Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones has backed down from his department’s commitment to break up social gatherings and enforce social distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus — a commitment that helped garner his department millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds at the start of the pandemic.
In a press release this past Thursday, Jones stated “the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office will not be determining … compliance with, or enforcing compliance of, any health or emergency orders related to curfews, staying at home, Thanksgiving or other social gatherings inside or outside the home.”
His statement came shortly before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a modified stay-at-home order impacting most of the state by imposing a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
But Jones had a different tune earlier this year, when he sought $104 million in federal coronavirus relief funds allocated to the county. According to documents obtained by CapRadio, the sheriff’s department indicated its employees would be “substantially dedicated” to addressing COVID-19, and therefore the money should cover their payroll and benefits.
The department specifically claimed sergeants and deputies would be responsible for “educat[ing] public on all calls for service” and “breaking up gatherings re: restrictions,” according to documents that describe COVID-19-related duties within the department.
Those sergeants and deputies — over 300 of them — primarily make up four divisions in the department, which received a combined $26.3 million federal dollars through the federal government’s stimulus package known as the CARES Act.
Jones declined an interview request about the department’s prior commitment to breaking up social gatherings.
“My position on enforcing Covid restrictions ... has remained one of education rather than enforcement,” Jones wrote in an emailed statement.
At the start of the pandemic, Jones publicly stated that his department’s “role is much more [of an] educator,” though he also noted that his deputies and sergeants “do have the enforcement ability.”
Sacramento County health director Dr. Peter Beilenson said Jones’ failure to take enforcement action has worsened the spread of coronavirus.
“It is imperative that everyone do their job as required by the CARES Act, and that the sheriff's department educate and break up gatherings,” he said in an interview with CapRadio. “It's really outrageous that they're not taking part in doing that and getting funded at the same time.”
The county has modified its public health order to reflect the latest changes at the state level, including the curfew, which lasts through Dec. 21.
Sheriff Secures $104 Million
Sacramento County received $181 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to stabilize its budget and mitigate impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But there are restrictions on how the money could be spent. For example, the county could not use it to backfill revenue losses.
Nevertheless, Sacramento County found some creative ways to spend the money.
It directed $104 million to the sheriff’s department, covering the payroll and benefits of employees who were “substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” as required by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The county determined an employee who devoted 30% of their time to COVID-19 response met that threshold.
The $104 million spent on the sheriff’s department then freed up the same amount in general funds. That money could be spent more flexibly, since it didn’t have to meet obligations described under the CARES Act.
Critics blasted the move, however, because the county prioritized spending federal relief money on the sheriff ahead of public health initiatives. The county Department of Health Services would later receive tens of millions in CARES Act dollars — though not until cases spiked in the summer.
“Seeing how the sheriff has neglected to do what he was required … I think that [the county] should have not funded the sheriff, or else funded him after other entities like public health,” Beilenson said.
The county’s five elected supervisors did not respond to interview requests from CapRadio.
‘Breaking Up Gatherings’
In order to secure the $104 million, the sheriff had to demonstrate how his employees’ duties intersected with COVID-19. CapRadio obtained a seven-page document describing responsibilities of various employees in the department, from jail and patrol officers to human resources workers.
Sergeants, deputies and watch commanders in the department’s north, central and east patrol divisions, as well as deputies in the special operations program, had three responsibilities related to COVID-19 mitigation: “Educat[ing] public [on] all calls for service, breaking up gatherings re: restrictions, modifying physical contacts on calls.” (“Modifying physical contacts” appears to mean changing physical interactions when responding to callers.)
The three patrol divisions and special operations program received a combined $26.3 million in federal dollars, according to documents Sacramento County shared with CapRadio. The amount is based on the payroll of its employees responding to COVID-19.
Department records show there are about 400 full-time employees in those four divisions. Approximately 338 of them hold the title “sergeant” or “deputy,” indicating their responsibilities include breaking up social gatherings.
CapRadio emailed the sheriff’s office to confirm the accuracy of these figures.
In response, department spokesperson Sgt. Rodney Grassmann confirmed the validity of the documents CapRadio used, but added: “As to your interpretation of the numbers, I’ve made no review nor make any assertions to their accuracy.”
In an email, Grassmann wrote, “It is inappropriate for armed officers to enforce health guidelines [and] the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the staffing to enforce health guidelines.”
He did not address follow-up questions about why the department initially committed officers to breaking up social gatherings, only to back out later, or why it is inappropriate for an armed officer to enforce health guidelines.
Grassman said the department does not respond to calls regarding large social gatherings that break COVID-19 health guidelines, unless the gatherings pose public safety risks beyond potentially spreading the virus. The department treats COVID-19-related calls as an opportunity to educate people, Grassmann said.
In his statement Thursday, however, Jones said residents who call to report gatherings in violation of COVID-19 guidelines “will be advised to call 3-1-1 and be routed to County Health.”
Grassmann did not address CapRadio’s question about how the department educates callers if they are routed to 3-1-1.
As the sheriff's office declines to take action on breaking up gatherings, Beilenson said the spread of the virus will only get worse in the coming weeks, especially with Thanksgiving and the holiday season ahead.
“The major way that this disease is spread is not in restaurants, not in gyms, not in fitness studios,” he said. “It is in gatherings at people's houses.”