June 24, 2020 — The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 at Tuesday’s meeting to appoint an ad hoc committee to develop a model for a citizens' advisory committee for law enforcement oversight, an idea that’s been spearheaded by Troyle Tognoli, a founding member of the local Black Lives Matter chapter.
Over sixty letters poured in to the Board of Supervisors about the proposal. A few people double-dipped, and some letters were signed by more than one person, but there were about three times as many letters supporting the proposal as there were against it. One mentioned Steven Neuroth, who died in 2014 while being restrained in the Mendocino County jail. His death was caught on cameras in the jail and resulted in a $5 million dollar wrongful death payout to the deceased man’s brother by the county, the city of Willits, and the medical contractor at the jail, which has since been replaced.
Yesterday’s proposal included an ordinance describing the oversight committee, which came under criticism by Sheriff Matt Kendall. “I understand, with the national dialogue, people want to run out and see what we can fix right now,” he said. “However, one week and a carbon copied ordinance will not fix 400 years of disparity.”
Tognoli, who called in during public comment, was more focused on the goals than the form of the oversight committee. “We need to move forward on this,” she urged. “Let us not allow the conflict of how we get there to prevent us from moving forward with the demands for change.”
But Supervisor Ted Williams, who wrote a resolution to adopt the proposed ordinance, stepped on a few toes by publicizing the matter on Facebook before talking about it with the sheriff and his colleagues, which Kendall did not view as an example of collaboration. “I hope everyone understands that I am absolutely not happy with the release of this on Facebook before anybody spoke with me,” he told the board. “The manner that this was presented was not in the spirit of collaboration with any transparency. It’s easy to speak about transparency; it’s another thing to actually exercise it. I don’t agree with the proposed ordinance. It is a carbon copy of what they have in Sonoma County, which became antiquated in July of 2019. And I don’t believe that it covers anything outside the Sheriff’s Office...if this is truly a systemic issue, then are we going to look at one hundred percent of our county departments? Anybody who serves the public? I think we should probably begin looking at it as a whole.”
District Attorney David Eyster also called in, and sent a letter with eleven recent law enforcement reforms, which he said local law enforcement has implemented, “without a gripe or a whine.” Supervisor John McCowen had his own criticism of the proposed ordinance to create the oversight committee. “You’ve actually brought forward the old model of a citizens’ review committee, that does not have the ability to issue subpoena, conduct investigations, or vote for discipline,” he told his colleagues. (Supervisors Williams and John Haschak sponsored the item.) “So that is typical of committees that have been judged to be ineffective, because they have no real power,” he concluded.
Jan McGourty, a longtime mental health advocate, has worked to get Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT, for local law enforcement officers to help de-escalate encounters with people in a mental health crisis. She told supervisors she wholeheartedly supports a citizens' oversight committee. “It is through NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) member Mark Gale’s participation on such a board in Los Angeles that a program was developed to educate officers on how to manage mental health crises effectively,” she said. “Creating a crisis intervention team here was recommended by your Behavioral Health Advisory Board last year. I shared some wonderful information I gleaned from a CIT international conference I attended last summer, with your board. Yet nothing has happened. A police advisory board is one way such progressive ideas can be incorporated into the law enforcement system. The justice system portion of the county budget takes more than half of all funds available, with the Sheriff’s Office and jail taking almost forty per cent. Yet funds for health and human services are diminishing. Particularly mental health. At the same time, the needs are increasing.”
Eyster said there are already people who can answer questions or provide oversight. “The board’s processes should be deliberative, and not be legislated from the evening news,” he said. “We have subject matter experts, the sheriff being one of the top ones in the criminal law area. If you have concerns, rather than imposing a panel or the likes, why don’t you ask him to respond in writing to what your concerns are? There’s the Eight Can’t Wait program that’s out there. Why don’t you ask him to address those eight things? And then if you’re not sure about what’s presented, you have another citizen's input, called the Grand Jury. You ask the Grand Jury. They’re about to come into session, starting on July first. That is nothing but citizens from all districts in this county that get together and provide public reports on what is right and what is wrong.”
But the board voted 4-1, with Supervisor Carre Brown dissenting, on a motion made by McCowen, seconded by Williams, “That Supervisors Haschak* and (Dan) Gjerde work with Sheriff Kendall and other law enforcement agencies and citizens, including but not limited to Troye Tognoli, to develop a Mendocino model and report back to the board within sixty days.”
*note: the broadcast version of this article contained a version of the motion where Supervisor McCowen misspoke, nominating Williams to the ad hoc committee instead of Haschak.