City Officials Demand Oversight of Sheriff’s Department After Jail Fight Dismissed

A ballot measure may be required to set up an oversight body for the Sheriff's Department amid new allegations of inmate abuse.

Appetite for stricter oversight of the Sheriff’s Department is growing after details emerged that its deputies may have inmates to fight, gladiator-style. 

In January District Attorney’s Office dismissed the 2015 charges against three deputies, citing destroyed evidence and an improper relationship between their criminal probe and the Sheriff’s Department’s internal investigation. The deputies allegedly forced them to fight by withholding food and took bets on who would win, igniting a city scandal that resulted in civil lawsuits and investigations.

But around the same time, the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi filed a formal complaint on behalf of 31 people incarcerated in county jails, alleging a range of abuse, assault, and improper strip searches. 

Concerned over the new allegations and Sheriff’s Departments handlings of the investigations, Supervisor Shamann Walton called for a hearing. On Thursday, when the issue was heard at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, Walton promised it would not be just another hearing without concrete action. 

“You do not lose your humanity because you are incarcerated,” Walton said. “These allegations are currently investigated by the Sheriff’s Department and that cannot continue to happen.”

Instead, Walton proposed an oversight body similar to the Police Commission’s, a task force, or possibly expanding the Department of Police Accountability’s (DPA) ability to investigate citizen complaints.

But Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, who is also running for district attorney, expressed concerns that — with roughly 50 employees — the DPA doesn’t have the resources or authority to act on sustained grievances.

“We need consistency and reliability in investigating these incidents,” Boudin said. “People making accusations, along with those accused, have a right to a set process to know they’re being treated fairly.”

Cristine DeBerry, the District Attorney’s chief of staff, also shared their difficulties in being able to investigate the case from the beginning, which could have allowed them to build a stronger case. They re-opened the jail fight case after former-Deputy Scott Neu claimed his “compelled statements” from the Sheriff’s internal investigation — which can’t be used in criminal charges — were misused. Ultimately, DeBerry said there is a lack of visibility into how or even what the department is investigating.

Sheriff Vicky Hennessy did share how she responded to the newest allegations, saying she turned it over to DPA on Dec. 3 and that it would be passed onto the proper law enforcement departments if criminal conduct is found. When Walton asked if Hennessy found the system of investigations problematic, she carefully acknowledged as an elected official that it may not be politically popular.

“I think that’s no longer the model that the public will support,” Hennessey said. “This is a process that will need refinement, conversation and will take time to transition.”

Notably, Adachi publicized the Sheriff’s two highest-profile scandals in recent history. But this time around, the department’s watchdogs — including those carrying on Adachi’s legacy — want a different outcome that may require a ballot measure to institute. 

Whether that will be implemented in time to bring justice for the often young, poor, incarcerated people of color who were allegedly forced to fight one another, and who couldn’t speak for themselves at Thursday’s hearing, only time will tell.

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