Years in the making, the creation of a county advisory committee on police issues is moving forward but a Board of Supervisors vote on it was not unanimous.
A provision to allow an auditor or independent investigator to probe controversial police incidents drew an objection from Sheriff Gary Philp at the Oct. 13 supervisors meeting. But by a 3 to 2 vote, the Board supported the formation of a committee that would include a mechanism for bringing in an auditor.
The auditor clause was absent from a staff-recommended proposal and the county’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), which has spearheaded the formation of a police review committee, submitted an 11th hour letter to the Board advocating for an auditor.
The concept of citizens’ police review, in this case only applicable to the county’s Sheriff’s Office, saw support, including from Sheriff Philp, last December. Supervisors directed staff to develop a proposal for it.
At that time, the HRC described the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee as a way to ensure that police actions follow protocol.
But in last week’s staff report, the cost of hiring an auditor was cited as an obstacle. Philp and county staff thought that the HRC had agreed to form a committee that didn’t include one.
They were apparently blindsided by the HRC’s letter and surprised when Supervisor Bonnie Neely, the Board’s HRC liaison, made a motion to include the auditor mechanism.
“I do think the request of the Human Rights Commission is reasonable,” she said, adding that the staff-recommended proposal differs from the proposed committee’s “initial charge.”
Referring to the staff recommendations for a committee, Neely said, “They seem to be watered down severely to a point where I don’t know what we’re going to accomplish by adopting what’s before us today.”
She specified that the hiring of an auditor would have to be recommended by a subcommittee and approved by the sheriff, and the Board would have to approve the funding.
Philp has been working on the proposal with the HRC and he said he walked into Supervisors chambers believing that all had agreed to strike the auditor provision. “This is the first time I’m hearing of it, today, that we’re going to add back in the auditor,” he told supervisors.
Philp said that as an elected official, he’s subject to public review through the voting process and that there isn’t significant disapproval of what his department does.
“I’m opposed to this motion, period,” he continued. “I think our office does a good job … I don’t hear an outcry that we’re not performing properly.”
County Administrative Officer Loretta Nickolaus said a “big part” of the decision to strike the auditor was a meeting she and Eureka City Manager David Tyson had with a Bay Area auditor candidate whom she named Bob.
Nickolaus related that Bob was quick to criticize police actions when he was asked about a well-publicized incident in a Bay Area subway station. “We thought, Ay yi yi, boy, do we want a loose cannon like that here with us? No, we certainly don’t and we got real nervous.”
There was debate among supervisors about whether auditor investigations suggest accusation. Neely and supervisors Clif Clendenen and Mark Lovelace said that’s not the intent. Supervisor Jill Duffy disagreed.
“I would be cautious of saying that it would not be an implied lack of confidence because the reality is, actions speak louder than words — it would be,” she said.
During public comment, Byrd Lochtie, an HRC member, said auditor investigations can also be a way to affirm law enforcement.
“This is the kind of thing that would not be pointing fingers and saying ‘you did something wrong,’ it would give the sheriff’s department an independent report to say, “We are doing it right and the independent auditor says we are doing it right.’” Lochtie said.
Neely’s motion passed but Duffy and Board Chairman Jimmy Smith voted against it.
Smith had noted the disagreement between county staff and the HRC and in announcing the outcome of the vote, he said, “I just wish we could have done that a little better.”