At a community meeting on Aug. 30, county residents gave feedback on what they hoped for from the new Independent Sheriff’s Auditor (ISA) position. Many echoed the same sentiment: In addition to an ISA, a civilian oversight committee is needed to bring transparency and accountability to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
In January, the Board of Supervisors unanimously moved to hire an ISA. Sheriff Jim Hart brought forward the recommendation to hire a neutral third-party auditor for his agency. His recommendation comes two years after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1185 into law, a bill that allows every California county to create an official watchdog group or individual to oversee sheriff’s offices.
Currently, the Santa Cruz Police Department is the only law enforcement office within Santa Cruz County that has an independent auditor to investigate claims of abuse, misconduct or public complaints.
The ISA will be responsible for investigating complaints from the public regarding the Sheriff’s Office, looking into use-of-force instances and auditing the department’s investigations. The meeting was held to collect ideas from the public on the details of the ISA position, like the scope of the ISA’s responsibilities, and when and how he or she would get involved with the Sheriff’s Office, among other responsibilities.
Deputy County Administrative Officer Melodye Serino said the County will use the feedback to develop a Request for Proposals and start accepting applications for the ISA.
The public comment portion of the meeting lasted over an hour, pushing the meeting past its 7:30pm end time. The comments largely reiterated similar desires: For the ISA to have subpoena power, for the Sheriff’s Office to front costs associated with the ISA position, for there to be oversight into the jails and for the ISA to work in conjunction with a civilian oversight committee.
Serino continued to reiterate that this meeting was only intended to gather input on the auditor and that the Supervisors had already unanimously limited oversight to a single police auditor.
“I want you to understand that my direction from my bosses is to go forward with the inspector general model,” Serino said. “OK. So that doesn’t mean that that might not change in the future.”
Many callers also spoke to the lack of public transparency within County jails, and the troubling reports and incidents that have happened at the jails in the past decades.
“I know that numbers in the jail are tracking upward, there’s an inadequacy of medical and mental health care, unclear ICE cooperation levels, lack of independent investigations into jail deaths and injuries and information,” said Cassandra Gazipura, a public defender and member of the Sheriff Oversight Committee, who also presented at the meeting. “The conditions inside the jail that are often not made public, and they need to be.”
In June of 2021, Santa Cruz grand jury released its “Justice in the Jail” report, which found the need for more public transparency and oversight, among other management and resource issues. This report came after inmate deaths at the Main Jail and criminal conduct including sexual assaults by correction officers.
“One thing that’s historically important about the jail is that the public doesn’t get any information about what happens in the jail,” said one caller. “There has been some atrophying in services and facilities. There should be public hearings, civilian oversight, and the auditor should be independent from law enforcement. Otherwise, we’re just doing what’s been done before.”
Serino says she and her team hope to present the public’s input at one of the Board of Supervisors meetings in October.