California AG launches civil rights investigation of Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office

In a rare move, the California Attorney General opened an investigation into the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office over allegations of civil rights violations related to jail conditions and resistance to lawful oversight, state officials said Wednesday.

"Public safety is built on trust," said Attorney General Bonta said at a virtual news conference. "It is clear that there is a lack of trust in Santa Clara County as a result of deeply concerning allegations around county jail facilities and other misconduct. These concerns have been repeatedly voiced by elected leaders, editorial boards, community members, and more."

The sheriff's office has come under fire for its treatment of inmates, lack of transparency, and possible corruption, with calls from San Jose Mayor Sam Licarrdo for Sheriff Laurie Smith to step down over a series of egregious abuses and missteps in recent years.

Among them, the jail beating death of inmate Michael Tyree. The permanent injuries suffered by Andy Hogan while being transported in the back of a sheriff’s vehicle. And Smith’s continued refusal to cooperate with a criminal grand jury investigation into allegations of bribery within her office.

Smith, who has been sheriff since 1998, dismissed those calls for her resignation

In a statement to KTVU, Smith responded that she would help with the AG's investigation.

 "I have always welcomed any external review of the Sheriff’s Office and we will immediately open all records," she said in a statement. "I have great confidence in the Attorney General’s Office and I believe they will provide the expertise for a fair and impartial investigation. We remain focused on our mission, which is to continue to provide the highest level of public safety services."

The embattled sheriff has also faced criticism from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors with them unanimously passing a vote of no-confidence in her last year, which prompted the grand jury investigation.

"There is a parade of horribles that has been marching, marching, marching. And we have to call it out and say, put an end to this," said District 5 representative Supervisor Joe Simitian after the vote was passed.

Last month, the Santa Clara County civil grand jury formally accused of Smith of "willful and corrupt misconduct." 

Smith could be removed from office depending on what comes of the jurors accusations in the report, which cited evidence of corruption and jail mismanagement, among other missteps. 

If systemic misconduct is found, Bonta said the sheriff’s office could be compelled to institute changes and reforms under the oversight of an independent monitor and subject to court enforcement.

The California AG investigating a law enforcement agency isn't unique, but it's not altogether common either. In the last 15 years, there have been six. 

Since 2006, the state Department of Justice has publicly conducted pattern-or-practice investigations into the Riverside Police Department, the Maywood Police Department, the Kern County Sheriff's Office, and the Bakersfield Police Department

The AG's Office currently also has an ongoing investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and now, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.

In addition, the AG's office has undertaken other investigations related to the Stockton Unified School District's police department, juvenile halls operated by the Los Angeles County Probation Department, and the Humboldt County Sheriff Office's compliance with the California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.

Beyond that, in recent years, Bonta's office said that the agency has been or is currently involved in other targeted reform efforts with regards to the Torrance Police Department, the Vallejo Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Departmentthe Sacramento Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Department

These are not pattern-or-practice investigations per se, Bonta's office said, but are programs to address systemic concerns.