On Tuesday, March 25, 2021, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors will consider acting on a proposal developed by a consortium of social justice organizations to conduct a “comprehensive performance and fiscal audit of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office budget.”
A presentation describing the audit embedded in the Board agenda expresses a concern underpinning the push for the audit: there is a “perception of low or no accountability regarding transparency around MCSO funding and management of those funds, leading to fraught community relations.”
In an interview, Mendocino County Sheriff Kendall said he would be more than open to an audit “if it is truly independent.” He expressed concern that the motive of these groups pushing for the audit is political in nature motivated by the “Defund the Police” movement. The audit, he claims, is an attempt to bring the national narrative into Mendocino County.
Sheriff Kendall found the exact goal of the audits proposed unclear. “We are audited once a year already. Most audits have a clear goal; I’m not sure what this one is trying to do,” Sheriff Kendall said.
The presentation indicates the proposal is the product of a several different social justice entities including South Coast Organizing for Radical Equity (SCORE), Showing up for Racial Justice Mendocino Coast Chapter (SURJ), Mendocino Chapter of Black Lives Matter, Mendo Coast BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), Mendocino Coast Jewish Community (MCJC) Justice Group, and the Coast Democratic Club.
SCORE’s Facebook page features several infographics that highlight perceived problems with MCSO’s utilization of funding and concerns regarding racial equity within MCSO practice.
The board presentation asserts that while MCSO has advocated for more funding, there has not been adequate “hard, substantive data or evidence that increased funds are needed.” The presentation characterizes MCSO’s justification for increased funding as “anecdotal evidence.”
One infographic describes millions spent by MCSO to address officer misconduct and use of force incidents, specifically citing the 2014 jail death of intoxicated man Steven Neuroth who died after being held face down on the ground with hands and ankles shackled. The infographic also cites a 2017 incident when a Mendocino County corrections deputy tased a mentally ill Travis Benevich causing him to stop breathing (though he eventually recovered) resulting in a settlement of $180,000.
One of the infographics cites a statistic that “57% of people locked in the Mendocino County Jail have not been convicted.” It should be noted, county jails across the nation are utilized to house suspects while they await criminal trial.
A document entitled “Audit Scope” delineates various aspects of MCSO’s finances and practices the audit would examine including evaluating revenue/expenditures, contracting practices, characteristics of the jail population, pre-trial population data, and recidivism.
Sheriff Kendall was concerned that the fault-finding motivation of the proposed audit could be a “witch hunt” and added to a climate that leaves his agency “struggling to hire, recruit, and retain deputies.”
Sheriff Kendall said, “It’s getting harder and harder to hire police officers because of the national narrative that all cops are bad and the moment you put on a uniform you are believed to be a racist.” That being said, Sheriff Kendall noted that he “lost a couple of people because I fired them because they were not doing the right thing. My life would be easier if I kept them, but I would rather work short than work wrong.”
Simply put, Sheriff Kendall said if these “folks on the South Coast think there is too much law enforcement, I can pull deputies off the coast and send them to Covelo. They want more deputies.”
Regarding the anti-racist goals underpinning the proposal, Sheriff Kendall said, “[W]hen we begin talking about racial equity, there are some people that think racism exists in the ether.” He added, “Just because I wear a badge does not mean I’m racist”
Addressing head-on the realities of racism as experienced by his deputies, Sheriff Kendall said he spoke with his Hispanic, Black, and Native American deputies about their personal experience with racism. He said, across the board, they did not experience any form of prejudice while in Mendocino County. It was only when they donned a sheriff’s office badge that they experienced prejudice. “If you’re a cop, people say whatever they please,” reflected Sheriff Kendall.
Sheriff Kendall said this sort of proposed audit can be “demoralizing and degrading. Our leaders want to placate and pander to politics. When we have a problem, we will deal with it.”
Addressing claims from activists that the Sheriff’s Office is not adequately tackling mental health issues, Sheriff Kendall simply said, “We’re not supposed to be dealing with mental health. That is Behavioral Health’s job.”
The proposed audit characterizes MCSO’s budget as 81 million dollars. Sheriff Kendall was unclear as to how the organizers derived this number. He says his yearly budget fluctuates between 26 or 27 million dollars. He surmised the organizers combined the budget of MCSO, the District Attorney’s Office, probation, and other public safety entities to come up with 81 million.
Concerned his agency is being singled out, Sheriff Kendall said if MCSO is audited, other county agencies such as County CEO Carmel Angelo’s office should be audited as well. In looking at the upcoming budget, it appears that 13 new positions have been added to the departments under the CEO’s office “that no one blinked an eye at.” He wondered, “if the Board of Supervisors even knew.”
Fundamentally, Sheriff Kendall said he is left “scratching his head” in response to claims of his agency’s inherent racism. He cited his childhood in Covelo on a Native American reservation, as the beginning of his life-long fight to bring service to these communities. Yet, despite this, “somehow, because I put on a badge, I am a racist.”
Regarding the proposed audit, Mendocino County 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams stated on his Facebook page, “Audits are part of good government and can highlight opportunities for improved services and use of public funds. An audit is appropriate even when a department is deemed to be performing well.”
3rd District Supervisor John Haschak, when asked what his perspective on the proposed audit in yesterday’s 3rd District Virtual Town Hall, said the recently codified Public Safety Advisory Board (PSAB) seemed like the appropriate mechanism to examine MCSO’s finances and practices.
The presentation to the board calls into question the PSAB’s ability to garner insight into MCSO’s practices stating, “[C]ommunity advisory boards have historically not been effective in addressing transparency and financial resource management.”
While writing this article over the weekend, we reached out to South Coast Organizing for Radical Equity (SCORE) several times just as this article was going to post they responded saying they wanted a list of questions and wouldn’t be able to answer until later this week. We’ll do a second article at that time.