OC sheriff’s deputies are accused of lying and stealing. Will Sheriff Don Barnes bring reform?

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Over the years, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has seen scandal after scandal involving jail informants, escaped inmates, and improper handling of evidence. In recent weeks, that list has grown with accusations of deputies lying, stealing, and breaking and entering. 

KCRW talks about all this with Gustavo Arellano, host of “Orange County Line.” 

What are the accusations at the Orange County Sheriff's Department?

Gustavo Arellano: “There's the one who was arrested for breaking repeatedly into the house of a deceased man and taking stuff. There was another deputy who … allegedly stole the debit card of someone, gave it to her son, and the son used it. There's a couple of other deputies who are alleged to be falsifying their timesheets because they're military. … And then there's just another one indicted by a grand jury for lying about the evidence that he had submitted. … It's embarrassing to the law enforcement, especially the Sheriff's Department in Orange County.” 

The Sheriff's Department has been engrossed by scandal for years, going back to Mike Corona, who went to prison for more than five years after a jury found him guilty of witness tampering. Is this a pattern of corruption at the department or a few “bad apples?”

“That's what Sheriff Don Barnes, the current sheriff, is saying. He's very concerned by these allegations. To his credit, it was his department that discovered these alleged crimes, and he's the one who told them to the press, but only after the Orange County Register found out about it. That's on one hand, so he's owning up to this. 

On the other hand, this is a department that's synonymous with corruption. I mean, you talked about Mike Corona, who went to federal prison. You had before him Brad Gates, who was accused of using his office to spy on political rivals. 

And there was definitely a jailhouse beating scandal in the 1990s. You had of course Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Barnes’ former boss, who was embroiled in the so-called jailhouse snitch scandal, where deputies were illegally using jailhouse witnesses to be getting illegal confessions out of inmates. 

So this is something that's never changed. The only thing that changes is a person at the top, and they say, ‘Oh, it's not going to be like it used to be like my bad predecessor. It’s going to be brand new.’ And yet, you have the same problems.”

Barnes says he’s getting stuff done behind the scenes, he's not the guy who likes to stand in front of the cameras and the microphones. He doesn't hold press conferences very often, and doesn't really seek the spotlight. Does that help or hurt him?

“Well, that's what they say, and then they get in front of a microphone, and then they start talking. So Barnes is … humble bragging when he does that. But again, to his credit, his predecessors, they would refuse to acknowledge any wrong in their department. Barnes [is] at least saying, ‘Okay, we've had some issues.’ 

But at the same time, the only reason some of these even came to light was, again, we need the press, the press was pressing him on these issues. And Barnes went ahead of the press and said, ‘Hey, look, I'm announcing this is what my own audit had discovered.’ And I think especially when it comes to law enforcement, you need 100% transparency.”

What do police reform advocates and civil rights groups say? 

“If it was for a lot of these people who've been following these scandals for decades, people like the ACLU, you have of course public defender Scott Sanders, who was the main person who exposed this jailhouse snitch scandal, and they said, ‘Look, we're the ones who are screaming to the people of Orange County, you have a problem at your Sheriff's Department, do something about it when you go to the ballot box.’ And they never do. I mean, Orange County voters, once they get a sheriff in their mind, they don't want to go away from them, come hell or high water.”

Is there any civilian oversight of the OC Sheriff’s Department? 

“This is Orange County. We don't believe in reforms like that because we believe our law enforcement officials. The closest we have is a grand jury. And to its credit, the grand jury, they did indict a deputy for allegedly mislabeling evidence. So every once in a while, the grand jury will make some sort of pronouncement. 

But if you ask the Board of Supervisors, four or five, which are Republicans, they'll say there's no need for oversight. And despite the past. 

Again, with Barnes, I really hope he tries to root people out, maybe be like what William Parker was supposed to be at LAPD, someone who reformed an entirely corrupt department. If Barnes really wants to be remembered as someone important in Orange County history, he'll do that to his department, he'll clean house. He doesn't want to go down in history like his predecessors.”