UPDATE: Santa Clara County supervisors run into hurdle over reforms at Sheriff’s Office
Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department.

After months of review of potential law enforcement reforms at the Sheriff’s Office, Santa Clara County Supervisors faced the reality that their hands are somewhat tied.

The sheriff is an independently elected official and supervisors have limited authority over that office, said Michael Genacco, a law enforcement expert and project manager for the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring. Supervisors had asked the agency to conduct a review of Sheriff’s Office policies, training, hiring practices, inventory of armaments, use of “military-style” equipment and crowd-control techniques.

“Since we have no authority over the office, we use the power of persuasion, power of the pen, power of public outreach to convince the Sheriff’s Office our recommendations are sound,” Genacco told supervisors Aug. 25.

But Supervisor Joe Simitian, who had ordered the review, pushed back on that concession.

“While there is some limit to the authority of our board, there is authority in the budget,” Simitian said.  “I want to be very clear that I won’t be able to support budget allocations for law enforcement functions that are not properly performed based on best practices recognized in the 21st century.”

The majority of those who spoke on the recommendations said they did not believe the measures went far enough.

Sparky Harlan, CEO of Bill Wilson Center, a nonprofit counseling center, suggested supervisors develop a strike team that would bring together county departments with an equal number of community-based organizations and some law enforcement representation to sit down at the table for six months and hammer out what a community response would look like.

Other speakers told supervisors to research and adopt policies under the #8toabolition campaign, which pushes defunding of police departments, prison reform, demilitarization and other measures designed to address racial inequities in law enforcement.

“What I would like to see are some thoughtful responses before we just jump to ‘Let’s just defund the police and start over,’” Gennaco said.

OCLEM’s suggestions included the banning of authorized chokeholds or neck holds and requiring incident report narratives that detail de-escalation techniques.

OCLEM’s report urged the Sheriff’s Office to make public and accessible on its website any acquisition of excess military equipment. The Sheriff’s Office already has made a commitment to publish a list of lethal and less-lethal weapons it owns and deploys, but has not yet done so. The report compels the department to make good on its promise.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Susan Ellenberg presented her findings on how public safety does not just mean law enforcement.

Ellenberg said her office held 18 stakeholder group meetings “with everyone from inmate advocates to the Police Chief’s Association.”

“The No. 1 thing I take away (from the meetings) is that people really care about this issue,” Ellenberg said. “They have a lot to say. So much of people’s conception of what makes them feel safe has nothing to do with law enforcement and everything to do with well-maintained neighborhoods, health care, social programs, childcare, quality education — all of those pieces are what make a safe community.”

Simitian said supervisors and county staff will have to remain vigilant as the changes suggested will not just magically appear over the course of weeks, months, or even the next couple of years.

A major hurdle facing supervisors and their law enforcement oversight committee is that the groups do not have an information sharing agreement with the Sheriff’s Office. Attempts have been made to obtain reports on the time breakdown of patrol service performed by officers, which could help craft better recommendations for law enforcement.

The information has not been provided to OCLEM or the supervisors. San José Spotlight requested this information Aug. 25, as well as explanation as to why these statistics have not already been shared with supervisors.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MadelynGReese

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