Despite a recommendation from the civil grand jury, the county won’t change a policy that sets boundaries for the use of Sheriff’s Department helicopters and other county-owned equipment.
The grand jury was not critical of sheriff’s aircraft participating in community events that help troubled young people or support charities. But the watchdog panel found no county policy that allows aircraft use for anything other than law enforcement.
The grand jury recommended that the county establish a process for considering requests to commit the aircraft and flight crews for purposes other than law enforcement. According to the proposal, two senior managers in the Sheriff’s Department, or a sheriff’s official and the county chief executive office, would need to sign off on requests.
That would take the decision away from Sheriff Adam Christianson.
In a response, approved by supervisors Tuesday, the county disagreed, saying the elected sheriff is accountable to the public and the Board of Supervisors. It said participation in some community events may be considered an indirect law enforcement activity and the board “allows some limited flexibility to the elected sheriff in determining what are proper law enforcement activities.”
The sheriff’s helicopters are used for search and rescue missions and to assist ground units in arresting suspects. But the expensive aircraft have come under scrutiny in the past 15 years for activities deemed to cross the line, such as transporting a former sheriff to out-of-county meetings or taking part in a commercial catalog photo shoot.
Christianson stirred debate in May 2013 when a department helicopter took part in a golf ball drop at the Make Dreams Real event at Saddle Creek golf course in Calaveras County. The event raised money to send children to sixth-grade camp and other outdoor programs.
The sheriff caught flak from an election opponent and was counseled by former county CEO Monica Nino on how the public might perceive the activity.
A resident complained when a helicopter ride was auctioned to benefit a local hospice organization, according to the grand jury report. A review of flight logs found that Sheriff’s Department vehicles, including helicopters, repeatedly have taken part in activities beyond law enforcement since July 2008.
The county’s response to the grand jury was tolerant of the sheriff’s decision to send helicopters to certain community events. “While the use of the helicopter as a silent auction item for a local hospice is clearly not a direct law enforcement activity, it arguably could be construed as an indirect law enforcement activity, similar to the use of a fire engine for a ‘fill the boot’ campaign.”
Such activities can provide a positive benefit for the law enforcement community, the county said.
The grand jury report was released in late June. Local agencies investigated by the grand jury are not required to follow the panel’s recommendations. They are given 90 days to respond to the findings.
The county also responded to critiques of the men’s jail in downtown Modesto and findings regarding the Housing Authority of Stanislaus County. The county agreed that the Housing Authority should post meeting notices as required by state law, should not allow employees to bring pets to the office, and should keep clients’ files in a vault or locked filing cabinets.
In another action, supervisors approved the final budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The plan calls for $1.1 billion in spending, a 4.8 percent increase over the previous year. Officials said the county will spend more this year because of increases to health and social programs, and to reduce debt.