Jerry Threet runs Sonoma County's Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. The office was created last year in response to the shocking killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013 by Sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus.
Threet is paid $254,000 in salary and benefits and spends another quarter million dollars on an assistant, office expenses and "refreshments" for community meetings.
What are we getting for our half million bucks a year?
Threet does have the power to investigate complaints against the sheriff and his deputies. He is limited to "auditing" whether they complied with "administrative procedures," which include the rules of engagement on the use of force. He is not allowed to investigate allegations of criminal behavior. He cannot gather evidence or interview witnesses or consult forensic experts. He is only allowed to review the paper trail of a self-investigation by the sheriff after it is completed. He cannot overturn the sheriff's decision to dismiss a complaint.
In short, Threet has no meaningful authority to oversee complaints of assault, false arrest, illegal search and seizure, rape or murder (there were 26 complaints last year).
Sonoma County law enforcers are notorious for excessive use of force and violation of civil rights. There is a pressing need for independent investigations of police misconduct. Threet is not independent of the sheriff he is supposed to monitor; he views his job as giving the community "assurances that these investigations are being done appropriately."
In a telephone interview, Threet said he is satisfied with the six investigations presented to him so far by Sheriff Steve Freitas. He has not audited the sheriff's self-exonerating "investigation" of the killing of Lopez, because, he says, "No one has asked me to audit it."
So I asked Threet to audit it. A few days later, he emailed me that due to "limited resources" he is not "inclined" to audit the Lopez case because Freitas had found that his deputy correctly followed "administrative procedures" when he shot Lopez without warning.
The sheriff's administrative procedures require that a warning be given before using lethal force. That he failed to give that warning is the core of a lawsuit launched by the Lopez family.
Peter Byrne is an investigative reporter based in Petaluma.
Open Mic is a weekly feature in the 'Bohemian.' We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write email@example.com.