OAKLAND, Calif. - Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern is defending his hiring of 47 deputies who received "not suited" results on their psychological exams saying he got bad information giving him the OK to do so – despite the state agency that administers those exams countering they've never allowed this practice.
In his first interview since sending a letter to the deputies relieving them of their law enforcement duties because they received a "D. Not Suited" on their psych tests, Ahern insisted that in years past, he was told he could hire candidates who earned these low results.
The multiple choice tests are administered by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, a government agency that oversees the hiring and training of peace officers in the state. KTVU was the first to break the story last week.
"POST told us we could do this over multiple years," Ahern said. "You used to be able to get this letter grade from psychologists. This was a mistake based on misinformation by POST."
In a phone interview on Friday, Ahern said that he was told that a "poorly suited" category, or a "D" grade was allowed, because candidates could also be judged on 12 other factors to determine a candidate's overall fitness for the job.
As for why he would want to hire a "poorly suited" employee, Ahern answered that candidates also undergo six months in the academy and an 18-month probationary period – all of which, he said, would allow supervisors to vet them on their performance and suitability.
"There is a margin of discretion we have," Ahern said. "We have our own checks and balances to monitor our employees."
Ahern said he received this information verbally, in emails and voicemails as far back as 2015 and "we've been working off this misguided information." He said the "poorly suited" category used to be a notch above "not suited," but at some point, he said, the semantics changed.
When asked to provide proof of this communication, spokesman Lt. Ray Kelly said he would love to make the evidence public because it "validates our position," but he couldn't, because "as you know, it’s now in the hands of attorneys and officials."
Disputing sheriff's claims on psych exams
POST spokeswoman Meagan Poulos disputed Ahern's allegations.
"There has never been a grading system," she said in reference to the psych exam, which is given to candidates to try to root out prejudice, immaturity and anger issues and find out if the peace officer has integrity, compassion and is a team player.
Poulos said after this hiring issue was revealed, she went back to her background specialist who has worked at POST since 2007 – the same year Ahern first took office.
"And we confirmed it again. The answer to whether we ever had a grading system is an adamant no," Poulos said.
Poulos explained that a psychologist has to sign a document stating either: "I certify this candidate as suitable," or "No, I do not certify this candidate as suitable."
"It's either yes or no," Poulos said. "And if they don't pass, they cannot be legally hired."
As for a resolution to these two competing versions, the board of supervisors is already gearing up for potential lawsuits.
And Poulos said POST is expected to issue its findings after its consultants were sent to review the matter last week.
"There will be a conclusion to this at some point," Poulos said.
What other agencies do
KTVU surveyed other police departments in the Bay Area to see what their psych exam processes have been.
San Jose and San Francisco police said they have only used a two-category system – suitable or unsuitable – to determine the results of a psychological test and has never hired an unsuitable candidate.
The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office referred all questions pertaining to certifying a candidate to a POST psychologist, but spokesman Jimmy Lee said they only hire candidates "who have met the rigorous hiring requirements" established by POST.
The Marin County Sheriff detailed a ranking system more similar to what Ahern described, adding the caveat that ultimately, someone would have to be deemed suitable to be hired.
Capt. Scott Harrington said that in the past, the Marin County Sheriff used an internal three-tier system where the candidate is either "psychologically acceptable; recommended for hire," "acceptable, though a slightly below average candidate or "unacceptable; not recommended for hire." If the candidate received a "not recommended, they are not hired." Harrington added that they rank candidates from 1 to 7 with a 4 meeting the acceptable level.
A candidate who earned a 4 – like a young person without a lot of life experience – could be hired, Harrington said, as long as they also passed the psych exam with a "suitable." He added that this "middle ground" candidate would also have a noted psychological reservation in his or her file as a flag for supervisors to keep an eye on them during training period.
But Harrington acknowledged that the new updated POST declarations allow for only either suitable or unsuitable.
In Hayward, police officer Cassondra Fovel said that candidates receive a letter grade of A,B or C – which are all considered suitable – or an F, which is not suitable.
"With our psychologist, there is no D grade, as anything below a C is deemed unsuitable," Fovel said. In some cases, she said, a C grade may also be denied to be hired as a Hayward police officer.
"To our knowledge, we have never hired an unsuitable candidate," she said.
Poulos conceded that a psychologist and a law enforcement agency might use their own internal grading systems to rank a candidate informally. But when it comes down to officially certifying officers to formally hire them, she said there are only two categories POST accepts: Suited or not suited.
"The rating/grading system is allowed," Poulos said. "It's just not a POST standard. So long as the medical professional signs saying the candidate is suitable, it's OK.''
Audit prompted by deputy charged with double homicide
The audit of these psych exams - dating back to 2016 – was prompted last month because Ahern said his undersheriff was "concerned one of our employees had gotten a not suited rating."
That employee, KTVU has learned, is Devin Williams Jr., a former deputy, is now being charged with killing husband and wife, Benison and Maria Tran, in their Dublin home on Sept. 7. Williams was having an affair with Maria Tran.
At a news conference shortly after the double homicide, sheriff's authorities said that Williams' record before getting hired was "immaculate," despite the fact that he did not pass the Stockton Police Department's probationary period. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office hired him in September 2021.
Deputies poised for a re-test
For now, four of the 47 deputies have returned to duty because they had actually received suitable marks on a re-test of the psych exam, which had been previously overlooked. The other deputies will retain their pay and benefits but moved to jobs that don't require a badge and gun.
In his letter to the deputies, Ahern said he was working to get them re-tested by a POST-certified psychologist. Candidates are allowed to take two tests and be hired if they pass the second one – but only if that occurs before they are hired, according to POST, putting this situation in unchartered territory.
Of the 47 deputies who received unsuitable scores, 37 were hired between 2019 and 2022, with the other 10 hired between 2016 and 2019. A total of 30 deputies worked at Santa Rita Jail. KTVU reviewed a list of about half the deputies and noticed that six worked at the San Leandro substation.
Denying allegations of nepotism
Meanwhile, more than half a dozen current and former Alameda County sheriff's employees reached out to KTVU over the last week, alleging that Ahern has been hiring whomever he wanted for years, despite their qualifications, and given preference to his friends and family.
When questioned about this, Ahern bristled, denying the allegations outright.
"That's an out-and-out lie," he said. "I have never given special favors to friends and family."
Ahern leaves his post of 15 years in January, after he was ousted in an upset election in June by Yesenia Sanchez.
On Friday, in a statement, Sanchez apologized to the deputies and said she hoped they wouldn't be cast in a negative light.
She said that when she takes helm in January, she will make sure that the sheriff's office follows all state regulations and laws governing its hiring processes.
Community groups want AG to weigh in
To ensure that this process remains independent, a coalition of community groups including the ACLU, the Coalition for Police Accountability and Faith in Action East Bay, sent a letter Monday to the Alameda County board of supervisors to appoint Sanchez as leader of the department immediately.
They also asked Attorney General Rob Bonta, who endorsed Ahern, to oversee the evaluations of deputies who have been relieved of duty, review those deputies’ history of complaints and discipline and then release that information to the public as the law allows.
Bonta's office responded that they'd review the letter, but for now, "local authorities are best-positioned to comment on the matter."