As voices ring out across our nation calling for change to our policing, too often one area is overlooked: sheriffs.
Sheriff’s deputies wear badges, carry guns and have the power to arrest — yet they are often absent from police reform efforts. This fall, San Francisco voters have a chance to change that with Proposition D, which will provide long-overdue transparency and accountability for sheriffs.
Here in San Francisco, accountability for our Sheriff’s Department is especially necessary. In 2015, former Public Defender Jeff Adachi exposed the abusive misconduct of several San Francisco Sheriff deputies. Although a botched investigation doomed the prospect of any accountability for the deputies accused of forcing inmates to participate in gladiator-style fights, reports of deputy abuse have persisted. Too often the community members experiencing this abuse feel disempowered to report these acts; after all, for years, their complaints have gone unanswered.
Prop. D would create an independent oversight board governed by an appointed inspector general to independently evaluate the work of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. The oversight board will have the power to investigate complaints of Sheriff’s Department employees’ non-criminal misconduct as well as in-custody deaths. The board will also develop a use of force policy and policy recommendations to increase transparency overall within the department.
Passing Proposition D would lead to increased trust between the previously harmed community members and a too-often neglectful department. Indeed, the creation of an independent investigative entity with subpoena power aligns with both of our responsibilities as elected officials.
A district attorney has the responsibility to keep the public safe, and to ensure that all people are guaranteed due process of law — whether incarcerated individuals or accused deputies. Unfortunately, the ad hoc process currently existing referring investigations of sheriff misconduct to the Department of Police Accountability allows too much to slip through the cracks. The DPA was created specifically to oversee the San Francisco Police Department, yet barely has the capacity to fulfill those responsibilities; it certainly is ill-equipped to manage the vast number of concerns warranting investigation within the Sheriff’s Department. Prop. D would create a robust, independent system to provide more transparency into sheriff investigations. When appropriate, some cases could be referred to the District Attorney’s office to prosecute misconduct that rises to the level of criminal behavior.
A public defender is entrusted with defending and protecting some of our most vulnerable community members. Community members deserve the assurance that the legal system that holds such extraordinary power over their lives and those of their family members—including the ability to incarcerate—will protect their fundamental right to be safe. Proposition D will shine light into what takes place behind closed doors in our jails––and allow for proper investigation of misconduct. What’s more, Proposition D’s passage would mean that sheriff’s employees can finally be held accountable for sustained findings of misconduct.
To be sure, many if not most of the deputies who work for the Sheriff’s Department are good, hardworking people who try their best to treat others with decency and respect. We do not blame every deputy for past abuse; but we also cannot overlook the risks posed by unchecked abuse by some. We hope that the those who work in the Sheriff’s Department will join in our support, and recognize that Prop. D offers a path towards healing old wounds and towards restoring integrity to the Sheriff’s Department.
The need for Proposition D has never been more obvious. It presents an opportunity for much-needed transparency at a time when the nation is crying for change to our law enforcement systems. We must pass Prop. D now. If we overlook the need for accountability and transparency in the Sheriff’s Department, we will have failed to learn the lessons that 2020’s protests have taught.
Chesa Boudin is district attorney for San Francisco, and Mano Raju is public defender.