When the baton was passed from former San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon to his hand-picked successor Shannon Dicus the ink was hardly dry from his official swearing in ceremony when the Captain of the Coroner Division issued a press release labeled, “Temporary Operating Procedure” announcing that although Coroner Division policy designates the division has the responsibility for approving and posting its press releases, it “recognizes that some deference is proper when other divisions are involved in certain incidents.”
Was this a sudden revelation? That is difficult to believe, especially with this change coming just two days after the new sheriff was sworn in.
Whatever the motivation for the implementation of the “Temporary Operating Procedure,” the coroner’s office determined it will refrain—a roundabout way of saying, “it will not” issue press releases involving suspected homicides and child abuse cases under investigation by other divisions—like sheriffs for example—and that all questions about these cases would be referred to the investigating agency.”
County coroner/medical examiner’s offices are under the jurisdiction of sheriff’s departments by what has been described as “a default” in state law, although the same law also allows county boards of supervisors to separate the two entities. For example, the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco all have coroners that operate independent from their sheriff’s departments. In Riverside and San Bernardino Counties however, the coroner’s office is part of the sheriff’s department.
The coroner’s office refusal to issue press releases involving suspected homicides and child abuse cases under investigation is of particular concern since the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department operating under a consent decree for the unnecessary and excessive uses of force against inmates and before he became sheriff, Dicus himself talked about the increase in inmate deaths in November 2021.
Regarding child abuse, in 2019 the County of San Bernardino was ordered to pay to settle a child abuse case and in 2021 the IE Voice reported how for years, San Bernardino Children and Family Services purportedly placed as many as 59 kids in the home of a known sexual abuser. These two scenarios alone scream for more. . . not less transparency.
Since the policy was positioned as “Temporary” in the July 2021 press release, I followed up to check the status of the change in late March. That is when I learned from San Bernardino County Sheriff Department Public Information Officer Mara Rodriguez, that there was a decision to make the change permanent soon after the July 16 press release was issued, however, “No additional changes have been made to the press release procedure since 07/16/21.” Another prime example of the department’s lack of transparency and another reason for the public to demand change.
When asked who had the authority to approve the change Rodriguez advised that, “San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Policy Sections 2.150.25 (Division Orders) and 2.150.30 (Division Policies) gives the authority to the commanders of stations and divisions.” Reading between the lines we know this really means the county sheriff since they all work for him.
AB 1608 offers a solution
Issues related to government transparency are nearly as old as time as are concerns over potential conflicts of interest between sheriffs and coroners, especially when coroners are charged with investigating the manner and cause of death in unusual circumstances, manner, and cause of all violent, sudden, or unusual deaths.
In January a bill was introduced in the state Assembly to separate coroner offices from sheriff’s departments. The legislation, if successful, would ensure that death investigations are conducted objectively and reduce the perception (or reality) that the investigative process could be influenced by other law enforcement.
Because sheriffs in California are elected, they have a base of support, including powerful unions that often protect them from the kind of oversight that police chiefs, who are appointed by city officials, are subjected to.
Though Sheriff Dicus was hand selected for his position, this does not mean the voters have to continue him in that role when he stands for election this year. Is Dicus the sheriff San Bernardino voters want leading the county into the future? Someone who made one of his first acts to gag the coroner officials under the guise of a temporary order—and then stealthily make it permanent?
ACLU’s Melanie Ochoa said it best when she noted how sheriff’s departments have a pattern of “refusing to be transparent or accountable, particularly when sheriff’s deputies commit misconduct.”
I found it almost laughable that when the bill was introduced in January, although the California State Sheriff’s Association did not take a position at that time its representative did express concern regarding how the bill basically rids the counties’ of their ability to combine the offices of sheriff and coroner. The organization’s Director of Legislative Affairs expressed concern about the significant costs such an action would impose on counties. The cost is yet to be determined, but whatever it is, I’m sure the county could easily afford it if it was not paying out millions of dollars in settlement cases brought against the sheriff’s department year after year for excess use of force and/or wrongful deaths.
The way I see it, there are three options on the table. (1) Do not vote for Dicus and instead elect a sheriff that is not part of the old guard by choosing someone with a new vision for the future of policing in San Bernardino County. (2) Advocate for the passage of AB 1608, County officers: Consolidation of Offices legislation that will separate sheriff’s departments from coroners in California. (3) Or, put pressure on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to do so.
This year, don’t be a bystander, advocate for change. Contact your California Assemblymember and push for the passage of AB1608. Follow this link for contact information. Let your board supervisor know you want the sheriff department and coroner’s office separated. Follow this link for information regarding how to contact your supervisor.
And finally, do not vote for Dicus just because he is the man county officials decided should be the sheriff. Review the backgrounds and policing philosophy of those in the race and select the person best suited for the kind of policing we need in San Bernardino County. Don’t let all the fear mongering about rising crime scare you into a bad decision. Yes, crime is rising but it is important that the community take a thoughtful approach to seeking a sustainable solution. A January report shows that although violent crime is up, it is not surging to the extent many would have us believe.
Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real.