(Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Bungled jail fights case leads to calls for more oversight of Sheriff’s Department

City officials are exploring options to increase the oversight of deputies after the Sheriff’s Department mishandled a criminal investigation of inmates allegedly being forced to fight like gladiators.

Possibilities include legislation or a ballot measure to expand the powers of the Department of Police Accountability to investigate citizen complaints against deputies in the department.

The discussion is expected to come to a head Thursday during a hearing called by supervisors Shamann Walton and Sandra Fewer at the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee.

“The Sheriff’s Department should not be conducting their own investigations of allegations about deputies,” Walton said Wednesday. “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house, and that’s not appropriate.”

The hearing comes in response to prosecutors in February dismissing criminal charges against three deputies accused of staging the notorious jail fights four years ago.

The dismissal came after defense attorneys claimed that the Sheriff’s Department improperly mixed its internal and criminal investigations and smashed a hard drive containing evidence with a hammer.

Also driving the call for stricter oversight were new allegations made by the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi that deputies beat and illegally strip- searched inmates at County Jail in late 2018. The San Francisco Examiner first reported on the allegations last month.

SEE RELATED: SF sheriff investigates new allegations of deputies beating inmates

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and DPA Director Paul Henderson are on board with extending the reach of the DPA to the sheriff, possibly through a ballot measure.

“I believe that we are headed in that direction and I think it’s okay,” Hennessy said. “I can understand why people would be concerned about law enforcement investigating itself.”

The sheriff, who has yet to decide if she will run for reelection this fall, has already decided to turn over her internal investigations related to the latest Adachi allegations to the DPA for review.

The allegations spawned 21 internal cases involving 22 deputies. Hennessy said her investigators have already done the “grunt work” on the cases including interviewing witnesses.

“I’m willing to look at these complaints and develop a partnership with the Sheriff’s Department to make sure that specified segments of their investigations are reviewed independently,” Henderson said.

But critics, including former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, a candidate for district attorney, are each skeptical that the DPA currently has the authority to investigate the department.

“There needs to be an independent, predictable and transparent mechanism for independently investigating every claim of abuse and it needs to go through an agency that actually has the power to compel statements from witnesses the way that DPA does from the police,” Boudin said.

While acknowledging that investigating a broader scope of cases might require a ballot measure or memorandum of understanding with the Sheriff’s Department, Henderson said he already has “permissive authority” from the sheriff to investigate the cases Hennessy turned over.

Both Mirkarimi and Boudin believe that an agency like the DPA should investigate citizen complaints against deputies, but they argue that there should also be an additional oversight body that imposes discipline based on the recommendations.

Otherwise, the sheriff will continue to have final say on discipline.

“I don’t think anybody in San Francisco has the appetite for creating another commission, but in this particular case there might be merit to envision such a purpose,” said Mirkarimi, who has been working with National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement on similar efforts to increase oversight in other counties.

Hennessy said she would not support the creation of a body like the Police Commission for the sheriff’s. Unlike the chief, who is appointed by the mayor, Hennessy said she is elected by voters who can hold her accountable at the polls.

“That’s a bad decision because as the sheriff I have a lot of power to impose discipline and I do,” Hennessy said. “That is a bureaucratic layer that I think will cost a lot of money that I think is not necessary.”

Boudin and Mirkarimi were also concerned that the sheriff already handed over cases to the DPA without an established process to follow.

“The way that this is being transferred is shooting from the hip,” Mirkarimi said.

Boudin expressed concern that the investigations, which began in early December, were transferred several months into the process when the Sheriff’s Department only has a year to take action under the law.

“It’s absolutely essential that that process not be invented on the fly in the middle of a major investigation,” Boudin said. “The idea that the sheriff is going to hand over responsibility for the investigation three months into the investigation is really problematic.”

Hennessy does not believe there will be a time issue. She said a liaison will assist the DPA investigators through the process.

Ken Lomba, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, said the union needed further details before it would decide whether to support the DPA or another body investigating Sheriff’s Department complaints.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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