Under California’s minimum standards for jails, deputy sheriffs are required to make sure every person in custody is alive and well every hour, but too often the safety checks in San Diego jails do not comply with that policy, the county’s civilian review board has found.
At least two recent jail deaths underscore why the checks are important.
The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board will consider stricter safety-check policy recommendations at its meeting Tuesday night, the latest in a series of suggestions aimed at preventing people from dying in San Diego County jails.
Already, the state and local policies “mandate the direct visual observation of incarcerated persons with no more than a 60-minute lapse between the direct visual observations,” review board staff wrote in a report to the board.
But the current practice is to begin safety checks within 60 minutes, but not to conduct them in a way that ensures deputies see the incarcerated people are safe, the review board staff said.
The recommendations were prompted by the review board’s newly completed investigations into two men’s deaths in county jails last year.
Saxon Rodriguez was found dead inside his cell at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown San Diego four days after his July 2021 arrest. The 22-year-old Chula Vista man overdosed on a combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Review board staff investigated whether deputies failed to provide proper safety checks of Rodriguez and committed other policy violations or misconduct related to Rodriguez’s death. Board members are scheduled to consider the findings and recommendations at their Tuesday night meeting.
Richard Eshbach died from COVID-19 at a local hospital in November 2021, allegedly after deputies failed to conduct proper safety checks, attend to his medical needs and notify his family that he had been moved to a hospital.
The Eshbach case also is scheduled to be reviewed by the board Tuesday night.
The two in-custody death investigations are the latest independent cases that appear to show sheriff’s deputies failing to follow department rules. The findings are not considered official until they have been presented to — and voted on by — review board members.
Based on the policy recommendations that will also be considered Tuesday, the board’s executive officer Paul Parker appears to have sustained at least some of numerous allegations against deputies in both cases.
Among other things, the department should “take all necessary measures to change its current practice to conform with statute and its own existing policy by mandating that every incarcerated person be directly observed by sworn staff at random intervals not to exceed 60 minutes as opposed to simply ensuring the safety checks start within the mandated time-period,” the review board report said.
The checks are required every 30 minutes for people locked up in the medical observation unit and every 15 minutes for people placed into safety cells for their own protection.
“When it comes to the safety of incarcerated persons and the prevention of deaths or negative physical or mental health outcomes, every minute counts,” review board staff said in its report to the board.
The volunteer civilian oversight board also will consider recommendations calling on the sheriff to revise existing policies to add language singling out medical emergencies, including serious injuries and grave illnesses.
Review board staff said families of incarcerated people should be notified of medical emergencies within 12 hours — and that their contact with families and attempts to contact them be noted in department records.
“All attempts to and successful notifications of the next of kin, emergency contact, or legal guardian will be documented,” the report to the board says.
The Sheriff’s Department said in an email that it “appreciates the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board’s (CLERB) diligence in providing us policy recommendations. We are in the process of reviewing their recommendations and will provide CLERB our response upon our final review.”
More than 220 people have died in San Diego County custody since 2006, including 20 this year and 16 others besides Rodriguez and Eshbach last year.
According to the review board’s agenda, the oversight agency investigated whether deputies in the Rodriguez case failed to prevent illegal drugs from entering the jail, recognize that he was in medical distress and place him on opioid-withdrawal protocols.
Two unnamed deputies also were investigated for allegedly failing to administer CPR in a timely manner.
According to Rodriguez’s autopsy report, nearly two hours passed between when deputies last saw him alive and when he was found unresponsive in his bunk.
In the case of Eshbach’s death five months later, the board investigated whether deputies had provided “poor living conditions,” neglected his medical needs, failed to notify his family about his medical emergency or conducted “inadequate” safety checks.
Recommendations from the review board to the Sheriff’s Department are strictly advisory.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last month that more than 15 separate recommendations dating to last year have yet to be adopted or rejected by the Sheriff’s Department, including a suggestion that all employees be screened for illegal drugs before entering county jails.
The department said it is evaluating the recommendations as quickly as it can.
The Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday inside the County Administration Center at 1600 Pacific Highway in San Diego.
The meeting can be viewed online at https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89148743527?pwd=bk9wN1VaZGZoS0hLVHpNSE0zdTkxdz09