Why Every County Needs Civilian Oversight of its Local Sheriff's Department

Nov 28, 2023
Allyssa Victory

Sheriffs hold massive power in California counties over jails, law enforcement, emergency services, court-ordered evictions, and more. They are elected officials who must be accountable to the public that they serve. 

 State law mandates that county boards of supervisors oversee sheriffs’ offices. AB 1185, which took effect in 2021, gave counties the authority to establish civilian oversight boards to assist supervisors in that role. It is a proactive step towards enhancing sheriff accountability and transparency. The boards can also help sheriffs by conducting community outreach, handling civilian complaints, and providing policy recommendations.  

ACLU affiliates across California played a strong role in crafting and passing AB 1185. The law states that civilian oversight boards and offices of inspector generals may be created either by resolution from county supervisors or by a public vote. These oversight agencies shall have subpoena power.  

 However, the law does not require counties to create civilian boards. That’s why the ACLU of Northern California is helping to educate community members about the fact that this law exists. And we are supporting individual counties that wish to create them. 

Why are civilian oversight boards necessary? The unchecked power of local sheriffs leads to a lack of accountability. It has led to in-custody deaths, a failure to discipline officers for misconduct, erosion of community trust, as well as a lack of transparency in sheriff budgets and operations. This in turn has resulted in costly litigation and lawsuits.  

As more counties begin to implement civilian oversight, we are seeing various models including the offices of inspectors general, civilian oversight boards, and a combination of both. The strongest models have adequate investigatory authority and subpoena power. They can provide policy recommendations that county supervisors must review and vote on as well as sufficient budgets and staff to accomplish their tasks.  

 Most counties with current civilian oversight were created through a supervisor resolution. Some of the first counties have already identified issues in resourcing, their powers, and more challenges that required amendments to expand sheriff oversight through a supervisor resolution or county ballot measures.  

The process and timeline to create sheriff oversight looks different in each county.  

The California Coalition for Sheriff Oversight was created in 2023 to support community members and county-based coalitions that want to establish or improve civilian sheriff oversight.  

As more counties join, we will continue to learn and assess best practices. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is there civilian oversight of the sheriff's office in my county?

The table below lists counties where civilian oversight has been established or is in progress:

Why should I care about civilian oversight of sheriffs? 

Sheriffs are elected by the public in all 58 counties in California and hold massive power that is often unchecked. Civilian oversight is an important step towards accountability and transparency for communities.

Who can create civilian sheriff oversight? 

The board of supervisors can pass a resolution. Or the residents of a county can pass a ballot measure.  

What did AB 1185 change about civilian sheriff oversight? 

The board of supervisors in each county has the authority to oversee the sheriff’s office under state law. AB 1185 became effective January 1, 2021. It stated that civilian oversight boards and offices of inspector general may be created through public ballot measures. AB 1185 also clarified that civilian sheriff oversight boards and offices of inspector general have subpoena power.  

What is a subpoena? 

Subpoenas are written orders to compel release of documents and/or the appearance of an individual to provide testimony. Failure to comply may be punishable as contempt.  

What are elements of a strong/effective civilian sheriff oversight? 

  • Subpoena power 

  • Diverse membership including people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, youth, people who have been impacted by the criminal system, and adequate representation across each county’s geography 

  • Oversight board members should receive education about how peace officers are trained, as well as learn about local criminal justice standards, privacy rights, public records (since these are public bodies that will be subject to the public records act), and best practices across the state or region 

  • Investigative powers including an Office of Inspector General; adequate access to sheriff records necessary to conduct oversight; ability to review and audit sheriff budgets; and access to legal counsel independent of County Counsel 

  • Ability to provide sheriff policy review and recommendations  

  • Regular public reports 

  • Community outreach 

  • Adequate budgets and staffing to accomplish all of the above 

Who should serve on the civilian oversight boards? 

AB 1185 specifies that oversight boards shall be “comprised of civilians.” Civilian oversight is designed to be independent of the sheriff and to assist the board of supervisors in their oversight duties. Members should not include current or former law enforcement or elected officials who already have existing authority to oversee sheriff’s offices.  

Does my county have to create an oversight body or office of inspector general? 

The law does not require this. It simply gives counties the authority to do so through supervisor resolution or a vote by county residents. Counties should craft a structure that meets their specific needs in partnership with the public.  

What is the difference between an oversight board and office of inspector general? 

A board typically consists of civilian members who provide input on sheriff policy, office transparency, and partnership with the community. An inspector general is typically a professional who handles investigative components of oversight including civilian complaints against the sheriff’s office and review of sheriff investigations.  

What is the difference between civilian oversight and other law enforcement oversight agencies like POST (Peace Officer Standards Training) or the Attorney General’s Office?  

Civilian oversight uniquely centers power and control on civilians of each county to partner with their board of supervisors in overseeing their elected sheriff. This can improve community trust, local accountability, and prevent the need for intervention by existing state and federal agencies. Civilian oversight is uniquely tailored to each county’s needs including in the composition of members, duties, and priorities of civilian oversight bodies. Civilian oversight bodies are also more accessible to local residents than existing state and federal agencies.  

Does civilian oversight obstruct or take away power from the sheriff? 

No. AB 1185 specifically states that nothing should be construed to interfere with the functions of the sheriff’s office. Civilian oversight is a tool to help the county board of supervisors in its legal duty to oversee the sheriff and to increase transparency and accountability to the community they serve.