There was a consistent theme to the public comments at the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting on the morning of May 24. It all revolved around the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and a growing effort to enact civilian oversight over the institution.
On May 17, the board heard from at least a dozen members of Fixin’ San Mateo County, an advocacy group that recently sent the board a draft ordinance to establish a civilian oversight committee and an inspector general with subpoena powers over the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. Though no supervisor has publicly supported the idea, the proposal has been endorsed by several elected officials and organizations, including U.S. Reps. Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, state Sen. Josh Becker, and numerous mayors and city council members, including Half Moon Bay Mayor Debbie Ruddock and Councilmembers Joaquin Jimenez and Harvey Rarback. The Half Moon Bay City Council is planning to examine and possibly endorse the proposal next month.
Supporters say the advisory board would provide an independent system of checks and balances intended to build transparency by holding the law enforcement agency responsible for misconduct, and, hopefully reducing use-of-force lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Office. Many speakers expressed frustration over a lack of accountability and transparency from the department.
“There has never been an institution that had accountability without transparency,” said Carina Merrick, an unincorporated county resident. “And there are few institutions with greater power over the community than local law enforcement.”
There are an estimated 25 auditors or independent review boards for police oversight in California. In September 2020, Assembly Bill 1185 authorized counties to establish a sheriff oversight board by either supervisor authority or a ballot vote. Fixin’ San Mateo County has been meeting since May 2021. Executive Director Nancy Goodban said her board has spoken with supervisors and Sheriff Carlos Balonos, and that the committee is meant to act as an advisory board with the Sheriff’s Office and wouldn’t enforce policies.
Fixin’ Chair Jim Lawrence hopes that county supervisors enact the policy on their own rather than push it to a longer and more expensive ballot process. He noted that it's also designed to benefit the deputies as well as the community, as police could be held to another behavioral standard and have another channel of communication with the public to voice concerns.
The draft ordinance proposes that the 11-member civilian board and inspector general be appointed by the Board of Supervisors and investigate operations, hold hearings, give recommendations and “investigate complaints of non-criminal misconduct by employees and contractors of the Sheriff's Office and in-custody deaths.” As proposed, each member would serve a four-year term with a three-term limit, and the board would have two members from each supervisorial district and one at-large member.
Exactly how much access the committee would have to the Sheriff’s Office operations would be determined. Such discussions have occurred in Sonoma County with the county’s civilian-led group, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. In 2020, Sonoma voters passed a ballot measure that granted the committee increased access to Sheriff’s Office records and body camera footage and 1 percent of the department’s $184 million budget for operations.
But that decision was opposed by unions representing Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies, and the process is now tied up in court after the state’s Public Employment Relations Board axed part of the measure because it said the county did not properly negotiate with labor unions representing deputies.
San Mateo County’s preliminary recommended budget for next fiscal year estimates the Sheriff’s Office will spend $283 million on operations and internal costs. Seventy-three percent, or $207 million, will go toward salaries and benefits.
Neither sheriff candidate running in next month’s election — incumbent Carlos Bolanos nor Sheriff’s Capt. Christina Corpus — appears sold on the concept of civilian oversight of internal activities. Bolanos said he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the proposal, and the two parties hadn’t met yet. He said he was in favor of some kind of advisory committee, so long as it was representative of the county and met legal requirements.
“People get an opportunity to elect their sheriff every four years, but in terms of citizen engagement and more input, I’ve always been an advocate for that,” Bolanos said. “Hopefully we can work toward something that works for everyone.”
Tovis Page, a Woodside resident and member of the Peninsula Solidarity Clergy Cohort, said there had been a “serious erosion of public trust” between people with mental illness and minorities with the Sheriff’s Office.
“Communities (of) color bear the brunt of this injustice, but the loss of public trust is a problem for us all,” she said. “The Sheriff’s Office needs oversight just like any other public office.”