Civilian oversight provides checks and balances for our law enforcement agencies. Currently, the only oversight citizens of San Mateo County can exercise over the Sheriff’s Office is via election for the office of Sheriff every four years, often with little information about the inner workings of the office. Accusations of misconduct, bias, or excessive use of force against deputies or other officers are investigated by other employees of the Sheriff’s Office, a situation that does not foster trust in the community. In rare cases, the District Attorney will investigate a use of force, but the DA’s job relies on the work of the Sheriff’s Office, and they work closely together. A civilian oversight board is a neutral, independent organization that can bring transparency and legitimacy to investigations of misconduct. Oversight boards may also review practices and policy, and suggest changes that have proven useful for safe, effective policing.
FxSMC has submitted a draft ordinance to the County Board of Supervisors to begin the process of creating a civilian oversight board and an Office of the Inspector General for our county. Read our draft ordinance here.
The California State Legislature established a framework for civilian oversight of Sheriff offices with AB1185 from the 2019-2020 Legislative Session, which added Section 25303.7 to California’s Government Code. This law allows counties to create oversight boards and inspector general offices, but does not create these boards or offices. To take advantage of this oversight opportunity, a county must take the necessary steps to establish a civilian oversight board and inspector general. So far, 25 counties and cities in California have some form of civilian oversight, including the counties of San Francisco, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Currently, the only mechanism by which citizens of San Mateo County can influence the Sheriff’s office is by the election for the office of Sheriff every 4 years.
The Sheriff’s Office is funded by taxpayers and used 9% of the county budget—almost $300,000,000—in 2021 1. The Sheriff’s Office provides policing services for unincorporated county areas; if you’ve ever driven our county coastline, you’ve passed through unincorporated county land. Several cities contract with the County Sheriff for policing, rather than maintaining their own city police, including Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, San Carlos, Woodside, and Portola Valley. The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for patrolling all Caltrain and SamTrans properties 2.
The Sheriff’s Office also staffs and operates the county jail, which has two facilities. Any person arrested in San Mateo County will pass through one of these jail facilities 3.
The Sheriff’s Office is run by the County Sheriff, an elected office. The Sheriff does not report to any other official, and is currently answerable to residents’ concerns only by means of an election every 4 years.
The people working in the Sheriff’s Office are charged with safeguarding our communities. Their job is made more difficult and more dangerous where a lack of transparency erodes community trust. Today, when a resident encounters an issue with the Sheriff’s department, there is little recourse or remedy, and no transparent processes to resolve it. This impacts everyone—civilians and law enforcement are both poorly served when there are no mechanisms for accountability in place. Oversight can bridge this gap by providing a neutral review of any complaints brought by citizens, and by clarifying to the public how the Sheriff’s Office operates.
Although many in our county have had positive experiences with law enforcement, a significant number of people have serious concerns about disparate impacts on some communities, and some residents have unfortunately experienced this first-hand. There is currently very little public view into the operation of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, and even serious use of force cases are not reviewed by any authority that’s truly independent of the Sheriff’s Office. A civilian oversight board will bring independence and legitimacy to use of force reviews, and provide better information to the public.
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Transparency Portal provides limited aggregate data on law enforcement in the county. For example, it does not provide data on racial profiling. Because the county portal is not comprehensive in scope and is of limited value without analysis, it does not provide the meaningful transparency we need.
Some people feel that the CARE (Community Advisors for Responsible Engagement) program, which was developed by and is run by the Sheriff’s Office, can substitute for a truly independent oversight board. Though this may seem simpler, it fails all the key tests for effective oversight. Fixin’ SMC has consulted with many jurisdictions and experts about oversight, and they all agree that oversight must be all of the following things to provide a real benefit to the community:
Independent; it must NOT be run or overseen by the Sheriff’s Office.
Empowered; it must have true investigative power, including the ability to issue subpoenas.
Supported; it must have adequate funding.
Responsive; it must be able to take complaints and input directly from members of the public.
Representative; it must reflect the diversity of the community.
While we support the Sheriff’s CARE program, it does not meet these requirements, and it is NOT a form of oversight.
