Calif. senator calls for audit of Alameda County Sheriff's Office, jail after 2 Investigates report

A California senator is calling on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to approve an audit of the sheriff’s office after several “troubling reports,” including one by 2 Investigates that highlighted the story of a pregnant woman who ended up giving birth alone in a jail cell while deputies allegedly ignored her cries for help.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern said he welcomes any audit while the president of the board of supervisors, Richard Valle, expressed concerns about the cost of a full audit to taxpayers. 

In a Feb. 15 letter to Valle, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) noted the 2 Investigates’ reporting in November, which found that at least 29 women have sued the sheriff, alleging abuse and mistreatment, since 2014.

Women sue Santa Rita over humiliating treatment; sheriff says facility is 'best big jail in the nation' 

The sheriff has said in the past his department is a target of lawsuits from inmates and attorneys seeking money from the county. 

“We can no longer excuse such conduct as an isolated incident,” Skinner wrote. “A strong performance audit will generate crucial evaluative data that can thoroughly assess all the current practices and policies while provide lifesaving recommendations for implementation.”

Skinner also told 2 Investigates she is extremely skeptical of how the sheriff’s money is being spent. As the jail population has decreased significantly, the sheriff’s budget has grown by $144 million in the last decade. The sheriff’s budget this year is just over $440 million. 

Skinner’s letter came at the urging of the Ella Baker Human Rights Center in Oakland, where senior organizer Jose Bernal has closely watched the sheriff’s office and the jail.

In addition to the treatment of women, Bernal is concerned that in the last five years, the sheriff’s office has experienced at least 33 in-custody deaths.

Sheriff department data obtained by 2 Investigates shows that the majority of deaths were a result of suicide or natural causes. And the data also shows the number of deaths has been trending downward.

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, said the budget is ballooning because of the rising costs of housing inmates, and paying employee salaries and benefits. He said a financial audit will find the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office needs more money. 

“We welcome any audit. We welcome anyone to crack our books of the Sheriff's Office, but they may not like what they find,” Kelly said. "You have to take into consideration we take in over 40,000 people per year and they are some of the most at-risk citizens in our community. Until we're ready to have the mental health crisis conversation in our communities, particularly in this county that has a higher mental health concern than other counties, we're going to see people being treated through criminal justice system. We know we are saving lives at the jail."

As to Skinner specifically, Kelly said: "I'm not sure she understands exactly what we do. She hasn't reached out to us, she has not communicated with us. We welcome her to do that." 

Valle said he personally spoke to Ahern about the senator’s call-to-action. He understands Skinner’s concerns, but said the board has not discussed the issue yet as a group. 

Valle said more discussion is needed to possibly narrow the scope of a financial audit.

“The question is, ‘Do we want the entire department to be audited or just portions of it audited?’ ” Valle said. “[The sheriff] has about 1,700 personnel. That’s a large department and that would be a huge undertaking.”

The exact cost of a full financial audit has not been calculated yet. Depending on the scope, the price to taxpayers could range from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions. 

The Ella Baker’s Bernal, however, sent 2 Investigates a proposed scope of an audit and a quote from Harvey Rose and Associates, a reputable Bay Area auditor. The agency estimated the cost to be between $165,000 and $200,000. Rose, who conducts audits for San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Los Angeles as well said the work would require about 1,000 hours of work over six to nine months.

Skinner said the scope and cost of an audit should be discussed. But she added that investing in preventing future egregious cases involving the sheriff’s office, such as having a woman give birth in a jail cell, is something that should be formally looked at by an outside, independent auditor.

“These are very troubling incidents at the sheriff’s department that could be indicators of something very deeply wrong with staffing allocations or procedures, which you can’t get unless you have an audit,” she said recently at her Sacramento office.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The spouse of an employee at KTVU works in Sen. Skinner’s office.