Santa Clara County oversight office under fire over Tasers
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office is requesting to arm its deputies with Tasers. File photo.

As the Santa Clara County Sheriff pushes to arm deputies with Tasers, one local civil rights group argues the sheriff’s oversight office acts more as a rubber stamp.

In May, the county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring voiced support for a policy outlining how deputies would use Tasers if deployed in jails and certain parts of the county. That chafed with community activists who protested Sheriff Bob Jonsen’s efforts to obtain the weapon. The Board of Supervisors agreed to explore the idea, and the NAACP of San Jose/Silicon Valley says the county should sever ties with OIR Group, the Southern California-based team of consultants contracted to steer the oversight office and review use of force practices and policies.

“In a time of budget constraints and pressing need for effective oversight of law enforcement practices, it is unacceptable to waste resources on a monitoring system that does not fulfill its intended purpose,” the Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the local NAACP chapter, wrote in a June 16 letter to supervisors.

His letter exposes clashing visions over what true oversight means in California’s sixth-most populous county.

OIR Group’s own staff make up the county oversight office. Founder Michael Gennaco is a former federal prosecutor who supervised more than 20 federal grand jury investigations into police misconduct and was  chief attorney of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review. Members of his staff have reviewed high-profile police violence cases and led oversight offices for cities and counties across the state. Gennaco said OIR Group’s role in Santa Clara County isn’t to advocate for or against Tasers – but to ensure the policies for using them, if approved, are sound.

“We’re staying in our lane,” Gennaco told San José Spotlight. “We have not taken a position on whether or not the board ought to be authorizing Tasers. We worked with the sheriff’s office to develop a policy that will make sure — we hope — that if Tasers are authorized, deputies understand what the rules of engagement are so that they don’t go outside those guardrails. The Taser is a dangerous weapon and if used inappropriately, can  cause damage and violate individuals’ rights.”

Moore said that’s not true oversight.

“We want somebody who can tell the board what the right choice is overall,” he told San José Spotlight.

Taking a position

Sheriff Jonsen argues OIR is “by no means rubber stamping” pro-sheriff decisions.

“OIR remains an independent, objective organization that recommends what it believes are best practices,” he told San José Spotlight.

Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenberg — the only supervisor to oppose exploring Tasers — said she takes Moore’s concerns seriously. But she reiterated that the terms of OIR Group’s contract with the county, which lasts through 2025, are to review “the legality and transparency of policies and practices of the office of the sheriff without weighing in on policy direction unless it conflicts with permitted practice.”

“(Moore) and I, along with several other stakeholders, are scheduling a conversation for later this month to discuss the issues raised in his letter,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight, adding that she’s discussed Moore’s concerns directly with Gennaco. “I expect my conversation with Rev. Moore and others will further inform any additional direction that may need to be provided to ensure that the OIR group is functioning consistent with the scope of their contract.”

A majority of supervisors on May 21 supported exploring Tasers for deputies on a smaller scale than Sheriff Jonsen originally requested. Supervisors said they were open to the weapon, but not ready to sign off on its use. Jonsen will come back with more details in September, and county health officials may conduct a peer-reviewed study on the weapon’s adverse health effects.

The sheriff’s office initially sought to deploy between 300-1,100 Tasers. Jonsen argued  deputy safety is of mounting concern in the county jails and that Tasers could prevent deadly fights between incarcerated people — and deadlier uses of force by deputies.

“We had several exchanges of drafts back and forth and there has been an excellent collaborative working process to get to what we think is a good policy that meets best practices,” Julie Ruhlin, a principal with OIR Group, told county supervisors at the May meeting.

That day, scores of speakers in public comment warned Tasers are deadly and would mostly be used on poor people of color. They also questioned the need for Tasers as deputy use of force was trending downward. One of those speakers was Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance.

Konda shares Moore’s concern about the oversight office.

“The function of a law enforcement oversight body must be to provide independent and unbiased oversight,” Konda told San José Spotlight. “However, the Office of Correctional Law Enforcement Monitoring has failed in this respect. During the board of supervisors meeting last month on Tasers the representative from OCLEM did not provide unbiased oversight on the subject, but instead became an advocate in favor of Tasers.”

Remaining unbiased

Gennaco disagrees with the notion that his office is an advocate for the sheriff.

“We are very often not in agreement with the sheriff administration with regard to a number of issues and call them out when there are things we see done inappropriately,” Gennaco said.

In 2022, Gennaco’s office released an explosive report on Jonsen’s predecessor, Laurie Smith. The report says her office failed at nearly every level while handling and later investigating a 2018 incident in which a county jail inmate, Andrew Hogan, was allowed to self harm and slow to receive medical care. The report found that the internal investigation was cut short by then-Undersheriff Rick Sung, who may have tried to destroy the evidence afterward. Gennaco said the internal investigation was likely impeded to help the former sheriff politically.

County officials agree that the Sheriff’s Office’s relationship with OIR Group started out highly contentious — under the old leadership. Under Sheriff Jonsen, the relationship is more amicable.

“There does appear to be greater willingness by Sheriff Jonsen to provide requested information to OIR than was provided by Sheriff Smith, but that cooperation should not be construed as rendering OIR’s oversight role ineffective,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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