For several years now there have been growing calls for citizen oversight of our Sheriff’s Office and others around the country. It’s such a good idea as to be obvious. Your local police departments need civilian oversight for the same reason the nation’s military needs it: Men with guns and arrest powers must be checked constantly to ensure they don’t usurp political powers and that we don’t slip into a police state.
Yet somehow this is a controversial idea, particularly within the law enforcement community.
Last week, state Attorney General Rob Bonta fired a shot heard ’round the close-knit policing fraternity in California when he told Los Angeles County’s overreaching Sheriff Alex Villanueva that he was taking over an investigation of leaks and public corruption in that sprawling Southern California jurisdiction.
The particulars of that case are a bit convoluted and involve search warrants served against the sheriff’s political rivals. Ultimately the case itself is much, much less important than the notion that someone besides the sheriff should rule on disputes involving the sheriff.
Many sheriffs in California and elsewhere will tell you they are answerable only to the voters; that regardless of what they may do, no civilian authority may oust them once they are duly elected. This notion spawned a spurious legal theory that culminated in the concept of “constitutional sheriffs.” This holds that your local county sheriff possesses the power to interpret the law and that no federal authority — not even the president of the United States — may tell him any different.
Of course, it’s not true. “(The concept) relies on a highly selective reading of history, pretending that the high sheriff of the English shire was transplanted to colonial America, and then somehow emerged in the present day untouched by legal developments over the past 200 years,” Boston University School of Law Professor Robert L. Tsai told the Washington Post.
Yet these “constitutional sheriffs” have lately defied state and federal COVID-19 regulations, claimed the right to racial profiling when it serves their political interests, and said they won’t enforce relevant gun laws.
Here in San Mateo County, outgoing Sheriff Carlos Bolanos has faced questioning about the use of force in his department, his reluctance to release video from crime scenes and even his decision to send deputies out of state in an attempt to procure a Batmobile. (As it happens, on Monday, San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe announced he would not press charges against Mark Racop, the Indiana man who is supposedly building said Batmobile for a friend of our sheriff.)
There is new hope for an end to this kind of foolishness under the color of law. Two years ago the California Legislature authorized county authorities to establish oversight committees. Last week the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to research civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office. The first study session is supposed to take place next month. It’s a start.
No matter what, we will have a new sheriff in the new year. Christina Corpus stopped short of endorsing civilian oversight during her successful June campaign, though she did suggest community advisory boards of some sort. Let’s hope she is reading the writing on the wall. In the wake of the Black Lives Movement and sundry reasons to question local police response, we’re not willing to let the police police themselves any longer.
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