Coronavirus could derail push to increase oversight of Sheriff’s Department

Supervisor Walton has until Tuesday to decide whether to move forward with proposed ballot measure

The economic downturn driven by the coronavirus has complicated a San Francisco supervisor’s plans to increase oversight of the Sheriff’s Department in light of allegations of deputies beating inmates in the jails.

Supervisor Shamann Walton has until next week to decide whether to introduce a charter amendment that would create an inspector general’s office to investigate allegations of deputy misconduct at County Jail.

While the legislation is ready to be introduced, Walton said “setting up a new department may not be feasible at this time” because of the “extreme negative economic impacts” of COVID-19.

“We have until Tuesday to introduce the charter amendment and will be speaking with the Justice Collaborative, sheriff and community to decide what reforms we may be able to institute aside from the creation of the new office,” Walton said.

He added that his office has yet to decide on an “exact path forward.”

The City is currently facing a projected budget deficit of $1.7 billion over the next two years as a result of the crisis, and will have to make cuts that are expected to impact existing city services.

Walton first called for more oversight of the Sheriff’s Department alongside the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi last February after a botched internal investigation led to the dismissal of a high-profile case against several deputies who allegedly forced inmates to fight each other.

The push for more accountability also came at a time when Adachi had surfaced new allegations about inmates being abused in the jails. Since then, Walton has considered creating a sheriff oversight board or requiring independent investigations through a ballot measure or other means.

San Francisco voters also elected a new sheriff last November, Paul Miyamoto, to succeed retired Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. Before leaving, Hennessy reached an agreement with the watchdog Department of Police Accountability to investigate certain complaints against deputies. And the Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly said that deputies are already held accountable.

Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for the sheriff, said Miyamoto is meeting with Walton regarding the proposal.

“He is hearing his concerns and is supportive of a body that serves in an advisory capacity,” Crowley said. “Oversight of the Sheriff’s Office is the responsibility of the elected sheriff and ultimately the voters.”

Two recent cases illustrate why some have concerns about the safety of inmates in the jails. Since March, the Board of Supervisors has been asked to approve settlements totalling $180,000 in two separate lawsuits over alleged jailhouse beatings at the hands of deputies.

In the first case, former inmate Juan Ortiz sued The City alleging that a deputy became enraged and attacked him in a holding cell at County Jail No. 1 in June 2018 after he threw a T-shirt at the deputy’s feet.

Patrick Buelna, an attorney for Ortiz with the Law Offices of John Burris, said the deputies failed to document the use of force and accused the department of staging a cover-up. He said portions of security footage were also deleted.

“In the jails in general and with San Francisco deputies there is an issue of excessive force,” Buelna said. “We repeatedly have to sue.”

The lawsuit named five deputies including Deputy Kevin Conway. The case settled for $125,000.

Crowley said that all five deputies remain with the department and are not currently on a special assignment as a result of the incident.

“This is a settlement, it’s not an admission that anything in the complaint is factually correct,” Crowley said. “The Sheriff’s Office thoroughly investigates and takes appropriate personnel action any time there is evidence that supports a complaint.”

In the second lawsuit, inmate Deshaun Roberts alleged that Deputy Alex Jayson pushed him against a staircase several times and hit him repeatedly when he refused to go back to his cell at County Jail No. 5 in April 2019.

Stanley Goff, who represented Roberts in the lawsuit, said his client was not seriously injured but was traumatized by the incident.

“There is a systematic problem that is permeating throughout the San Francisco jails that is making the deputies feel like they have a green light to abuse these inmates,” Goff said.

Goff added, “just because they are locked up doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated like animals.”

Shortly after the incident, then-Sheriff Hennessy asked the FBI to investigate the allegations. An FBI spokesperson said at the time that the agency had agreed to look into the case. But this week, another FBI spokesperson, Cameron Polan, declined to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Crowley, the sheriff’s spokesperson, said the police watchdog DPA currently has an open investigation into the case.

Jayson, the deputy involved in the incident, was moved into an administrative position with no inmate contact, where he remains today, according to Crowley.

The case is expected to settle for $55,000.

The City Attorney’s Office represented the city and county of San Francisco in both cases.

John Cote, a spokesperson for the office, said neither settlement involved “any admission of liability on the part of the Sheriff’s Office or the named deputies.”

“Litigation is inherently expensive, and settling these cases at this stage for an amount far less than the cost of continued litigation is in the taxpayers’ interest,” Cote said. “It should not be considered a reflection of The City’s likelihood of success on the merits.”

If Walton were to move forward with the charter amendment, he would need the support of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to bring it before voters in November.

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