Years after fight club scandal, Sheriff’s oversight board takes shape

‘We want to promote law enforcement best practices’

Years after the Sheriff’s Department bungled a criminal investigation into a group of deputies accused of forcing inmates to fight at County Jail, an oversight board meant to hold the agency’s feet to the fire is coming to fruition.

A former inmate and a sheriff’s deputy are among the first four members chosen to serve on the newly created Sheriff’s Department Oversight Board. Approved by voters last November following nationwide protests against police brutality, the board is expected to make policy recommendations and focus on improving jail conditions.

Its new members will include William Palmer, a formerly incarcerated community organizer; Michael Nguyen, a deputy sheriff and union member; Ovava Afuhaamango, a San Francisco native with family members in custody; and Jayson Wechter, a longtime investigator of citizen complaints against police.

The Board of Supervisors voted to appoint them Tuesday from a pool of eight applicants who previously testified at a committee hearing. Mayor London Breed will later appoint another three members to the seven-member panel.

Once all members are seated, the board will be tasked with appointing an inspector general to lead a new Sheriff’s Department Office of Inspector General. Created through the same ballot measure last year, the office will be charged with investigating non-criminal complaints against deputies and recommending discipline to Sheriff Paul Miyamoto.

It’s a similar set-up as the Police Commission and Department of Police Accountability overseeing the Police Department — with one major exception. Unlike the Police Commission, neither the board or office will be able to impose discipline against deputies. That power remains in the hands of the sheriff, under state law.

Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who authored the ballot measure creating the board and office, has been pushing for more sheriff oversight and independent investigations into the allegations of deputy misconduct since 2019, initially alongside the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

At the time, the District Attorney’s Office had just dropped charges against three deputies accused of staging the “gladiator-style” fight club at County Jail, saying that Sheriff’s Department investigators had improperly handled evidence in the case. Walton has also cited excessive force lawsuits from inmates as an issue.

“I’m just excited that we’ve come to a place where we now have actual oversight of the Sheriff’s Department,” Walton told The Examiner. “With the gladiator fights and all the lawsuits, we couldn’t continue to let the Sheriff’s Department misconduct go unchecked and we have to make sure that we have those independent investigations.”

At a committee hearing last week, each of the appointees made a pitch for themselves.

Palmer said he spent 31 years in prison and a few months in County Jail. During his time on the inside, he earned an undergraduate degree and mentored younger incarcerated individuals. As a community advocate since then, he has worked on jail reform in San Francisco and encouraged inmates to get vaccinated.

He said the jails should focus on addressing mental health, drug abuse and poverty to ensure public safety.

“We want to promote law enforcement best practices and eliminate those that do not improve the conditions of the entire community we serve,” Palmer said. “None of us are without flaws, and flaws can be buffed out. However, corruption is a disease and it must be surgically removed.”

Nguyen is a deputy sheriff and union member with the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. He was raised in a low-income family that fled the Vietnam War and opened a restaurant in the Richmond District. Given his life experience, he said he wants to focus on bridging the gap between poor families and law enforcement.

“I understand first-hand that a majority of minorities and impoverished families are looking for a hand up, not a handout,” Nguyen said.

Afuhaamango said she was born and raised in The City’s Portola District. While she works in product marketing “far removed from the prison-industrial complex,” Afuhaamango said she has family members in jail and prison systems around the country. She wants to focus on soliciting public input and analyzing policy to help her community.

“As a Samoan and Tongan woman, this issue impacts me directly,” Afuhaamango said.

Wechter is a longtime investigator for police watchdog agencies. His second stint with the Department of Police Accountability, formerly known as the Office of Citizen Complaints, lasted from 1998 until 2017. He more recently has investigated Oakland police’s handling of George Floyd protests.

“I have seen oversight agencies that foundered due to inadequate resources, staffing, leadership or lack of cooperation from the agencies they were overseeing,” Wechter said. “I very badly want to see oversight of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department done properly.”

Both Palmer and Afuhaamango were appointed to terms ending March 1, 2023, while Wechter and Nguyen are expected to serve until March 1, 2025.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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