By Nick Watt and Stephanie Becker, CNN
In Alameda County, just across the bay from San Francisco, 45 sheriff’s deputies have had their guns taken away.
They’re now confined to desk duties. They cannot arrest anyone. They cannot even issue traffic citations.
The department’s admission comes after an internal audit found those 45 deputies had failed the psychological evaluation that was part of the hiring process. They all received a grade of “D. Not Suited.” Not suited to be a law enforcement officer.
The evaluation they failed is mandated by California state law for anyone who wants to be a peace officer.
“If you’re looking at criminal cases or arrests that are based on an officer’s credibility … then that’s a problem,” says Adante Pointer, an attorney in Oakland who specializes in police brutality cases. “That could lead to convictions being overturned, charges dismissed.”
The audit, according to the sheriff’s department, was triggered by a double homicide in early-September. The suspect? A sheriff’s deputy.
“The two people, a husband and wife, suffered from gunshot wounds and were pronounced dead at the scene,” according to a release from the Alameda County District Attorney, which also says, “Devin Williams Jr, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Office deputy, has been charged with two counts of murder.” Detectives believe Williams “had been in a dating relationship with the female victim,” according to the arrest report. His lawyer did not return calls CNN made seeking comment.
“Devin Williams was the catalyst,” Lieutenant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office told CNN. “You have to look at not just the crime, but the fact that he was a law enforcement officer. And ask, are we missing something here? Red flags?”
Kelly would not comment on whether Williams had failed the psychological evaluation.
Williams is now being held at Santa Rita jail, where 30 of the 45 deputies who failed the psychological evaluation work. Earlier this year, a judge ordered external oversight of the jail, settling a lawsuit filed by inmates who claimed there was a dearth of mental health care as well as abusive conditions. A Department of Justice investigation into conditions at the jail, published last year, concluded that the county and the sheriff’s department likely violated federal law and the constitution by failing to provide inmates with adequate mental health care.
“From 2015 to 2019, at least 14 prisoners died by suicide in the Jail,” reads the April 2021 report in part. “Two other prisoners have died by suicide at the Jail within the last two months.”
“The question is, is there a correlation?” said Pointer, the attorney. Those deputies who failed the psychological evaluation, he said, “worked there for several years, in that jail.”
The 45 cited are among around 1,000 Alameda County deputies who have taken the psychological evaluation since 2016 and were hired, or less than 5%, Kelly says.
The evaluation mandated by California state law includes a written section, a background check and an interview, that according to the statute, is used “to determine if the candidate is free from any emotional or mental condition, including bias against race or ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, disability or sexual orientation that might adversely affect the exercise of the powers of the peace officer.”
Before getting the job, California law stipulates that candidates for the position “must be determined to be psychologically suitable.” So, by law you cannot get a “Not Suited” assessment and then be hired. But the Sheriff’s Department claims they were told otherwise, numerous times, by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, known by the acronym POST.
In a letter sent to those 45 deputies late last week, Sheriff Gregory Ahern wrote, “The Sheriff’s Office has been operating under information provided a number of years ago from POST that we can hire candidates who receive a “D. Not Suited” evaluation. Unfortunately, this is not the case.”
Kelly says he has correspondence that proves POST gave the department what he called “bad information.” He told CNN he cannot release it at this time.
“We are still investigating, and I can’t comment on any of that,” Meagan Poulos, a spokesperson for POST told CNN . She said she is unaware of any similar problems at other sheriff’s departments in the state. “This is actually the first time this has ever been an issue for us. We are in a lot of uncharted waters.”
Asked if any of the deputies who failed the evaluation could be considered a danger to society, Kelly said, “I feel no. But then you have the Devin Williams scenario.”
Kelly says the department has reviewed the service records of all 45 deputies. “No red flags. No bias flags,” he said.
The group, he said, includes a lot of female deputies and deputies of color, and a few White men.
He said not one of the 45 has a diagnosed mental health condition.
But Pointer, the Oakland attorney who specializes in police brutality cases, is skeptical.
“Forgive me if I am unable to take their claims at face value,” said Pointer. “They can’t just say, ‘Move along.'”
The deputies can now take another psychological evaluation and, if they pass, immediately return to full duties, Kelly says. In the meantime, they are on full pay. “It’s about 25 shifts per week that we need to fill at the jail,” said Kelly. “We can absorb that in the short-term.”
When Lieutenant Kelly was hired more than 25 years ago, he says there were thousands of applicants for very few jobs. He says the bar for entry was so high, “It was a case of do this, or become a saint.”
But, he says, times have changed. There are now very few applicants and plenty of vacant positions. Kelly cites the stress of the job, now carried out under social media scrutiny, as one reason that recruiting and retaining deputies has become such a challenge. “The caliber of the individuals that we would hire has decreased,” he said. “Now we are willing to overlook and waive some things that normally would never have got you in the front door of this place.”
Kelly told CNN that many of the 45 deputies who failed the psychological evaluation were straight out of college. And their youth, he says, rather than severe character flaws, might be why they flunked. “Imagine you’ve never had a job. You don’t have kids. Imagine trying to deal with a domestic violence situation. You don’t have any experience of that,” he said. “That’s why they might have had trouble with the psych exam.”
Not everyone is ready to accept that explanation.
“If you don’t have the maturity or the life experience to make life or death decisions,” says Pointer. “Then you shouldn’t be trusted with a badge. Or a gun.”
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