The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office is challenging a number of assertions in a grand jury report that looked into the July 18, 2018, suicide of a County Jail inmate, identified only as AB.
The report, “Suicide in Custody,” released June 29, made nine findings of fault with Sheriff’s Office and County Jail deputies and personnel from WellPath, which was contracted to provide medical and mental health care at the jail.
Sheriff Bill Brown’s response was included as part of a staff report to the Board of Supervisors regarding the board’s required response to one of the grand jury’s nine findings and recommendations.
The sheriff had to respond to all nine.
In its report, the grand jury found deputies failed to follow procedure during the man’s arrest, a WellPath nurse failed to follow procedure during his evaluation and booking deputies failed to examine the man’s prior arrest records.
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Grand jurors also said the man was placed in a cell where a video camera failed to cover the entire space, custody and WellPath staff failed to follow “man down” procedures and custody staff failed to properly handle and retain evidence.
They also found WellPath and custody deputies responding to the “man down” announcement didn’t know where resuscitation equipment was located and, when it was found, it failed to function.
Grand jurors also found the jail was operating without National Commission on Correctional Health Care accreditation.
Both the Board of Supervisors and sheriff agreed the jail was operating without NCCHC accreditation and said they had already implemented the recommendation to closely examine provisions of the medical service provider’s contract and enforce all its obligations.
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But in his lengthy response to Presiding Superior Court Judge Michael J. Carrozzo, Brown was critical of the procedures the grand jury followed, asserted the jury left out pertinent information and said some of the report’s statements were false.
One of the grand jury’s findings, repeated in its conclusion, accused the Sheriff’s Office of trying to obstruct the investigation by ignoring, delaying, denying and only partially fulfilling some of the requests for documents and information.
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“The purpose of this report is not to speculate whether AB’s death could have been avoided had employees of the Sheriff’s Office and WellPath done a better job,” the grand jury’s conclusion said. “The jury’s role in this case is to investigate the circumstances of the death, determine the facts, and make recommendations with the goal of improving local government operations.”
It continued in boldface type, “The jury regrets that, for the most part, the Sheriff’s Office seemed more interested in obstructing than working cooperatively with the jury toward that goal.”
Brown responded that “members of the Custody Operations Branch, Criminal Records Bureau, County Counsel’s Office, WellPath and the sheriff’s adjutant logged hundreds of hours testifying, researching, reproducing, evaluating and delivering documentary and other evidence” as well as providing access to the incident scene and reviewing hours of video and providing copies of the recordings.
Brown acknowledged there was initially a communication breakdown that delayed the grand jury’s first requests for information, so a lieutenant was designated as a direct contact for the jury who had the authority to request, access, copy and deliver materials from the entire agency.
“Instead of using this person as a resource, the jury made repeated requests from witnesses throughout our agency to produce documents that they either did not personally possess or have access to, were not familiar with, or of which they had little or no knowledge.”
He said in trying to satisfy the repeated requests, some of the witnesses located and released documents that were in draft form or only partially complete.
A Latin phrase atop the arched public entry to the new Northern Branch Jail sums up a philosophy that’s been incorporated not only into the way inmates will be treated but also into the very design of the facility. “I am the architect of my own future,” translated Thomas Jenkins, a retired San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office commander, as he led a tour of the facility Wednesday morning.
“Although the release of these documents was well-intended, this situation created confusion and fueled distrust with one juror in particular,” Brown said, adding that not making requests in writing through the designated lieutenant “ensured that delayed and partial responses were provided to the jury.”
The grand jury report claimed a video showed a deputy removing a piece of evidence from the dead man’s cell that jurors were told was a towel, but “the jury believes the item shown in the video was the T-shirt ligature, a potentially important piece of evidence” that later showed up in a paper bag at the autopsy.
Brown said the alleged mishandling of evidence was false, that the item was a soiled towel used in resuscitation efforts and the T-shirt had been photographed and placed in a numbered and sealed evidence bag that was still sealed when opened at the autopsy.