities like Half Moon Bay must establish a chief of police, who may be appointed by the council or the city manager, according to the staff report. But because the city contracts with the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos is effectively the city’s chief of police, explained City Attorney Catherine Engberg.
“If the council designates somebody else, that would be in conflict with the contract,” Engberg said.
Engberg noted the city’s three-year contract with the Sheriff’s Office runs through June 2022, and the city must announce by September if it plans to renew the contract. As the contractor, the Sheriff’s Office would have to agree to be “governed by a chief of police other than their own chief of police,” Engberg said. “I don’t want to speak for the sheriff, but I see that as an untenable position for their chain of command.”
David Sklansky, a criminal law professor at Stanford University and a former federal prosecutor, said there is precedent for cities to renegotiate contracts with county law enforcement services. He couldn’t point to an instance where a contracted city requested and applied these types of reforms from a county agency.
“I suspect there have been other examples because the reforms that members of the City Council of Half Moon Bay were proposing are reforms that people have been pushing for a number of places around the country,” said Sklansky, who is the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Vice Mayor Debbie Ruddock believed adopting the ordinance would be unproductive and viewed as adversarial to the Sheriff’s Office. She said the city should also continue to get feedback from focus groups and conduct community surveys.
“The more people we have working on this issue, the more likely we are to have change,” Ruddock said.