The SLO County grand jury isn't feeling the love these days. Its members are hurt that the community doesn't recognize its value as a toothless government watchdog.
Don't you guys know that the grand jury is basically the same as a law enforcement civilian oversight committee?
I didn't, and it's not. But the jury felt the need to highlight its importance in a press release it sent out on Nov. 30.
"Over the last year, there have been a number of incidents involving various law enforcement agencies that have raised concerns within the community. Some believe that the agencies have not been transparent in releasing information regarding these incidents. This frustration has resulted in renewed calls for the creation of a 'citizen review board' to oversee all local law enforcement agencies in San Luis Obispo County," the grand jury states in the release.
That's what the grand jury's for, according to the grand jury, which made no mention of what these "incidents" were or how many or with what agencies. The grand jury is the "legally recognized 'civil watchdog,'" the release said. You guys obviously don't get it!
I can list a few recent incidents for those of you who aren't in the know: There's the 2017 death of Andrew Holland while he was in custody at the SLO County Jail, where he was restrained in a chair for almost two days (and a handful of other in-custody deaths). Let's not forget the great gun caper of 2019, where ex-SLO Police Department Chief Deanna Cantrell left her gun in an El Pollo Loco bathroom and instigated an essentially illegal search of a residence and other shady type things, lying to the public in the process. And how could we miss the plethora of issues involved with former Paso Robles Police Department Sgt. Christopher McGuire and the sexual assault allegations against him that never made their way into a courtroom because SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow decided he didn't want to prosecute.
Umm, also there's that whole SLOPD officer-involved shooting of a dog in 2019. Oh, and the fact that law enforcement agencies deployed tear gas on peaceful protesters in downtown SLO this past summer. A history of unprosecuted sexual assault and rape allegations in San Luis Obispo—and that one time SLOPD Sgt. Chad Pfarr told New Times that victims often "conjured up" their supposed sexual assaults because they were wasted when it happened.
Most recently—and perhaps the thing that's freshest on everyone's mind—there are the allegations that the SLO County District Attorney's Office is basically trying to put words in witnesses' mouths so that it can persecute (not prosecute) Tianna Arata and her fellow activists for protesting against systemic racism in law enforcement.
It certainly seems that the only way the public gets any specific information about any of these things is through the court system—and not our resident "civil watchdog." And often, none of these complaints nor the investigations that might be tied to them see the light of day. There seems to be a decided lack of transparency when it comes to investigations of law enforcement agencies.
But maybe I'm being too harsh. Let me check the grand jury's watchdoggy reports!
As far as the Andrew Holland case is concerned, the jury mentioned it in one report during the 2016-17 session and one in the 2017-18 session. And both of those reports involved the grand jury's regular duty of "inspecting" local detention facilities. So the specific allegations of law enforcement misconduct against Holland or the others who died in custody weren't quite the focus of either report.
In 2016-17: "The grand jury took an initial look at the death of four inmates from the county jail between July 2016 and 2017." But, the report goes on to say, the jury was limited by time and other constraints, so it recommended that the SLO County Sheriff's Office and county Health Agency conduct a joint review of everything to make sure it was up to snuff. It's always good when an agency investigates itself!
What the grand jury did not do was a thorough investigation or review of the deaths. They were mentioned in passing.
In 2017-18: "The reader may wonder why this and other reports issued by the 2017-18 San Luis Obispo Grand Jury do not discuss recent deaths at the county jail." Yes, actually, I was just wondering that!
Welp, the report said, other people with more resources are already looking into the deaths, so we decided it'd be best to leave the investigating to those experts!
Civilian oversight boards investigate specific complaints, not overarching themes. They look into issues in particular cases that include particular law enforcement officers. And the whole point of these boards is to give the public a more transparent view of law enforcement. And quite frankly, the jury's watchdoggery is giving the public exactly zero transparency when it comes to these issues.
Don't worry, though, if you've got a complaint, you can call them! But first, you have to go through the proper channels at whatever law enforcement agency you're complaining about. Then you can call them. And maybe they'll look into it—or maybe they won't. You know? It's really their prerogative. Δ
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