OP-ED: Religious leaders demand accountability

Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail, run by Sheriff Gregory Ahern, has been the target of several lawsuits over prison conditions and has had the highest number of in-custody deaths in Northern California: at least 58. in detention since 2014, including 19 suicides.

We bring up the names of the last two dead in Santa Rita – Marcos Garibay and Larry Roberson. Their families are among many people who received conflicting and incomplete information about their deaths from the sheriff.

A protest is scheduled for Tuesday, May 24 at 11:30 a.m. at the Board of Supervisors on Oak and 12th Street in Oakland to protest a prison culture of death and this dysfunctional incarceration system. Join us in our call to responsibility.

The US Department of Justice recently found that our county jail violated constitutional rights and subjected the 40% of people in custody who need mental health services to “unlawful harm.”

The sheriff also evaded a county ban on local law enforcement collaborating with ICE.

The county continues to bleed millions of taxpayer dollars in settlements and legal fees for this mismanagement — the most recent costing more than $300 million. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department needs a major transformative intervention.

Assembly Bill 1185, recently enacted by the California State Legislature, authorizes civilian oversight boards and a full-time Inspector General with subpoena power to investigate sheriff’s departments and jails. Our communities can obtain accountability for the sheriff’s brutal practices and help supervisors exercise their legal and fiscal authority to oversee this county department.

Sopath Mey, speaking on behalf of his Cambodian immigrant family, told us about the medical crisis and death of his cousin Soto in Santa Rita in January 2020:

“To this day, we do not understand how he died in jail and sheriff’s custody. Did he receive the medical care he needed? …Our family has no resources for an inquest… The sheriff is also the coroner, which raises serious questions. Independent oversight without conflict of interest could tell us what happened so we can have peace of mind.

A sheriff’s watch coalition initiated by Faith In Action East Bay and the Oakland Coalition for Police Accountability, including dozens of organizations and clergy from various faiths – ACLU of Northern California, Alameda County Public Health Commission, SEIU Local 1021, Oakland Education Association, Brotherhood of Elders, National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, and in close collaboration with the League of Women Voters, researched the essential principles of effective independent civilian oversight:

  • An open and transparent community selection committee process to create a representative board of oversight isolated from politics and sheriff influence.
  • Legal adviser to a civilian Board of Supervisors and fully independent Inspector General of County Council Conflicts of Interest representing the Sheriff in proceedings against the County.
  • A dedicated funding stream to ensure an adequate staff of investigators working with an experienced full-time Inspector General.
  • Access to records and testimony, regular public meetings, and reports to the community and Board of Overseers (BOS.)
  • Elected officials – including the sheriff – must be held accountable. A civilian oversight with subpoena power can conduct independent investigations and recommend necessary changes to the oversight board – which has the ultimate power to budget taxpayers’ money.

Working with a full-time Inspector General, they will investigate deaths in prison, prison conditions, the conduct of sheriff’s deputies, and can help identify alternatives to the county’s current cruel and costly mass incarceration for people with mental health problems.

We must align sheriff’s operations with constitutional law enforcement, our community’s ethical values, and public trust.

Let supervisors know you support the community coalition calling for strict sheriff oversight – email the board at [email protected]

Reverend Dr George Cummings, Executive Director, Faith In Action East Bay

Cathy Leonard for the Coalition for Policing Accountability

Regina Jackson, Oakland Police Commission*

Rev. Dr. James Brenneman, President, Berkeley School of Theology*

Reverend Ken Chambers, West Side MBC and Co-Chair Interfaith Coalition of Alameda County*

Rev. Dr. James Hopkins, Co-Chair, Faith In Action East Bay; Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church*

Rev. Derron Jenkins, Associate Minister, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland*

Reverend Andrew Loban, Rector, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Livermore*

Prof. Aidan McAlaneen, pastor of St. Columba Catholic Church

Rabbi Dev Nolly, Chief Rabbi, Kehilla Community Synagogue, Oakland*

Rabbi Judith Seid, Cultural Jews of the Three Valleys*

Reverend Jeffrey Spencer, Senior Pastor, Niles Discovery Church, Fremont*

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