Critics of Riverside County sheriff welcome attorney general investigation
The California attorney general’s civil rights investigation into the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department provides long-overdue oversight and accountability for the county’s largest law enforcement agency, say frequent critics of the department and its elected leader, Sheriff Chad Bianco.
“I’m greatly encouraged by the possibility and potential of justice,” Riverside County Democratic Party Chair Joy Silver, who helped form an anti-Bianco political action committee, said Thursday, Feb. 23, the same day Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his probe.
RELATED: State launches investigation into death rate in Riverside County jails
Bonta has shown “great courage in taking (these types of) issues on and it does restore my faith in justice, that’s for sure,” Silver said, adding she hopes the investigation brings “some oversight” of the department “because we don’t have that in Riverside County.”
Unlike a criminal probe, the upcoming “patterns and practices” investigation won’t target specific people or incidents, but take a broader look at how the department does its job. Bonta said Thursday that his office could request that a court order changes to how the department operates if problems are found.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, seen Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, said the investigation of his department by the California attorney general’s office is a politically motivated stunt. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
The California attorney general’s civil rights probe of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department announced Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023, “does restore my faith in justice, that’s for sure,” county Democratic Party Chair Joy Silver said. (File photo by Andrew Foulk, Contributing Photographer)
In an image from a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy’s uniform-worn camera video, deputies hold down Ernie Serrano after placing a mask on him to prevent him from spitting on them at the Stater Bros. in Jurupa Valley on Dec. 15, 2020. The District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against the deputies in Serrano’s death from a methamphetamine overdose after deciding that their actions were lawful. (Courtesy of Riverside County Sheriff’s Department)
Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said the Board of Supervisors “will be looking at options to seeking continuing improvements” in preventing inmate deaths in the county’s five jails. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley DailyBulletin/SCNG)
The probe will determine whether Bianco’s department “engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing amid deeply concerning allegations relating to conditions of confinement in its jail facilities, excessive force, and other misconduct,” a California Department of Justice news release states.
At a Los Angeles news conference, Bonta said the investigation “is necessary because that trust between the county sheriff’s office and the community it serves is in peril.”
In a YouTube video, Bianco, a Republican who has been sheriff since 2019, accused Bonta, a Democrat, of a staging “political stunt to appease an anti-law enforcement activist base for their support when he announces his run for governor.”
“Mr. Bonta has repeatedly shown he bows and caters to activists instead of hearing from all Californians who the attorney general is supposed to represent,” the sheriff said.
“We will be completely open, honest and share everything we can with our community throughout this investigation because we have serious concerns that Bonta’s DOJ will not.”
The attorney general’s media office said Friday, Feb. 24, that Bonta’s news conference remarks speak for themselves.
The union representing sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers and other law enforcement personnel is standing by Bianco.
“Drug overdoses and inmate-on-inmate violence constitute the vast majority of inmate deaths in the Riverside County jails,” Riverside Sheriffs’ Association President Bill Young said.
“A fair, unbiased investigation of the jail system will reveal no systematic mistreatment of inmates by Riverside County Sheriff employees.”
As an elected official, Bianco, who was re-elected in 2022 with 61% of the vote and is beloved by many conservatives, has wide latitude to run his department. The county executive office oversees departments that aren’t run by elected leaders.
Riverside County “will fully cooperate (with the investigation) and provide any information that is available,” County Executive Officer Jeff Van Wagenen said in an email.
The investigation follows 18 reported deaths last year — double the county’s per-year average — in the county’s five jails. Several inmates’ families have accused the department of withholding information on their loved ones’ deaths.
Concern about inmate care in the county’s jails is not new. Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which aims to protect the rights of inmates, filed a class-action lawsuit in 2013 that demanded the county improve health care for inmates.
That lawsuit was settled in 2015. In April 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Prison Law Office asked U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips to enforce the terms of the settlement.
Phillips, dissatisfied with the county’s response to the court’s questions about how inmates were being protected, threatened to order inmates transferred unless the county provided an acceptable plan.
Riverside County that April submitted a plan that included changes in housing, sanitation practices and personal hygiene.
Inmates complained about unsafe crowding, a lack of personal-care supplies and dirty jails.
Bianco, who didn’t require jail employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and once said “If you are afraid to go to jail and catch the virus, then don’t go to jail, don’t break the law,” defended the quality of care provided to inmates at the time.
Concerns about the department go beyond the jails.
Humberto Guizar, the attorney representing the family of a man who died in sheriff’s custody in 2020, praised Bonta for starting the investigation to provide transparency on how the department operates.
Ernie Serrano, 33, a longtime drug addict, fought with a security guard at a Stater Bros. market in Jurupa Valley on Dec. 16, 2020. The guard tased Serrano to no effect. Deputies arrived and had to use force to restrain him, Bianco said at the time.
Deputies put a spit mask on Serrano and placed him face down on a checkout counter. After Serrano said “I can’t breathe,” he stopped breathing and died.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against the five deputies involved, though an autopsy by the Riverside County Coroner’s Office determined their actions contributed to Serrano’s death by overdose.
“The manner with which they treated Ernie Serrano was outrageous,” said Guizar, who has a lawsuit pending against the county that he filed on behalf of Serrano’s family.
“You can imagine a lot of people in the jails are Ernie Serrano types,” he said. “They have drug addictions or mental health issues and they aren’t getting proper medical treatment.”
In September 2021, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, including the ACLU of Southern California, called on Bonta to investigate the sheriff’s office, citing concerns about access to mental and physical health treatment for inmates, COVID-19 protocols in jails, use of force by deputies and the rate at which homicides are solved.
That coalition included Corona-based Starting Over Inc.
“Starting Over is grateful that the families who have lost loved ones to violence and neglect from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department will see some oversight from the Department of Justice,” Avalon Edwards, Starting Over policy associate, said via email.
The investigation “affirms what families impacted by sheriff’s violence have long demanded,” Luis Nolasco, a senior policy advocate and organizer at the Southern California ACLU, said via email. “We hope that this will lead to meaningful accountability and oversight over a department rife with in-custody deaths of county residents.”
Riverside County supervisors got “in-depth briefs” from sheriff’s executive staff “on the overdose deaths, the smuggling of drugs into the jails, a review of the reporting requirements for the department,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said via email.
“The deaths have been very tragic, and the circumstances as to how the drugs are making it into the jails are suspicious and deserving of further in-depth review,” said Jeffries, the board’s 2022 chairperson. “I am certain that fellow members of the Board of Supervisors will be looking for options to seek continuing improvements.”
He added: “If the review by the AG is not political in nature and is an honest evaluation of how the department can improve its anti-smuggling efforts and improve its life-saving responses to overdoses, the recommendations could be a win for everyone looking for life-saving improvements.”