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Civilian oversight of law enforcement and jails comes to County of Santa Clara

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                        

SAN JOSE – The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors today voted unanimously to create the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, establishing civilian monitoring of law enforcement and corrections in the County.

“Meaningful civilian monitoring is an essential component of the reform effort that has been under way for more than two years,” said Board President Joe Simitian, who initially proposed the new office last year. “It was time to take the policy discussions we’ve had and turn them into tangible change.”

Following the tragic death of jail inmate Michael Tyree on August 26, 2015, the Board of Supervisors created a Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations to study options for bettering circumstances within the jail. Over the next year, the Blue Ribbon Commission and more than a dozen other organizations compiled a list of 623 recommendations to improve conditions within the jails.

At the same time, departments across the County undertook significant steps on their own to improve conditions within the jail. Between April of 2016 and April of 2017, the Board’s Finance and Government Operations Committee (which Simitian chairs) oversaw the discussion, review, and implementation of the vast majority of these recommendations.

“The Blue Ribbon Commission made it clear that meaningful civilian oversight was one of their most important recommendations; in fact, one of their two highest priorities” said Simitian. “Now it’s our responsibility to follow through, and turn that recommendation into real, lasting change.”

The new ordinance reflects input from the community, County staff and the Department of the Sheriff; as well as nation-wide research as to best practices, the testimony and recommendations of eight national and international experts in the field, and the recommendations of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section.

The Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring will have five primary responsibilities:

  • Operations monitoring and audit (that is, monitoring of day to day operations; audit and monitor the investigation of complaints)
  • Receive complaints
  • Policy analysis and recommendations
  • Community outreach
  • Mediation

The County will engage an independent contractor to perform the functions of the office.

The ordinance also creates a Community Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring Committee, which will be made up of community members appointed after the independent monitor is in place.

“Having meaningful independent oversight of our jail and law enforcement is a crucial step in building and maintaining the public’s trust,” said Ron Hansen of People Acting in Community Together (PACT) San Jose. “There are many reforms that need to be made, but the establishment of this new monitor is a strong start.” 

Simitian said his interest in civilian oversight of County law enforcement emerged in the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, three and a half years ago (well before the Tyree tragedy in the County’s jail). “I asked myself, what can we do to make sure we never have a Ferguson here in Santa Clara County?”

“Body-worn cameras for our officers seemed like an important first step, along with Implicit Bias training for our law enforcement and corrections staff. The Board agreed, and we’ve pushed forward on both fronts. The third key ingredient” said Simitian, “is meaningful civilian oversight, which I initially envisioned for the enforcement Deputies out in the community. The beating death in our jail, however, highlighted the need for monitoring on both the correctional side and the patrol side of operations in the Sheriff’s Department.”

“This was a challenging, but critical endeavor,” said Simitian. “Frankly, getting it right took longer than I hoped. But striking the right balance is key. We have to keep the public safe, and protect their due process rights. We have to keep our officers safe, and protect their due process rights. And we have to build and maintain the public’s trust in law enforcement, which is in everybody’s interest.”