A heated debate erupted between members of the County Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office concerning law enforcement funding during the board’s special meeting Tuesday.
During what was supposed to be a meeting focused on the jail population in Santa Barbara County, members of the Board of Supervisors clashed with Sheriff Bill Brown over the allocation of law enforcement funds in the coming fiscal year.
The contentious conversation even led Sheriff Brown to claim the supervisors were in favor of “defunding the police,” setting ablaze a firestorm of responses from members of the board.
The Sheriff’s Office has proposed an operating budget of $177.1 million for the next fiscal year, which includes about $2.2 million for the operational budget of the Northern Branch Jail that is expected to open in the fall.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the Sheriff’s Office pitched a new housing reduction plan that will strategically shut down housing areas in the jail based on the average daily inmate population.
The Sheriff’s Office is optimistic this plan could effectively solve a long-term budget issue surrounding the amount of overtime pay needed for on duty staff by decreasing the amount of areas that are open when the inmate population is low. However, officials from the Sheriff’s Office cautioned that the rollout of the plan depends upon the average daily jail population, which they expect will climb after the pandemic ends.
After a lengthy discussion about maintaining a low jail population in the months to come, Supervisor Gregg Hart proposed withholding $2.2 million in funds from the Sheriff’s Office to let the conversation on maintaining a low jail population evolve.
First District Supervisor Das Williams agreed with this measure, saying resources are in a “never ending cycle” of being put into incarceration, and this gives the county a chance to “find another way.”
“The jail has been for many many years the black hole sucking up the money not only that could be used on diversion, and mental health and all this liberal do-good stuff, but that’s also preventing us from having a large enough drug enforcement unit for hard drugs,” Mr. Williams said during Tuesday’s meeting. “It is also what’s standing in the way of sufficient numbers in patrol, so I think that we have to budget some of these savings (from the housing reduction plan) in order to make sure that this stuff happens.”
The discussion over withholding funds from the Sheriff’s Office prompted an angry response from 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who said the action was “overstepping” on the board’s part.
“Give him the money. If you don’t like the way he spends it, you (Supervisor Williams) need to go out and campaign against him,” Mr. Lavagnino said. “This is BS.”
Sheriff Brown also blasted back at supervisors, saying the Sheriff Office’s proposed budget “centers around overtime that is driven by a chronically and structurally based deficit of staff to work in our custody system.” This year, the Sheriff’s Office is on track to record the lowest amount of overtime in a decade, the sheriff added, yet officials are uncertain if this current trajectory will hold up in a post-COVID world.
Sheriff Brown also said he believes the current jail population is “artificially low” due to the pandemic, and he expects to see an increase in the number of people in the jail as crime rates rise in the aftermath of COVID-19.
In addition to a historic backlog of cases in the criminal justice system, Sheriff Brown said the county has seen 15 homicides in the first few months of the year, while only 12 were recorded all of last year.
The Sheriff’s Office is also seeing a rise in robberies, burglaries, fraud and driving under the influence is increasing, Sheriff Brown reported.
“Our crime rates are significantly going up … “You cannot expect that we are not going to have an equal or greater number of people booked into custody (after the pandemic), and we don’t know where it’s going to end,” Sheriff Brown said. “So to sit there to say we are going to cut your budget and you’re going to have to deal with it, you’re going to force some choices that are going to be pretty ugly and that nobody is going to be happy with. We have got to have the ability to operate that jail safely for the safety of the inmates and for the staff that are in it, and most importantly, we have to operate a jail for the safety of our community. Because I can guarantee that there’s nobody in that jail right now that is in there for a low level crime.”
He later added, “I think that you are embracing the defunding of the police whether you mean to or not by this action, and I don’t believe that the people of Santa Barbara County who live in our incorporated areas, who live in our incorporated cities — I do not believe that the majority of those people would support defunding the police, and that is what you are talking about doing here right now.”
In response to the Sheriff, Mr. Hart defended his position and clarified that he was not proposing a decrease in funding, but rather slowing the amount of funding that is allocated at one time.
“The words you used were intentionally provocative, and I’m not going to go there because we’re not talking about defunding anything,” Mr. Hart said. “We’re talking about slowing the rate of increasing expenditures like we would be talking to any department at any place in the county.”
The discussion was eventually closed by Chair Bob Nelson, 4th District supervisor, who wanted to save further conversations about the budget until next week’s hearings.
Ultimately, the supervisors closed the meeting with a unanimous motion that asked the County Executive Office to seek information from the state about the parameters for rated jail beds, asked the Sheriff’s Office to return with more information on a timeline for the phased housing rollout and asked the CEO to consider having an outside organization evaluate the sheriff’s proposed housing plan.