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Grand jury 

sheriff's deputies followed procedure, jails overcrowded

In its second of three reports this year, The SLO County Grand Jury put various corrections facilities under the microscope and recommended certain policy changes, but overall the findings revealed no surprises. The most notable chapters in the report deal with the grand jury's investigation of the county's jails and holding cells and for three incidents involving the alleged use of excessive force by the Sheriff's department.

In the latter, the grand jury's findings aligned with the previous U.S. attorney general's and district attorney's findings that sheriff's deputies followed procedure and did not act outside the law during the three incidents.

For the jails and holding cell investigations, the grand jury reviewed seven city police holding cells as well as the county jail and the county court holding cells. The grand jury found that overcrowding in the women's section of the county jail and county-courthouse holding cells was particularly troubling.

"This is nothing new," said Sheriff Pat Hedges of the overcrowding. He said that plans to improve the county court cells have been in the works as part of the new county government center construction.

"I suspect you will not see a grand jury report talking about court holding [cells] again," he said.

The Board of Supervisors will have to take on expansion to alleviate overcrowding as a capital project, said Hedges. "I would hope they view this as a priority."

The grand jury investigated three recent incidents regarding alleged use of excessive force - the apprehension of Gerald Bernales and the in-custody deaths of Jay Vestal and Keith Yecny. Bernales sued the county after he suffered brain damage during an arrest and was awarded a $2 million settlement. Both Vestal and Yency died while in custody and their deaths were attributed to drugs in their systems. The county awarded $650,000 to the children of Jay Vestal.

"In all three cases," the report states, "the Sheriff's Department followed their policies and procedures. To keep incidents in perspective, the Sheriff's Department has, in the last five years, held 65,708 people in custody and has made thousands of arrests. Any arrest is, at best, difficult."

The grand jury recommended that the sheriff's department supplement its policies by instructing officers to make a formal request for head X-rays when an individual has "incurred a head injury during an arrest or detainment."

Sheriff Hedges said he has already begun looking into this but admitted that he had reservations about deputies making medical decisions.

"We would prefer to take someone to the hospital, to the E.R., and present the individual to medical professionals and say, 'Do what needs to be done,'" he said. As in the case of Bernales, who suffered head injuries, the grand jury reported that deputies had in fact brought him to a hospital for a medical evaluation. It was there that an emergency-room doctor treated him and told deputies he could be transported to SLO County Jail without needing head X-rays.

The Grand Jury also recommended that the sheriff's department "consider having an appropriate outside organization, such as The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies ... review and audit its policies and procedures." ³

-John Peabody

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