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County officials take next steps towards establishing civilian oversight of the sheriff's office

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously voted to establish a committee exploring civilian oversight
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Members of Fixin' SMC rally for civilian oversight outside the county center

The establishment of civilian oversight over the San Mateo County County Sheriff's Office seems increasingly likely after receiving strong support from the Board of Supervisors this week.

The board voted unanimously on Tuesday to create an ad hoc committee that will research and report on potential civilian oversight. Supervisors Dave Pine and Warren Slocum were appointed to the committee.

“The time is overdue to implement checks and balances for the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office,” said Jim Lawrence, board chair of Fixin’ San Mateo County, in a statement. FxSMC is a local grassroots organization working to enact effective civilian oversight of the County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2020, the California State Legislature passed AB 1185, which provides County Supervisors legislative authority to set up such oversight, including an inspector general with subpoena power over the sheriff’s office. 

FxSMC has argued that because law enforcement has the authority to detain, search, arrest and use deadly force, civilian oversight is vital to the safety of San Mateo County communities. 

“This office costs the taxpayers of this county over $300 million dollars annually, but lacks transparency, accountability, or any public reporting on how effectively and efficiently these funds are used, or on how the Sheriff's Office personnel are held to professional standards of conduct,” said Lawrence. 

Though Board President Don Horsley supported the effort, he expressed some reservations about the legal authority of the inspector general's office.

"I'm a little concerned about the inspector general and issuing subpoenas, but that is part of the legislation," Horsley said. "That is certainly something that the board subcommittee will be looking at and making recommendations on."

For his part, Supervisor David Canepa was emphatic about including an inspector general with subpoena power.

"I do believe that the civilian oversight committee should really have teeth...I believe when we move forward with this that we could really lead on this issue," he said. "This is something that I'm enthusiastic about."

A number of community members addressed the board during public comment to express their support for the proposal. 

Nancy Goodban, executive director of FxSMC, called on the board to include members of the community organization on the committee and to pass the ordinance by the end of the year. 

Beth von Emster, co-chair of the ACLU North Peninsula Chapter, said she and her organization "fully support" the establishment of civilian oversight. 

"Passing such an ordinance would show that the Board of Supervisors is committed to ensuring that the sheriff's office operates fairly and that all community members are safer in San Mateo County," she said.

Not all speakers were in favor of the ordinance, however. One resident, Abraham Hafiz Rodriguez, said that oversight would be conducted by supervisors, "not civilians," and criticized the effort as a misuse of county resources. 

"The independent constitutional function of our sheriff is an important part of the balance of powers in a functioning constitutional republic and democracy," he wrote.

Horsley admitted that, as a former sheriff, he wasn't initially in favor of civilian oversight. But he gave credit to Lawrence for convincing him of "the error of [his] ways."