After 19 in-custody deaths, a Sheriff's oversight commission must be established

  • In US
  • 2023-01-29 18:44:48Z
  • By The Desert Sun

The Coroner's Bureau of the Riverside County Sheriff's Office investigates and reports on all violent, sudden or unusual deaths of persons within the county as established by California law.

Take Coroner Case number 2022-10688. That person died on Dec. 12 in a cell of the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside.

2022-10688 is one of the 18 people who died in 2022 in custody in one of the county's five jails, managed by Sheriff Chad Bianco.

Six weeks later, the manner and mode of death, and the person's name, has still not been released to the public.

Only after extensive legal requests for records did Desert Sun reporter Christopher Damien receive causes of death for seven of the 18: One suicide, three natural deaths and three accidental injuries to self. He learned the names of many by talking to the families. The causes of deaths of the others have not been confirmed officially.

Last year was a record-breaking year for deaths in the county's jails, according to public data going back more than a decade and reported by The Desert Sun on Dec. 22.

Several families and the ACLU of Southern California have called for an outside investigation of Riverside County's record number of deaths, their causes, and whether the sheriff's department is adequately investigating them according to state law.

Trust is low after the sheriff's department broke the law by not reporting several in-custody deaths to the DOJ within 10 days. And when it did, it reported inaccurate information.

Already, there's been one death this year, on Jan. 12, in the Murrieta jail.

The department needs a transparency policy, one that details the past deaths, sets standards for how soon after a death occurs that information is released and provides clarity as to how future in-custody deaths will be handled.

But that's just the start of what is needed.

Sheriffs are elected leaders and therefore held publicly accountable through elections. Bianco was recently re-elected, and due to a quirk in state law, he will be in office until 2028. We can't wait that long for better accountability.

Bianco said several years ago he would set up a sheriff's advisory council, but didn't. In any case, his vision for the panel was unsatisfactory.

Bianco told county supervisors he would be the one to name the individuals on it and would not admit "politicians" or "attorneys."

Supervisor Manuel Perez called for a policy review but to no avail.

Riverside County Sheriff's Association President Bill Young rejected Perez's notion, saying such a review was unnecessary.

"While we understand the current spotlight on policing, we do not believe that it is constructive to have a political body demand full-scale policy reviews when they do not have the legal authority to set or change any policy that is reviewed," Young wrote.

Would Young still agree with his 2020 statement after 19 in-custody deaths?

It's high time an oversight commission is established in Riverside County - neighboring counties already have such commissions with clear templates that Riverside County could follow.

L.A. County has the Civilian Oversight Commission. San Diego has the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, developed in 1990 to "independently and impartially investigate citizen complaints against San Diego County Sheriff's deputies and probation officers."

San Diego's Review Board is composed of 11 volunteers from the county's five Supervisory Districts. Members are not affiliated with the Sheriff's Department, Probation Department, or the County of San Diego.

As of August 20, 2022, San Diego's Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board has made 26 total policy recommendations, including a Memorandum of Understanding with the San Diego Sheriff's Department for an experienced CLERB investigator to be allowed a "walk-through" of the scene of an in-custody death for the purpose of ensuring timely and independent death investigations.

L.A. County's commission's actions taken include recommendations for body-cam updated policies. The Sheriff asked the Commission to evaluate the proposed body worn cameras program and after extensive outreach through town halls and regular Commission meetings, recommendations were developed.

It's unlikely the sheriffs' departments in those two counties were keen on oversight boards, either. Yet systems were put in place in those jurisdictions so there's clearly a precedent and a mechanism for how it happens.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors should try harder to work with Bianco to create the oversight committee and to select a team of members to serve on it as San Diego does. From a fiscal viewpoint, better accountability from the sheriff's department around in-custody deaths might reduce costs to the county for lawsuits. Perhaps it's time for the Attorney General to conduct an audit as has happened in neighboring counties.

When a sheriff's department hides information, it can only contribute to anti-law enforcement sentiment, which is not what we need.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Riverside County needs a Sheriff's Department oversight commission


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