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The call to strengthen police oversight in Sonoma County

The community group Los Cien held a virtual forum on July 30 focusing on whether the County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) should be strengthened by the Board of Supervisors by putting the Evelyn Cheatham Ordinance (the Ordinance) on the ballot for the next general election. 

Evelyn Cheatham, who recently passed, was a widely-respected citizen and former IOLERO advisory committee member.

The forum panel included current IOLERO director Karlene Navarro; Sylvia Lemus and Omar Paz, both on the task force that led to the creation of IOLERO; and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

IOLERO was formed in 2015 after the Andy Lopez shooting. Several factors have led to a current groundswell of community demand for law enforcement reform here in Sonoma County. The recent police killing of George Floyd, and the national demand by Black Lives Matter for police reform have added urgency. IOLERO is also currently under-funded and under-staffed and has no teeth to compel the Sheriff’s cooperation.

Omar Paz listed key Ordinance points: that IOLERO is strengthened to National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) standards, that the director’s position be strengthened to include subpoena power, that the director only be removable by a 4/5th vote, that the IOLERO Community Advisory Committee be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, and that the IOLERO budget be tied to 1% of the Sheriff’s budget.

Director Navarro recapped other options for strengthening IOLERO: that the Board of Supervisors amend the IOLERO charter; that there be a public vote on the Ordinance, that the Board modify the Ordinance and citizens vote, or that the Board approves/or modifies the Ordinance by a vote of their own.

There seemed to be agreement among the panelists that if changed, the Ordinance should be strengthened and any modifications should not weaken it. Navarro made some suggestions to add to the Ordinance, and said there was time for further community discussion, and still have the county counsel to craft the ordinance. Navarro feels the African American community has not been adequately involved.

A virtual meeting will be held by IOLERO on August 3 at 6 PM on what changes the IOLERO advisory committee and the public want to see. Omar Paz expressed “an extreme sense of urgency” to finish up, since there is an August 7 deadline to file the Ordinance for the November election, and that the next Supervisors meeting on the topic is August 4

Panelist Sylvia Lemus questioned whether the Ordinance will pass at a 50% plus one threshold. If it doesn’t pass, will the Supervisors adopt the Cheatham Ordinance or a modified stronger one? Lemus said there is momentum now and “we all want a stronger IOLERO.”

IOLERO has been embroiled in law enforcement politics from day one. At stake is the principle that in a democracy, no government agency should have unlimited power with no citizen checks. Ultimately, citizens approve laws, and grant law enforcement the powers of institutional use of force to enforce laws.

The Sheriff prefers as much independence from oversight as possible. As Sylvia Lemus noted, Sheriff Mark Essick, was on the task force in 2013-14 which advised the Supervisors on the creation of IOLERO, and Essick “was against all the recommendations.”

Director Navarro has been seen by reform advocates as being too cozy with the Sheriff. Navarro was asked by panel moderator Lorez Bailey if the perception that she was against the Ordinance was true? “No,” Navarro said. This was “divisive and dishonest rhetoric,” She said she was merely being pragmatic, and noted “not everybody is for police reform,” and that it is realistic to anticipate a well-funded campaign against reform.

With the Cheatham Ordinance, tensions exist between Navarro, the Sheriff, and the reformists. Who are the bad guys here? Who is antagonizing whom? Who is preventing cooperation to achieve civil rights and more tolerant and just community policing? Ordinance supporters see a systemic history of law enforcement bias against people of color and see this as fundamentally antagonistic and lacking cooperation. Overall, we see a community wrestling with legitimate national law enforcement issues, layered and clouded with political divisiveness from the president with racist “law and order” dog whistles.

Sheriff’s deputies see they are being painted by reformists with an unfair broad brush. For example, well-respected Deputy and Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez have made strong community policing and change of tone efforts in Sonoma Valley.

Supervisor Hopkins sees an “overwhelming outpouring of support” for the Ordinance and noted support by the county NAACP and from Chair of the county Human Rights Commission D’mitra Smith.

Said Omar Paz, “our chance to make a difference is now… the time is now for action, anything short of that is a disservice to Andy Lopez.” Karlene Navarro said she is not just looking to have the NAACP sign a letter, she wants to hear from Black citizens at the August 3 IOLERO public meeting.

Supervisors Hopkins and Zane favor putting the Ordinance to a popular vote. Said Hopkins, “we have a moral imperative to allow voters to make a decision.” Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin has claimed the Ordinance would not be legal, however, no Los Cien panel questions or points were made regarding the Ordinance’s legality. Supervisor Gorin will likely be the swing vote.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.
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