Alameda County supervisors consider oversight over sheriff's office

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is set to consider whether to place unprecedented civilian oversight over the sheriff's office.

In general, the idea is to create an outside body of seven regular citizens who could request information, hold hearings and make recommendations to the board of supervisors – since a sheriff is elected, their power, by nature, would be more limited than over a police department.

But there are competing proposals on the table, now scheduled for a June 4 meeting.

The biggest point of contention is whether internal investigations conducted by the oversight body would first have to get the green light from the sheriff. The other is whether the oversight commission would have its own legal attorney or not.

Community members have been pushing for some type of oversight for nearly half a decade, in the wake of George Floyd's death.

"It's really common sense to government, to have checks and balances," said Nancy Goodban, a member of the California Coalition for Sheriff Oversight. "To have someone on the outside is always important. Companies have an outside auditor, no matter how good they think the CEO is. Plus, it gives the community a public voice."

In-custody death rate at Santa Rita Jail

One of the particular points of interest for community members in Alameda County has been the high in-custody death rate at Santa Rita Jail, which the sheriff's office oversees.

KTVU has tracked those jail deaths since 2014, and to date, the number stands at 69. 

One of the most notable recent cases was the 2021 death of Maurice Monk, which didn't come to light until two years later. 

Monk was dying for roughly three days at the Santa Rita Jail before anyone discovered him. In October 2023, KTVU obtained exclusive body camera video of the days leading up to Monk's death, showing how deputies threw pills and food trays into his cell, without physically checking on him to see if he was OK.

If there were a civilian oversight board, jail reform activist Bob Britton said the commissioners could demand an investigation into what happened and if the deputies performed the wellness checks appropriately. 

And even if they didn't have the power to discipline deputies, they could at least issue a public report on their findings. 

"You know, we've seen the videos on KTVU of the deputies and the, well, medical staff throwing multiple daily meals and medication on the floor while Maurice Monk lay dead or dying motionless for several days," Britton said. "We'd like to know how that happened and if anyone has been held accountable. That's just one example."

Britton used to be a union representative for the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Alameda County and is now a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails

Kimberly Graves of Hayward has also been advocating for sheriff's oversight ever since she said her son, who suffers from mental illness, was "wrongfully criminalized" in 2020. 

"I personally feel that as citizens, it is our duty to be vocal and advocate for those that are not able to advocate for themselves," Graves said. "A lot of people, like my son, are experiencing mental illness. They have drug addictions. A lot of people are homeless. And so, I feel it is very critical that we have a group of community members who can be vocal and can express the needs of the community." 

She said creating a citizen-led sheriff's oversight board allows the community an "opportunity to really, truly direct what's happening." 



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Three versions of sheriff oversight

The board of supervisors is being asked to consider three different versions of sheriff oversight. 

Two versions – one by the county counsel and another by Supervisor Elisa Márquez – propose that the sheriff would have to authorize an oversight commission investigation before any alleged deputy misconduct could go forward. 

The third proposal, drafted by the ACLU, the Coalition for Police Accountability and the League of Women Voters, does not. However, this version is not officially on the agenda, but activists are asking that it be formally adopted. 

Britton, the League of Women Voters and the Coalition for Police Accountability are pushing for the ACLU version of sheriff oversight because it gives the civilian committee investigatory authority and subpoena power. The commissioners can then provide policy recommendations that county supervisors must review and vote on as well as sufficient budgets and staff to accomplish their tasks.

"There is a flaw with two of the proposals that I call a ‘poison pill.’ The clause says that any investigation can only be conducted with the consent and approval of the sheriff," Britton said. "If the sheriff has to approve an investigation, that's not independent sheriff oversight, is it?" 

There are other differences as well. 

For instance, Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler is proposing that retired law enforcement agents as well as residents living outside Alameda County could sit on the oversight commission. She is also proposing that there would be no need for an independent attorney to represent the oversight commission. She said her office could do that. The county counsel is the official lawyer representing the interests of the county, including defending the county from lawsuits. 

Márquez's version, as well as the ACLU's version, both push for independent counsel and an Inspector General, a position with subpoena power over the sheriff. These two proposals also would mandate that the oversight commissioners live in Alameda County and would not have a law enforcement background.

The Márquez proposal also "strongly encourages" the sheriff or a senior member of her office to participate in the oversight commission meetings, but does not mandate it. 

In addition, the ACLU, League of Women Voters and the Coalition for Police Accountability also want more than seven commissioners on the panel, and they don't want the supervisors to pick all of them; they want a selection panel to recruit and recommend the commissioners.  

All that said, the sheriff's oversight commission could never have as much power as the Oakland Police Commission – the strongest civilian oversight body in the country. Police commissioners in Oakland have the power to shape policy, discipline officers and even fire the chief. 

That's because sheriffs in the United States are elected by voters, and any oversight body would only have the authority to make advisory recommendations. 

Still, supporters of sheriff oversight say it's still worth it to have this supervision to be able to demand public information, issue subpoenas, investigate misconduct and then write public reports, hold public hearings and provide advice to supervisors, who hold the purse strings over the sheriff's budget. 

Other sheriff's offices in California either have oversight or are working toward it.

They include: Los Angeles, Marin, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma and Santa Clara County, according to the ACLU, which has been tracking the issue

Sheriff supports some type of oversight

KTVU reached out to Alameda County Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez's communications team on Friday to see how she felt about any type of oversight, but received no response. 

However, in August 2023, Sanchez said in a wide-ranging interview with KTVU that she supports civilian oversight, reminding the public that oversight over an elected sheriff is different from a police chief. 

Sanchez pointed out that "there's some misconception that this body would be able to discipline our staff in any way. That's not a power that's within that bill, AB 1185."

She said that what a civilian oversight board would be able to do "provide oversight as far as being able to generate some information, reporting, making recommendations. But the sheriff's office wouldn't have to take on those recommendations. They would just be recommendations."

Sanchez did say that she was willing to work with an oversight body. 

"I hope that there's no misunderstanding about what that entity is going to be able to do," she said at the time. "Because I think that there is that misconception that they would be able to discipline people. And that's just not [going to happen.] I'm not going to be part of that." 


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Supervisors vote vs. ballot measure

Britton is directing his focus on the Board of Supervisors – more than he is on the sheriff –  to enact the oversight.

"Sheriff Sanchez was elected on a reform platform," Britton said. "She defeated the incumbent [Sheriff Greg Ahern] by an overwhelming margin in a three-way race, and she promised to support sheriff oversight. So I don't think that Sheriff Sanchez is the problem. I think it's the Board of Supervisors. I think members of the Board of Supervisors would just as soon side with the deputy sheriffs' association rather than the citizens of Alameda County."

KTVU also reached out to all five supervisors to see how they planned to vote.

Only three returned emails, but none provided any in-depth conversations, though Nate Miley's office said they were considering an interview request.

"As the chair of the Public Protection Committee, I am committed to advancing Alameda County’s multi-year effort to implement a transparent and accountable sheriff oversight system," Márquez said in an email.  "I will continue to urge each of my colleagues to be present and fully participate in this long-awaited, critical public safety action item."

Miley was the first supervisor to request this oversight as far back as 2020. 

If the supervisors don't vote for sheriff oversight, Britton said it's possible to bring the issue up to the voters on a ballot initiative.

What he thinks would be terrible is if the supervisors approve a watered-down oversight version – one where the sheriff would have to OK any investigations. 

"It would be much better to have nothing at all," Britton said, "because then we would have the impetus to go forward with the citizen initiative." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez