SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A disturbing report from the Auditor of the State of California takes aim at the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the board that's supposed to provide independent oversight.
The audit says the Sheriff's Department has failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of individuals in its custody.
According to the audit, from 2006 to 2020, 185 people died in San Diego County's jails. The report says that's "one of the highest totals among counties in the State."
It also says, “High rate of deaths in San Diego County's jails compared to other counties raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff's Department's policies and practices. In fact, our review identified deficiencies with how the Sheriff's Department provides care for and protects incarcerated individuals, which likely contributed to in‑custody deaths."
The report states that the Sheriff's Department did not take sufficient steps to prevent the high number of deaths in its jails.
It says, "Alarmingly, a total of 52 individuals in the San Diego Sheriff's Department's jails died by suicide over the past 15 years, which is more than twice the number in each of the comparable counties."
The report also called out what it described as significant deficiencies in the Sheriff's Department's Policies and Procedures. It says there were insufficient health evaluations at intake, inconsistent follow-up care, inadequate safety checks, and unnecessary delays in performing life-saving measures.
According to the audit, "In at least eight of the 30 cases we reviewed, individuals had serious medical or mental health needs that health staff did not identify or communicate to detention staff at intake. Five of these individuals died within four days of their arrest."
It also stated, "The problems we identified with the Sheriff's Department's policies are in part the result of statewide corrections standards that are not sufficiently robust. The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) establishes in regulation the minimum standards that local detention facilities must follow. Every local jail system throughout the State uses these standards to create policies for inmate safety and care. However, some of the standards are insufficient for maintaining the safety of incarcerated individuals."
The Auditor concluded that the Legislature must take action to ensure that the Sheriff's Department implements meaningful changes.
In response to the audit, the Sheriff's Department released a statement saying in part, "State auditors conducted their review of the Sheriff's Department from July 2021 to December 2021. The audit was extensive and included every aspect of Sheriff's Department's record of in-custody deaths, policies, procedures, facility maintenance and staff records. The department was open and transparent during the audit. We participated and cooperated throughout the entire process. We take the findings of the audit seriously and are taking action to implement the recommendations. Many of JLAC's recommendations are ones that we provided and completely support. They also align with our existing practices, current and future plans, as well as proactive efforts to continuously improve health care services and the safety of our jails. These recommendations will require substantial investment in the existing jail system. They include, but are not limited to, hiring more personnel and renovations at our detention facilities. The County Board of Supervisors has already approved funding for more healthcare staff and we are actively working to fill these positions. Infrastructure and technology investments to the existing jails are planned and moving forward. The addition of programs such as medication-assisted treatment and mental health evaluations at intake are already in process or in place. The full text of our response to the audit can be accessed here [gcc02.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]."
The audit also looked at San Diego County's Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). The board is responsible for reviewing complaints of misconduct and investigating deaths arising in connection with the actions of officers employed by the Sheriff's Department or Probation Department.
According to the audit, CLERB has failed to provide effective, independent oversight of in-custody deaths.
The audit says, "In violation of its own rules and regulations, CLERB's investigations of the deaths of individuals in the Sheriff's Department's custody have not been independent, thorough, or timely. CLERB has not independently interviewed witnesses or visited the initial scenes of the deaths. Further, it has not consistently performed thorough investigations, and it relies largely on the reviews the Sheriff's Department conducts."
In an interview with ABC 10News, CLERB Executive Officer Paul Parker said they agree with recommendations made by the State. These include ensuring that it completes investigations of all deaths that occur in the Sheriff's Department's custody within the one‑year time limit and revise its rules and regulations by May 2022 to prioritize these investigations above all other investigations.
"The recommendations are fair," Parker said. "These are things that have already been in process. Things that we've been doing anyway."
Parker noted that a lot of this report pertains to issues from the past that nobody presently on the review board had anything to do with.
"Now, with the appropriate staffing, it's going to be timely," he said. "With our recommendations to respond to death scenes, if that's given to us, there will be definitely independence. As far as thorough, now that investigators are not up against that one-year clock, because we have additional staffing, our investigations will be more thorough. We're already starting to see that over the last couple of months."