For the first time, San Mateo County supervisors publicly discussed possibilities to establish an oversight committee for the county Sheriff’s Office.

The County Attorney’s Office and Fixin’ San Mateo County, a local grassroots organization advocating for Sheriff’s Office oversight, gave presentations during the supervisors’ Nov. 1 meeting on the possible models and benefits of oversight, followed by comments from the board and the public.

The discussion was in the wake of Assembly Bill 1185, which passed in the fall of 2020 and took effect in 2021. The legislation allows California counties to create citizens’ oversight boards and suggests fact-finding, transparency and community engagement within the process. To date, AB 1185 has had limited application. However, seven counties, including San Francisco, Sonoma and Sacramento, have implemented some alternative form of oversight broadly consistent with AB 1185’s messages.

“Today, we really take the first step as a board to look at our options and what other communities have done,” said Supervisor Dave Pine.

Three models

David Silberman, the Chief Deputy County Attorney, introduced three existing models created by other counties.

Model one represents a form of the inspector general, who focuses on investigating specific incidents and complaints of excessive force and discrimination against the Sheriff’s Office. Model two requires an inspector general and an advisory commission, both active and independent. That model is used in Sonoma County, where the commission is called the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. The third model creates only an oversight board without an inspector general.

Although it still takes time to determine which model works best for the county, Jim Lawrence, Fixin’ San Mateo County’s chair, stressed the urgent need for an oversight system.

“If we have some type of surveillance providing best practices … if we could just eliminate one of those deaths, I think we should do it.”

Jim Lawrence, Fixin’ San Mateo County

“If we have some type of surveillance providing best practices … if we could just eliminate one of those deaths, I think we should do it,” he said. Lawrence reminded the board about people who died due to law enforcement.

An oversight system would especially help better protect racial minorities, said Nancy Goodban, the organization’s executive director, during her presentation at the meeting. According to the organization’s data, Black people are nine times more likely to be arrested than white people in San Mateo County, and Hispanic people are twice as likely to be arrested.

There has been increasing interest in oversight both regionally and nationally since George Floyd’s death in 2020. At least 220 counties and cities have some form of civilian oversight in the U.S., Goodban said.

Community support

Public comment during the meeting endorsed the idea of creating an oversight system. Many residents said an oversight board would help repair the strained relationship between the sheriff and communities.

The proposal also gained support from 16 current and former mayors, as well as several city councils, town councils and 23 community organizations, according to Fixin’ San Mateo County’s report.

Although the board deemed the discussion a study session without making an official decision, the supervisors unanimously expressed willingness to move the idea forward with the third model of establishing an oversight commission without an inspector general.

Supervisor Warren Slocum, one of the proposal’s sponsors, said his team planned to travel around the county to hear residents’ voices about undertaking oversight and then bring back recommendations to the board. He also expected to involve the participation of the new sheriff, Christina Corpus, who’s not taking office until January.

Oversight has been in the spotlight of discussions in other counties in the Bay Area. The Marin County Board of Supervisors greenlit the formation of entities to provide independent oversight of the county Sheriff’s Office in August, while the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors rejected the idea of creating an independent oversight board in the same month.