Inquiry into Sheriff Bianco and his department receive support from Palm Springs Councilors

PALM SPRINGS — All that’s needed now is a rewrite, postage stamp and-or a “Send” button and a redrafted letter from the Palm Springs City Council will be sent to California Attorney General Rob Bonta. The letter is in support of the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for a formal inquiry into Sheriff Chad Bianco and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

It was part of the City Council’s consent agenda. A consent agenda groups the routine, procedural, informational and self-explanatory non-controversial items typically found in an agenda. Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton pulled it for further discussion.

The council wants to make the letter more deferential to the Attorney General’s judgment.

“It’s an extremely powerful letter and outlines a number of issues and and allegations and provides some direct evidence for those [and] if they are found to be true then the consequences for these actions should be rather considerable,” Middleton said.

But, she cautioned that the city needs to “be careful” about the content of its own letter because it repeats much of what is in the ACLU’s own letter and could be seen as politically motivated.

“I think we should limit our remarks in referring this to the Attorney General to ‘we are aware of this letter, we are concerned by the allegations and we encourage the attorney general to determine what is true and determine whether an investigation is in order’ and stop there,” she said.

Councilman Geoff Kors, who during the 2018 campaign between former Sheriff Stan Sniff and Bianco refused to endorse either,  said that he feels compelled to send a letter of support. He is less concerned about content.

The city’s letter appears to have taken root on on Sept. 16. That’s when the ACLU submitted a letter to the Attorney General’s office outlining several of its concerns with Bianco and how the sheriff’s department has operated during his tenure. This is Bianco’s first term in office.

To piggyback on the ACLU’s letter, Mayor Christy Holstege, who has called for Bianco to resign, requested the City Council send a letter of support. She has taken some heat on social media.

“Why she so concern (sic) over the Sheriff, he has no control over our city,” David Hoffman wrote on social media. “This is smoke screen to her run for state assembly.” Holstege has announced her bid for state Assemly.

Susan Smith Cogliano wrote, “…Can Holstege better focus on City of Palm Springs crime situations, cut out the shenanigans?! Witch hunt unnecessary, waste of money, time.”

Matthew Batista Naylor wrote, “The Council should also resign.”

The Council was also praised for its courage and conviction in holding Bianco accountable.

The concerns detailed in the ACLU letter include a failure to adequately protect inmates from COVID-19 and high rates of other in-custody deaths and fatal shootings by deputies, with people of color disproportionately likely to be shot by deputies. As of Oct. 25, there had been 1,102 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two confirmed deaths from the virus in Riverside County jails.

According to Police Scorecard data cited in the letter, Black people were 1.6 times more likely than white people to be killed by police in Riverside County between 2013 and 2020.

The letter also states that the department has repeatedly rejected recommendations made by Riverside County’s Civil Grand Jury about how to improve jail operations and that California Board of State and Community Corrections has failed to adequately investigate abuses within Riverside County’s jails.

“For years, this department has demonstrated a pattern of racist policing practices, rampant patrol and jail deaths, and a refusal to comply with recommendations from oversight agencies and a court-mandated consent decree,” a section of the ACLU letter states. “Riverside County residents, particularly residents of color and low-income residents, have suffered immeasurably as a result.”

The letter is also signed by 31 other organizations, including Starting Over Inc. and Riverside All Of Us Or None, two groups focused on helping currently and formerly incarcerated people in Riverside County. Each group focuses on on helping incarcerated people — both current and former— inmates in Riverside County.

The city’s letter raises several other concerns, including Bianco’s 2014 purchase of a one-year membership in the Oath Keepers., According to its website, Oath Keepers is a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

“I think it’s unfortunately politics as usual with quite a bit of hypocrisy.  They want to somehow say I’m responsible (for) — or participated in — Jan 6,” Bianco told Uken Report in an earlier interview. “I have spoken against what happened as all law enforcement should. 2014 is not 2021.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Oath Keepers, which claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, is one of the largest far-right antigovernment groups in the U.S. anti-government militia organization that encourages its members to not enforce laws they believe violate the constitution.”

The city’s letter also mentions what it describes as a sheriff’s office refusal to enforce public health mandates. In December 2020, Bianco released a video criticizing Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying that the department would not be “blackmailed” into enforcing pending stay-at-home orders.

“Bianco’s statement and enforcement choices have communicated to the public that he himself will pick and choose which laws to enforce based on his own personal beliefs,” the draft of the letter states.

Law enforcement within Palm Springs is handled by Palm Springs Police Department, not the sheriff’s department. The city letter maintains, however, that the sheriff’s department conduct has a significant impact on city residents.

“Our constituents are directly impacted by RSD’s conduct, which affects not only residents of cities and jurisdictions directly serviced by RSD (i.e. County and contract cities) or relying on RSD’s services, but also, and importantly, all of our residents and neighbors, who cross fluid regional jurisdictional boundaries multiple times daily.”

The sheriff’s department also manages all of the county’s jails.