An independent investigator will no longer review complaints about Orange County’s biggest law enforcement agency under a tentative vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The unanimous straw vote to eliminate $450,000 in annual funding for the Office of Independent Review isn’t final. But it’s meant to give budget writers direction as they prepare for the final hearing June 23. And supervisors made clear they don’t support the office as it exists, criticizing its work as repetitive and toothless.
Chairman Todd Spitzer pointed to the revelation that the Sheriff’s Department has for years secretly overseen jailhouse informants and the recent news that a sheriff’s deputy is refusing to testify in criminal cases involving the Mexican Mafia, which is forcing prosecutors to drop charges and consider generous plea deals.
Spitzer said he feels Stephen Connolly, executive director of the office, is too close with Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. So unless the supervisors change their minds, Connolly – the office’s only full-time employee – will be out of a job after June 30.
“The Orange County Board of Supervisors needs somebody who’s bringing these issues to our attention in real time,” Spitzer said. “Our duty is to protect this county, and every day I wake up, we’ve got more and more exposure.”
Hutchens said she’s “disappointed and surprised” by the vote. She said she worries that closing the Office of Independent Review will eliminate a layer of oversight that helps her decide key policy and disciplinary issues while assuring citizens their issues aren’t being ignored.
“This takes away a piece of transparency that I think is important,” Hutchens told the Register. “I hope that we don’t continue to go down this road.”
But Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has long criticized Connolly’s work, said Tuesday that the 7-year-old office brings nothing useful to the county.
“It’s always sort of a stenographer’s version of what happened a year ago, six months ago, and it’s standard reporting of everything I knew,” Nelson said. “It never got off to a good start.”
Connolly told the Register he feels he’s accomplished “a lot of positive things.” A report presented to supervisors in March said Connolly handled 161 citizen complaints and participated in 123 internal affairs investigations in 2014. He has no power to discipline, but he can recommend actions to Hutchens based on his investigations.
“I was disappointed by the vote today, but I respect the board’s decision if it wants to go in another direction,” Connolly said.
Spitzer asked county staff to review law enforcement oversight models in other counties and said he wants to revamp law enforcement oversight in Orange County
“I don’t want people to think for a second that by us defunding it today, we’re somehow not committed to it,” Spitzer said. “In order to get a model that actually provides oversight, we have to eliminate and start over. There wasn’t a way to fix it. It was clear we had the wrong person and the wrong model in place.”
But he didn’t offer details Tuesday about how supervisors will do that, and he told the Register the Office of Independent Review could be gone for good.
That bothers state Sen. John Moorlach, who was supervisor when the board created the office after a series of high-profile scandals at the jail, including the beating death of John Chamberlain by fellow inmates in 2007.
“It’s a cheap insurance policy to keep our overall costs down and the quality of law enforcement in Orange County up,” Moorlach said. “In an era where we’re dealing with Ferguson, Missouri, I think the OIR is crucial.”
Tom Dominguez, president of the Orange County Association of Deputy Sheriffs, welcomes the change.
“I think what they have effectively done is put full accountability back onto the sheriff,” Dominguez said. “She’s ultimately responsible for the department.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 949-492-5122. Twitter: @meghanncuniff