San Diego Central Jail
San Diego Central Jail. File photo

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to receive the California State Auditor’s analysis of in-custody fatalities at the county’s jails, which criticized the sheriff’s department’s safety record.

The analysis, released Feb. 3, looked at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s record over a recent 15-year period and its related protocols, including prevention measures.

The department recorded 185 deaths between 2006 and 2020 in the seven detention centers it oversees, among the highest totals in the state. The state review concluded that the regional law enforcement agency had “failed to adequately prevent and respond to” the problem and called for legislative action to solve it.

On Tuesday, State Auditor Michael Tilden told supervisors that his office looked at 30 deaths, detailed case files and found a number of causes, including inadequate screening to check if an inmate has mental health issues or medical problems; the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board not investigating jail deaths in a timely manner; slow response by jail employees to deploy life-saving measures; and a lack of robust policies and proper safety checks to ensure an inmate is “alive and well, and actually breathing.”

Tilden noted that such breakdowns “had significant bad effects,” including five inmates dying within less than a week of being booked into a county jail. The report recommended that the state Legislature require the county sheriff to make the recommended changes, including better training for jail employees.

Meeting in person Tuesday, supervisors also directed Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to make jail reforms to the county’s Legislative Program, and work with CLERB to implement necessary changes.

Supervisor Nora Vargas, board vice chairwoman, said the audit “sheds light on deeply troubling issue in this county.”

Her colleague Jim Desmond described the audit as “a wake-up call.” He added that when low-level offenders were released from jails several years ago as part of a state law, many were mentally ill and are still homeless. Because the county doesn’t have the proper facilities at this time, it needs help from the state, Desmond said.

Supervisor Joel Anderson said the audit was a hallmark opportunity to make needed changes. When people are in custody, “we have a moral obligation to make sure they don’t die,” Anderson said. “We have greater challenges, and I’m glad this board is stepping up to those.”

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher added that the county is working on a series of initiatives to improve inmate treatment, but said it also needs to hire and train more employees, and renovate jails to accommodate services such as mental health screening.

In a written statement after the vote, Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said that along with finding an interim sheriff, “it is critical that the future leadership of our Sheriff’s Department take meaningful corrective action to stop deaths in our jails, and advance policy reforms to protect the public safety of all San Diegans.”

During a public comment period, the board heard from several county jail employees, who stressed that they need more help to ensure inmates get proper care.

Crystal Irving, president of the Service International Employees Union Local 221, said her group hopes the audit “will kick-start some needed changes.” While there’s a lot of talk about how things are changing, “now is the time for action,” she added.

On Monday, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released a status report on implemented, planned and ongoing improvements to its jail system.

The changes include an upgrade to wireless systems at all county jails, making the findings of all in-custody fatalities public, allowing a CLERB staff officer to respond to in-custody deaths and deputy-involved shootings that result in fatalities, and a pilot program that equips all deputies at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee with uniform-worn video cameras.

The department asserted that its leadership “appreciates the work of the state auditors, and we embrace the findings.”

“It is my goal to implement best practices that will ensure safe jails and the best health care for individuals in our custody,” Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez said Monday. “Along with this, it is imperative that we create a fully staffed and safe environment for our employees.”

The audit of San Diego-area jails was conducted at the behest of the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee after state legislators requested it last June.

The study ran from July to December of last year, looking into every aspect of the department’s record of in-custody deaths, policies, procedures, facility maintenance and staff records, according to state officials.

City News Service contributed to this article.