Crime & Justice

OC Sheriff wants to increase the public's trust after scandals

File photo: Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she wants a civilian constitutional policing advisor for the department to help oversee department policies and training.
File photo: Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she wants a civilian constitutional policing advisor for the department to help oversee department policies and training.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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The Orange County Sheriff's Department is looking to beef up its internal oversight with a new position devoted to constitutional policing. 

O.C. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she plans to start searching for a "constitutional policing adviser" in the coming weeks, a new position tasked with reducing civil liability claims against the department and restoring public trust in the wake of several scandals. 

The O.C. Board of Supervisors approved funding for the high-level position last week. After an existing technician position is reallocated, the adviser job will cost about $124,000 annually.

"It's a pair of fresh eyes from a constitutional perspective," Hutchens told KPCC.

The move comes after several high profile controversies for the department. The department's use of jailhouse informants led to legal problems with several high-profile cases. And earlier this year, three inmates escaped from a Santa Ana jail. In a separate scandal soon after, the deputies' union sued the department, alleging unsafe jail conditions for employees. 

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC-Irvine School of Law thinks the creation of the constitutional policing adviser in Orange County is long overdue.

“It’s not surprising to me then that Orange County waited until after there was a scandal," he said, referring to misuse of jailhouse informants. "My hope is that if there had been a constitutional policing adviser, they would have sought the advice of that person and that person could have acted in advance to prevent these constitutional violations," he said.

Hutchens said she'll choose someone from outside the department for the role. 

"I'm sure we're going to get some great candidates," she said. "I would like to fill it as soon as possible, but there's no deadline."

Whoever takes the job will not replace the county's Office of Independent Review, a private entity tasked with monitoring the O.C. Sheriff and newly, the offices of the District Attorney and Public Defender. Though it's unclear who will head the OIR, as Stephen Connolly, the OIR's current leader, is expected to step down from his job next week.

The O.C. Board of Supervisors determined the OIR under Connolly was "was not as effective as it could be," according to a press release from Supervisor Todd Spitzer's office. 

While funding for the OIR remains in the budget, several community activists have called for independent civilian oversight of the sheriff's department, along the lines of Los Angeles' mayoral-appointed Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD. 

Hutchens has consistently resisted the idea, but the Board of Supervisors has shown some interest in the past. 

Chemerinsky said that interest has been tempered by the fact that the board has little legal sway over the sheriff, who is an elected official herself. 

"The question is what can the board do to try to create more oversight?," he said. "The key is that the board is responsible for the budget of the sheriff’s office and I believe that gives them some oversight authority."

Chemerinsky said the constitutional policing adviser is not going to be a magical solution, but thinks the role should be a best practice for all police departments.