– CARE is not independent. It is set up by the Sheriff and is internal to the Sheriff’s Office, and can be disbanded by the Sheriff’s Office.
– CARE has no investigative powers, and cannot require any specific information from the Sheriff’s Office. Committee members can ask questions but have no mandate or authority to get answers.
– CARE does not have the budget necessary to provide real oversight.
– CARE meetings are not public, so it is not a forum for members of the general public to bring questions or concerns.
– CARE is not representative; members apply and are selected by the Sheriff’s Office. CARE members are not paid for their time, limiting who can participate.
A common model for oversight calls for a civilian board that coordinates with a trained Inspector General, who would investigate incidents of excessive force, deaths in custody, and racial profiling trends. The Oversight Board and Inspector General each would have independent subpoena power, issue regular public reports, and review and recommend policies. Fixin’ San Mateo County is working with the Board of Supervisors to create a strong, independent civilian board, as well as an Office of the Inspector General.
No. Our goal is not to strip the Sheriff’s Office of its funding or to reduce police presence. Our singular goal is the establishment of independent, civilian-controlled oversight to increase accountability, transparency, and trust in law enforcement.
Civilian oversight represents a prudent investment in our community, because oversight can actually reduce overall costs to county taxpayers.
In the last 6 months of 2022, San Mateo County paid out $5,420,000 in claims against the Sheriff’s Office, including $4.5 million for the TASER death of a Black man crossing the street in Millbrae. Other settlements were for $750,000 in August, and $170,000 in November.
San Mateo County paid out $2.5 Million between 2015 and 2020 4 for settlements in excessive force/wrongful death cases—that’s more than $3,300 per deputy.
A recent report from KTVU found that Bay Area counties that have introduced strong reforms, including civilian oversight, have seen payouts for use-of-force lawsuits “plummet” in recent years. A strong oversight board can help ensure our local law enforcement is run to a standard that reduces the need for litigation, which saves time the Sheriff’s Office might otherwise spend in its own defense, and saves every taxpayer money.
The budget for oversight in other Bay Area counties is often set based on the Sheriff’s Office budget. For example, Sonoma County budgets a minimum 1% of the Sheriff’s Office budget 5 for the oversight/Inspector General Office, and San Francisco County specifies one investigator for every 100 sworn sheriff’s department employees 6.
These are some examples of concerns that county residents have expressed:
– San Mateo County arrests Black people at a rate 9 times more than White people, and Hispanic people are arrested at a rate double that of White people 7.
– Despite 19 people of color killed by use-of-force in the last 11 years, no significant disciplinary action has been taken for any of the 51 officers involved 8.
– Inadequate mental health treatment in the county jails.
– Lack of access to personal mail for incarcerated people, whose mail is scanned in Florida and view on shared tablets.
– Exorbitant phone costs for incarcerated people.
– San Mateo County had been one of the only local counties pro-actively working with ICE immigration. The San Mateo County Sheriff turned over 100 immigrants directly to ICE in the past 3 years 9. More than 60%. 10 of all immigrants turned over to ICE in 8 local Bay Area counties are turned over by the SMC Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff recently announced that this would change; we look forward to clarification about this new policy 11.
See more about the benefits of oversight.
Map of unincorporated areas of San Mateo County (in grey):
- Fiscal Years 2021-2023 Recommended Budget: County of San Mateo
- A look at the most notable police payouts in the Bay Area: KTVU News
- Sonoma County supervisors send law enforcement oversight measure to voters; deputies union pushes back: San Francisco Chronicle
- San Francisco, California, Proposition D, Sheriff’s Department Oversight Board Charter Amendment
- New Insights into California Arrests: Trends, Disparities, and County Differences: Public Policy Institute of California
- Fewer than 10 percent of San Mateo County police use-of-force cases end in jury trial. Here’s why: Half Moon Bay Review
- San Mateo County sheriff, immigration rights activists go head-to-head at TRUTH Act forum: Redwood City Pulse
- California Department of Justice: Values Act Transfer Data
- Sheriff changes course, won’t cooperate with ICE transfers: Half Moon Bay Review