Sebastopol Police Department audit released to the public
, , June 24, 2021
When protests against George Floyd’s killing spread across Sonoma County last summer, the Sebastopol City Council decided to contract attorney Jerry Threet for an audit to see where its own police department stood with the city’s values, according to Mayor Una Glass.
The retired director and founder of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) presented his independent civilian review of the Sebastopol Police Department to the council and the public Thursday night, June 17, over Zoom at a special city council meeting.
Threet’s deep dive into Sebastopol Police Department (SPD) started with reviewing records between August and November of 2020 and then interviewing employees from November 2020 and early January 2021, he said. From last October to this January, Threet said he examined the department’s policies compared to nationally established best practices.
Though he summarized numerous recommendations from the review to improve SPD’s practices, he said he felt hopeful for the department’s future under its new police chief, Kevin Kilgore.
Kilgore and Don Mort, the interim police chief before him, worked with Threet on the audit that examined the department’s policies, practices, training and organizational culture, Glass said. Both attended the presentation that included receiving public comments and questions from the community and then a response period to those questions.
Findings and recommendations from the review
Among his recommendations, Threet said achieving full staffing “is one of the highest priorities in helping address multiple issues in this review,” and in recruitment, hiring and retention especially.
Numerous shift vacancies from employee injuries and absences led to mandatory overtime for all employees for a while, he said.
Besides the potential for delayed responses without adequate staffing, he said, “When you have ongoing mandatory overtime, it can create what can be somewhat of a vicious cycle where injury can be more likely and performance can suffer for individual employees who may feel tired and overworked.”
Threet said the cycle can continue with how this affects retention and recruitment, but he had hope that Kilgore would provide the stable leadership to help that.
Next, Threet said SPD started doing regular performance evaluations in 2020, though it’s been “a standard best practice in most sectors and certainly in policing for some time now.”
Still, he said the department began making such advances before he arrived and more during his review, adding that Mort started a practice of ongoing supervisory notes for every employee’s files “whenever they do something really well or when they do something that causes a complaint or needs improvement.”
The notes help create an “ongoing dated record” of their performance to look back on at annual employee performance evaluations, according to Threet, who recommended better training for evaluators “to increase the consistency and the objectivity of the evaluations.”
The report also greatly recommends getting direct input from people on the service they receive from officers and employees and creating ways to measure the “customer service.”
Threet named understaffing again as a significant factor in training issues at SPD, since mandatory overtime makes it harder to pull employees out of the field. He said the report calls for SPD to get its employees up to speed with “perishable skills” training required by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (California POST).
“Many employees have not been caught up on that for a little bit and we need to get them caught up on the training they’re required to have every year,” he said.
“But equally important, the recommendation is that we strengthen the nontraditional training that is increasingly important in today’s policing environment, especially with a focus on active bystander training,” he said.
“That means training officers when they see something that they believe shouldn’t be happening, to intervene with their partners and say something like, ‘Hey buddy, take a timeout, I’ll take this one.’ Or just a tap on the shoulder is sometimes enough to let an officer know things might be going in a direction they shouldn’t be going in.”
Furthermore, the review calls for de-escalation and implicit bias training and choosing “in-house trainers” of new employees that uphold the department’s values.
Understaffing also impacted community engagement, Threet found. Among other things, his review recommended regular engagement assignments for officers at regular locations on their regular shifts and appearing in the downtown area.
“Another recommendation is regular community meetings hosted by the chief, and I know the chief has had at least two of those and probably more that I haven’t been aware of,” he said.
“And those are really great opportunities for folks to talk directly with the chief and ask questions and see where the department’s headed and share their views on what they think should be happening.”
He also recommended particular attention to engaging with the Latinx community working and living in Sebastopol.
Threet discussed several recommendations to improve SPD’s accountability systems to ensure officers follow policy and practice.
“One of the key findings of this report is that this has been an area of considerable tension overtime between officers and management and it has needed attention for improvements,” he said, adding he believes Kilgore and “were giving it the attention it needs to improve.”
First, he discussed improving the internal affairs investigations for internal and external procedural justice. “And that means that both the employees and the folks in the community have belief that the department is operating in a predictable way that treats everyone the same,” he said.
His recommendations included welcoming complaints alleging misconduct from the public and fully investigating all complaints and possible violations in a timely manner. “We want the public to feel comfortable in making a complaint and feel like their complaint is treated seriously,” Threet said.
Investigation outcomes “should be communicated as transparently as legally possible to both the complainant and to the officers involved and that should happen as quickly as can happen,” he said, with employees facing “meaningful discipline” for serious sustained findings and investigators treating everyone objectively.
Moreover, the disciplinary appeals process where employees can appeal such decisions is also problematic, according to the attorney.
“The city has a very complex multi-step process that can be lengthy for appeals of discipline and of findings sustained. The process has historically resulted in reductions to disciplines imposed and this has appeared to reward resistance to accountability,” he said.
Threet continued, “It also results in significant delays in accountability, which can tend to weaken how the accountability system works in some ways,” and recommended the city examining a reform to make the appeals process more straightforward, while also upholding employees’ due process rights.
He added other suggestions to improve the accountability systems, like implementing a conflict of interest policy to prevent investigators involved in incidents leading to a complaint from participating in the investigation.
Further, Threet suggested data from complaints filed and their outcomes should be posted on the department’s website.
Next, Threet addressed some recommendations about reporting and tracking use of force. “The department has not specifically tracked, reviewed and reported use of force on a systematic basis until now,” he said. “Fortunately, Chief Kilgore already has begun addressing this issue.”
His report puts forth the recommendation of “defining force more broadly to capture every instance in which it is used,” including pointing a weapon at a person in an incident, which Threet said hadn’t been tracked or defined as force previously.
