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Jail Death Results in New Oversight Panel

Jail Death Results in New Oversight Panel 

Office of independent review will investigate in-custody deaths and beatings

August 8, 2008

By NORBERTO SANTANA JR.
The Orange County Register

On the night that John Derek Chamberlain was stomped to death at Theo Lacy jail in 2006, Sheriff's deputies waved off District Attorney investigators that showed up to look into the murder.

That unleashed a myriad of events that resulted in a grand jury, criminal indictments against inmates and two top Sheriff's officials resigning their posts. The event also triggered a tug of war between the Sheriff's department and county supervisors over the lack of civilian review oversight panels for law enforcement.

That political skirmish came full circle Tuesday as county supervisors approved a $210,000 annual consulting contract for Stephen Connolly to head up Orange County's first Office of Independent Review.

"The men and women of the Orange County Sheriff's Department welcome this new level of oversight and transparency," said Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.

Her remarks stood in stark contrast to the sentiments expressed by former Sheriff Mike Carona – who didn't even like having the district attorney looking into his jail operations. Carona was indicted last October. Hutchens was appointed to the post by supervisors this year.

Connolly, 44, comes to Orange County from the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review, where he has worked as a staff attorney since 2001 and participated in the review of the Rampart scandal, which resulted in a series of reforms at the Los Angeles Police Department.

He starts his job on September 1 and will eventually have up to three staffers – a mix of attorneys, investigators and administrative assistants – and a $750,000 annual budget.

He is part of a growing contingent of LA County law enforcement officials who have stepped into the void created by the Chamberlain scandals and the Carona indictment.

Hutchens herself is a former L.A. County Sheriff Commander and she has brought over other top officials from Los Angeles including new Undersheriff John Scott. County supervisors recently inked a contract with Michael Gennaco – who heads the LA County OIR - to provide consulting services. The county also signed a $250,000 contract with a different firm to investigate a series of in-custody issues in Orange County jails.

"We know we have some issues in the jails and we're dealing with them," said County Supervisors' Chairman John Moorlach on Tuesday.

Funding for the watchdog agency comes from the county's general fund – which although tight can sustain the funding, Moorlach said. He added that in other jurisdictions using such oversight, payments for lawsuits have gone down. And Moorlach notes there are 30 active lawsuits against the Sheriff's department related to the jails.

Quoting his mother, Moorlach notes "sometimes you have to spend a dime to make a quarter."

Asked why taxpayers need to pay for another agency to make sure the Sheriff's bureaucracy does it job, Moorlach said he understood the point but added, ""we have a history of a concern with the culture in the jail, and we have a new sheriff. But I don't know if that necessarily changes the culture immediately. It's part of a process and I see this as a helpful tool to improve the culture."

Connolly said would immediately begin meetings with Sheriff's officials and assess ongoing investigations before gearing up.

He will be charged with investigating any major issues and problems with in-custody deaths or beatings. Under his contract, he's entitled to a few staff attorneys and administrative staffers and has a $750,000 annual budget, similar to the county's newly-formed Performance Auditor.

On Tuesday, supervisor Chris Norby changed the contract to ensure that Connolly will give the Board of Supervisors quarterly updates on all investigations the office is handling. Norby also amended the contract to include a provision allowing supervisors to call on the office any time they desire.

"I'll be doing a lot of listening in the first few weeks before the talking starts," Connolly, whose office will be located at the sheriff's head quarters, told supervisors.

Contact the writer: Nsantana@ocregister.com or 714-796-2221.