Hilbert Morales /EL OBSERVADOR

On Tuesday, April 12, 2016, Judge LaDoris Cordell (retired) presented the BRC  (BLUE RIBBON COMMISSION) report, Board of Supervisor’s, Agenda item #10 entitled “Consider Recommendations relating to the Blue Ribbon Commission on improving Custody Operations.” The entire report may be viewed at <http://sccgov.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_Meeting.aspx?ID=7189>. This report contains 121 recommendations.

Judge Cordell, Chair, BRC, presented a summary of this commission’s deliberations resulting from the investigation of the death of Michael Tyree while in custody awaiting an ‘available psychiatric bed’. Three correctional officers, whose trial is pending, are being charged with this alleged murder by the District Attorney.

This report had three parts: a) “…improving Operations: final recommendations. b) Direct (County) Administration to prepare implementing actions for Board approval based on the BRC Improving Custody Operations recommendations. c) Approve cessation of BRC On Improving Custody Operations.” Supervisor Cindy Chavez (D-2) moved; Supervisor Joe Simitian (D-5) seconded; acceptance; Passed unanimously (5 ayes; O nays). “Next steps’ discussions followed.

That night several TV news stations reported that Judge Cordell’s BRC says the situation at the jail is like a plane which is about to crash with the Sheriff at the controls. Judge Cordell said “Continued supervision of the jails by the Sheriff (Laurie Smith) is not in the best interests of the inmates, the Correctional Officers or the community.” Cordell laid out a careful case for making major changes in the SCCo. jail system. The County’s Supervisors were told the jail house beating death of inmate Michael Tyree last summer created a crisis that should cost Sheriff Laurie Smith control of the jail system. Several former jail inmates testified that they too had been abused. Cordell said, “Months of investigation led me to likened the system to an ill fated plane headed for a crash with the Sheriff at the controls. During its long descent there was a pilot (at the controls) who was either indifferent, or incompetent, or both.”

“The BRC proposed four immediate steps to repair the problem plagued system: 1) Create an office of Inspector General; 2) Overhaul the broken  grievance reporting system for inmates; 3) create more transparency and fairness in the officer’s disciplinary system and 4) reform administration of the Inmates Welfare Fund. While you might repair the jail system, you still have a poor pilot…and the pilot (or whoever runs the jail) needs to be replaced.”

Sheriff Smith was present; she then stood before the TV camera to defend her handling of the jail and its problems. Smith stated, “We brought in the consultants, including a mental health expert (and) a jail expert (consultant) to look at everything that we are doing within the jail system (and) to make recommendations.” A reporter asked,“In your opinion, does there need to be an immediate change of culture now?” Smith replied, “You know, I think there’s improvements we could make everywhere.”

Unfortunately for Sheriff Smith a procession of public speakers had concluded that the first improvement should be finding the Sheriff’s replacement.

“True culture change, if that is what we desire, requires new leadership.” said one public speaker. Several BRC members said that the Sheriff should be stripped of control of county jail system. As for the Sheriff, she says she wants to stay in her job, in place while the reforms being put in place continue to flourish.

In her closing remarks, Judge Cordell stated, “This crisis presents an opportunity for change which must not be wasted.”

Supervisor Joe Simitian pointed out that the BOS has no legal means of ‘replacing the Sheriff, who is an elected official.

In light of this BRC report, the BOS needs to place the management of the County’s jail operations under independent leadership which reports directly to the County Executive; take steps to establish an Office of Inspector General who monitors all operations of both the County’s jails and the Office of the Sheriff; and have the County’s Health & Hospital Systems close mental health/behavioral health services gaps which will provide Superior Court judges with alternatives to incarceration. Since 1,980 (55%) of the 3,600 jail inmates average daily census have mental or behavioral health challenges, the county’s capacity to provide essential psychiatric/psychology assessment and therapy services would reduce the current ‘criminalization’ being practiced by Superior Court judges who have no alternatives today. Know that 1,800  (50%) inmates are Latinos; 504 (14%) are Blacks; and 72 (2%) are Asian-Americans.

In addition, the entire ‘law enforcement-Judicial system’ needs to be re-calibrated by establishing alternatives to the current mass incarceration practices. In this regard, a sub-commission whose goal is to define suitable diversion programs is going to continue its work.

Finally, since the Sheriff is an elected official, it is up to registered voters, especially those  of color, who need to decide if there is will to initiate, sustain and execute a ‘Process to Recall The Sheriff’. It was “We, The People” who elected Sheriff Smith; it must be “We, the People” who ‘recall the sheriff’ if that is desired. The people’s will,  interest and momentum of this crisis should not be wasted. If organized and implemented successfully, this recall would change local political power establishments. In this regard, KNOW THAT THE LATINO VOTE MUST SPEAK UP AND BE HEARD.