Grand jury: Stanislaus County sheriff’s helicopter can be used for community events

06/27/2014 3:34 PM

06/27/2014 11:40 PM

A civil grand jury Friday released a report that found that it’s OK for the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department to use its helicopter in community events, such as efforts to help at-risk youths or charitable organizations.

The grand jury, however, noted that county policies do not allow for the sheriff’s helicopter to be used for such non-law enforcement purposes. The grand jurors recommended that a policy be created with a procedure on how to gain approval before the helicopter is used for something other than a public safety response.

Complaints about the helicopter usage came from a resident who alleged a helicopter ride was used as an auction item to benefit a local hospice organization. Concerns about the helicopter appeared in several articles in a local newspaper, according to the grand jury’s report.

A Stanislaus County sheriff’s helicopter took part in the Make Dreams Real event May 15, 2013, at Saddle Creek Resort in Copperopolis, Calaveras County, which raised money to send schoolchildren to sixth-grade camp and other outdoor education programs, according to a Modesto Bee news story published a year ago.

The helicopter’s use for a golf ball drop over the course was intended to benefit the charity organization, designed to help Stanislaus County children.

No specific event was mentioned in the grand jury’s report. As part of their inquiry, jurors reviewed the sheriff’s helicopter flight records from July 2008 through August 2013 to identify activities that might not be considered a law enforcement purpose.

The county CEO’s policy indicates that the sheriff’s helicopter shall be used only for law enforcement or emergency-related purposes, or for other county government purposes with prior approval from the county’s chief executive officer or a designee.

The sheriff’s policies list several proper uses for the helicopter, which include assisting other public safety agencies, assisting sheriff’s personnel on the ground, capturing suspects or inmates who present a danger, finding a missing person, conducting vehicle pursuits and rescuing a stranded person in a remote area.

The grand jury found that neither policy has specific language or procedure that allows usage of sheriff’s vehicles in non-law enforcement activities, no matter how charitable or beneficial. Yet sheriff’s vehicles, particularly helicopters, have been used in community events numerous times in the past several years.

Participating in activities to support at-risk youth and charitable groups provides a positive impression of the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement in the county, according to the report. The grand jury also said the department is especially supportive of activities that focus on the positive role of law enforcement, as opposed to the more apparent conflict that occurs in criminal investigations.

The grand jury recommended that a specific policy be written defining the use of sheriff’s resources such as helicopters for non-law enforcement activities. The jurors also recommended that such usage be approved in advance of the event by two senior managers at the Sheriff’s Department, or one senior manager each from the Sheriff’s Department and the CEO’s Office.

The report indicates that the elected sheriff is in a unique position in relation to the authority of the county’s CEO and the Board of Supervisors. While the board maintains approval authority of the department’s budget, the sheriff is directly accountable to the voters.

The grand jury says neither the Board of Supervisors nor the county CEO has direct supervisory authority over Sheriff Adam Christianson or his department.

The grand jury, which is a watchdog group, is appointed by the presiding judge of the Superior Court to serve a one-year term. Its recommendations are not legally binding, but officials have 90 days to respond in writing to the findings.

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