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California counties team up to push for sheriff's oversight

San Mateo County is among seven counties in the newly formed California Coalition for Sheriff's Oversight.
Members of Fixin' SMC rally for civilian oversight outside the county center

In an ongoing effort to enhance law enforcement transparency, San Mateo County's journey towards establishing a Sheriff's Oversight Committee has been consistent, albeit gradual.

Last November, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support oversight of the sheriff's office. Supervisors asked staff and an ad hoc committee to return to the board with a proposal that would involve an inspector general and a board. It was the first time the board discussed sheriff oversight publicly after support from the community. 

Now, activists in favor of sheriff's oversight are joining forces with other jurisdictions nationwide to get the ball rolling. 

The newly formed "California Coalition for Sheriff's Oversight" brings together counties actively working on or already have oversight systems, including Alameda, Marin, Monterey, San Mateo and Santa Cruz. A notable voice in this movement is Fixin' San Mateo County (FxSMC), a local entity advocating for civilian oversight to introduce a balanced approach to county law enforcement.

Jim Lawrence, the Board Chair of Fixin' San Mateo County, said the group has kept busy meeting with community members and local politicians to discuss why oversight is essential and how state law can help implement it. 

Backing their vision, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, over 50 political leaders, and more than 20 local civil rights groups have endorsed FxSMC's sheriff oversight initiative.

"All [of the] the counties are coming together because we're essentially doing the same thing working on the same state jurisdiction, which is [Assembly Bill] 1185, trying to convince our various board of supervisors to step up and move forward," said Lawrence. 

FxSMC has submitted a draft ordinance to the Board of Supervisors to begin creating a civilian oversight board. 

Lawrence said the coalition provides a platform to discuss what is and needs to be fixed regarding sheriff oversight around the state to come up with a plan for how to implement oversight in San Mateo County. 

AB 1185, passed in 2020, empowers California counties to establish citizens' oversight boards for law enforcement. San Francisco, Sonoma, and Sacramento counties have already embraced various forms of oversight aligned with AB 1185's principles. Still, some counties, including San Mateo, have encountered challenges in its implementation.

Among the challenges driving the effort for oversight in San Mateo County is the disproportionate number of people of color arrested or stopped by law enforcement, according to Lawrence. Advocates believe that a well-structured civilian oversight board, supported by an Inspector General, can proactively address and propose solutions to mitigate this issue. 

Adding to the concern, advocates highlight the current opacity surrounding San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office operations. They argue for a more transparent review of high-consequence cases.

"We believe that if we had the right checks and balances as a civilian oversight board within the inspector general, we can begin to address and propose some solutions or recommendations, you know, to hopefully eradicate this problem and move us into the 21st century," Lawrence said. 

An essential focus for San Mateo County's pending oversight committee will be collaborating with Sheriff Christina Corpus, who took office in January. 

Corpus hasn’t resisted the formation of an oversight committee, and her commitment to "progressive" policies—centered around transparency and accountability—provides a promising foundation for it. 

"We've been able to get just a tremendous amount of public support not only from other organizations throughout the county but all of our political leaders have stepped forward," said Lawrence. "We just believe that at this point in time with a new sheriff, we're working hand in hand with her, so that this can be reality." 

The coalition meets monthly to exchange best practices, provide updates on progress and brainstorm ideas to implement oversight in their respective counties. 

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