Disturbing review of California sheriff’s department finds serious abuses

Over the past year, as employees of the scandal-plagued Orange county sheriff’s department received their official use-of-force training, independent investigators from the county were sitting in.

Their goal was to identify problems that might lead to unnecessary killings or headline-grabbing cases of law enforcement violence. And, as a new report documents, they found plenty.

During a training about the duty to intervene when an officer uses excessive force, one instructor began the session by asking the trainees if they had joined the force in order to “rat on” their peers for misconduct. None of the trainees raised their hands.

Another instructor illustrated a discussion of mental health regulations in California with a photograph of three convicted killers and the caption, “Why do all mass shooters look like mass shooters?” That claim was wrong, and might also “encourage individuals to discriminate against and mistreat others who are perceived to be mentally ill”, the investigators warned.

The newly released investigation was conducted by the Office of Independent Review, a previously dormant Orange county public agency, and commissioned after the George Floyd protests last year. The report comes as the sheriff’s department, one of the largest in the country, has been embroiled in controversy for years over criminal behavior by deputies and even a former sheriff, who was indicted on corruption charges in 2007 and ultimately convicted on one count of witness tampering.

Since 2019, there have been dozens of incidents in which sheriff’s deputies were found to have engaged in dishonest behavior or violated the law, a Voice of San Diego investigation found. A long-running scandal over evidence mishandled by the sheriff’s department resulted in more than 60 criminal convictions or charges being dropped, Orange county’s district attorney announced in early 2021. In late 2020, a former deputy was indicted for allegedly stealing 15 guns from a dead man’s house.

The county investigators concluded that there were serious problems with every part of the sheriff’s department’s approach to using violent force. The department’s policies on force were too vague, permitting officers to use undefined “alternative” force methods, not focusing enough on de-escalation techniques and even allowing them to fire warning shots, something other law enforcement departments have banned, the report concluded.

Sheriff’s deputies were allowed to submit reports on their use of force late and with little detail, obscuring what actually happened in the incidents, the investigation found. When supervisors conducted interviews of the people who had been targets of a deputy’s use of force, as the department’s policy required, they sometimes allowed that deputy to be present for the interview, creating a potential “chilling effect”.

A former correctional staff member of the county jails told investigators that sheriff’s deputies used the “twist up”, or the manipulation of people’s fingers, as a punishment for incarcerated people when deputies felt they were “disrespected”, not for any justifiable reason. Deputies could “really screw someone’s wrist up without having to write a report”, the former staff member said. Several people who were currently or previously incarcerated in Orange county jails independently confirmed to investigators that this had been done to them.

During an official department training, one instructor explicitly referenced this illegal tactic of abusing jail inmates out of sight of surveillance cameras, while explaining the importance of employees knowing where cameras were placed within the jail, the investigators found.

“In my day,” the instructor said, “you knew just where to go in order to tweak a problem inmate’s fingers while you were handcuffing them.”

The slide the instructor was discussing was titled, “Make a good movie.”

A spokesperson for the Orange county sheriff, Don Barnes, did not immediately have a comment on the new report.

The Orange county sheriff department’s own recent evaluations of its use-of-force record had been glowing. In a 2020 internal report, the department had celebrated an impressive statistic: 98.1% of its use-of-force incidents, it found, fell within the department’s policy.

But that use of force statistic only existed because department supervisors sometimes simply failed to pass along some known policy violations for further examination, the investigation found.

A systematic review of Orange county deputies’ use-of-force reports revealed that few included descriptions of de-escalation tactics that they tried before using violent force. It was not clear, the investigators wrote, whether the deputies had left out these details, or whether they “are not routinely attempting to de-escalate situations at all”.

In one incident, deputies tried to wake up a person who appeared to be drunk and passed out in a ditch. Rather than talking to him, the deputies tried to put handcuffs on him while he was sleeping, and then punched him in the face when he resisted, the report found.

In another incident, a mother called for help with an adult son with schizophrenia, and told deputies explicitly that there were no weapons in the house and that the knives had been hidden. When the son did not comply with deputies’ commands and walked away, the four deputies who responded grabbed him and pulled him down the stairs and into a table, breaking a vase in the process, then wrestled him into handcuffs on the floor. As justification for this use of force, they cited his potential access to weapons.

While Orange county’s office of independent review recommended multiple changes to the sheriff’s department’s policies and training in order to “better prevent avoidable harms”, only the sheriff has the authority to enforce those changes.

Sergio Perez, the executive director of the office, said that he hoped the report would lead to a “proactive” response by the department. Too often, he said, investigations into a department’s use of force come in the aftermath of a single tragic, high-profile event, which can make broader policy changes more challenging.

“This is intended to help identify the seeds, the cause, of those kinds of events – so we can proactively work to mitigate them,” Perez said.

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