Threet called for a mandate for officers to report all uses of force with supervisors assessing all instances to ensure policy compliance, adding that the cases should be reviewed also for alternatives to using force even if the use was deemed compliant.
The report suggested SPD prepare “critical incident response” policies for events like deaths involving police officers and how to interact with the deceased person’s family, the community and supporting officers involved.
“Officer-involved deaths have been very rare with this department, and nevertheless, the department should be prepared to respond to one given how disruptive those events can be to both the community and the relationships between the police department and the community,” Threet said.
Best practices suggested in the report
“Community involvement in deciding key policies is strongly correlated with the community’s belief that those policies are legitimate,” Threet said, introducing a series of best practices recommendations.
On use of force, Threet listed recommendations like “emphasizing de-escalation as a policy,” using the least force needed and in proportion to “the seriousness of what’s going on at the time, what the suspect is presenting to the officers,” and again, active intervention training, or active bystandership training.
For bias-free policing, the auditor suggested implicit bias training overall and particularly for investigators assessing complaints for bias. Threet said the definition of bias must be made clearer, noting bias can still exist when enforcements may be considered valid but only certain groups of people are, say, getting pulled over for a broken taillight.
Threet noted that even though Sebastopol hasn’t experienced problems with “protest policing,” SPD officers could be directed to “large, disruptive protests” in Santa Rosa to give mutual aid, so a policy “that will guide how they operate in those situations,” would be key.
He said his review understood SPD to be performing well in policy with the immigrant community, but he did think the department could do better with community engagement and would once COVID-19 restrictions decrease.
His other recommendations included restorative justice approaches to working with youth, an official policy guiding internal accountability investigations, and making accessible on SPD’s website a complaint form as well as information on uses of force, past complaint types, their outcomes and opportunities for community engagement.
Threet said Kilgore has already started a redesign of the department website, as well as including some community members for hiring panels that Threet suggested be extended to promotions as well.
Threet said the audit found several times when body-worn cameras should have been activated but weren’t, and “There was also some evidence that not all supervisors were fully supportive of all times of the requirements, and these I think are challenges for the department,” so he recommended making sure officers know body-worn camera violations are serious.
A main recommendation on body-worn cameras is requiring officers document the instances when cameras weren’t activated and why, and that discipline would be validated if their reasons do not measure up, he said.
Threet also suggested community feedback surveys and giving the police chief a year or so for experience and gaining his department’s confidence before seeking out the community for input on what civilian oversight process would work for the city.
Next steps for the city and the chief
Kilgore, who swore in as chief on March 1, said, “As I move forward and as our department moves forward, I’m looking at this document as a roadmap for the things that we’re looking to do to accomplish the goals and the recommendations that are set forth.”
He continued, “Also, please know that this is a heavy lift,” with changes that can’t happen overnight and recommendations and goals that might take over two years to achieve.
He said the department is small without much staffing, so “we’re asking our folks and I’m asking our folks to do more with less, which means we’ve added onto the time that these things can be accomplished.”
“The things that Jerry speaks about in the report have been understood. I don’t have a whole lot of concerns with the recommendations that he has made. I think they are all things that are doable, but in that same breath, I want to make sure that everyone knows they’re doable over a time period that may not be a quick time period.”
Glass said the full council discussion on the report and next steps should reach the agenda in July or early August at the latest.
After some discussion, the council settled that Glass and Councilmember Patrick Slayter — the law enforcement subcommittee — would work with the police chief to organize an agenda item for the whole council to deliberate the timeline and priorities of carrying out recommended changes.
When asked what he’d need to make these shifts in the department, Kilgore named the city council’s continued support and patience. Further, he said he understands the pandemic’s financial toll on Sebastopol and hopes that as the city sees brighter fiscal days, more administrative assistance can be discussed and resources possibly increased.
Kilgore voiced his support for the city considering funding for a homeless outreach worker from West County Community Services or another social services contractor to work with SPD, charities and activists in the city.
He said much of SPD’s resources and time goes to unhoused communities and people in mental crises and that he and the police technician passed out water bottles and popsicles and informed homeless community members of the city’s cooling center that day, adding the technician has been connecting with local advocates to get resources to unhoused residents.
According to the police chief, Sebastopol was able “to secure a spot” to be studied along with some other cities in the county for a potential CAHOOTS model.
CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out in the Streets, is a program based in Eugene, Oregon that lets some social service calls to police go to a professional mental health team to make first contact with people in crisis or responding with police.
The study’s consultant used to work for CAHOOTS, Kilgore said. Data will be collected “to provide us an overview of what the CAHOOTS model may look like and if it’s one that can be done in a collaborative partnership with our surrounding cities as well,” he said, though he hasn’t received an estimated timeline yet.
Community members who attended the meeting expressed support for civilian oversight, community hiring panels, staffing police and preventing burnout and CAHOOTS program ideas. Concerns from the public included the city not having a financial audit of SPD yet, given its funding, and SPD ticketing people living along Morris Street, where people live camped in vehicles.
Kilgore said the tickets came after first having conversations with people on Morris Street and working with local advocates to get them resources and “to have their vehicles be legal to be parked on the roadway and also not create a situation where the vehicles that were leaking fluids and sewage were creating more significant work for our public works department and also creating a public health hazard, as well.”
The release of the audit comes after a period of delay, Threet said, set back by a longer time than expected to gain access to records, short staffing, transitions in the department and unexpected personal matters that came up in February.
Threet said the city’s law enforcement committee received a draft confidential report in March, but much of the report contained details of confidential files, so the review process also sought to find a way to demonstrate the fundings to the public within legal bounds.