Autonomy is a must for effective civilian review

Autonomy is a must for effective civilian review

March 18, 2012

Last August, when Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings finally convened his Citizens Advisory Committee, he declared: “We have asked you to do a bit of very, very serious business for Orange County.”

An understatement. After all, the committee was conceived in the wake of community blow-back in the controversial Torey Breedlove case. The alleged car thief died in January 2010 after deputies fired 137 rounds at his escaping SUV.

We weren’t expecting much. Demings set the agenda, the panel lacked subpoena power, and its recommendations were nonbinding.

But, as the Sentinel recently reported, Demings adopted seven of the panel’s recommendations — most notably, sensible revisions to its use-of-force policy.

In the Breedlove case, deputies say they fired because their lives were in jeopardy from Breedlove ramming police vehicles. Only, some of the rounds meant for Breedlove struck nearby units where children slept at Alta Westgate apartments in west Orange County.

Under the new policy, deputies have to take into account the risk to the public and whether the use of force “creates a substantial risk to the safety of the public, exceeding the danger” of having a suspect on the loose.

It’s a reasonable tweak that bridges the tension between sound policy and letting deputies use their judgment.

Similarly, deputies are to fire at vehicles only “as a last resort to protect the deputy or another from an imminent threat.” No longer will “mere contact between a suspect’s vehicle and a deputy’s vehicle” be sufficient cause.

Finally, the Orange County policy mirrors the International Association of Chiefs of Police firing etiquette — which advises against firing at occupied vehicles.

“The recommended changes should assist deputies in deciding whether to fire their weapons in these circumstances,” Demings said.

Thankfully, Demings honored his vow to listen to this toothless panel. Trouble is, future sheriffs may not be so accommodating. Absent autonomy, the panel might be shut out of reviewing cases that are sensitive, or embarrassing.

That’s why Orange County’s Charter Review Commission is right to pursue a November ballot measure to resurrect an autonomous county police review board.

Predictably, the Sheriff’s Office is resisting. But the agency’s discomfort is less important than giving citizens the comfort of knowing that someone not wearing a badge is looking over the agency’s shoulders.

It’s not about a witch-hunt — but conjuring up confidence in those watching the community’s back.