December 15, 2022

Article at San Diego Union-Tribune

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Oversight board blames overdose death on sheriff’s department failure to keep drugs out of jails

A photo of Saxon Rodriguez taken in early 2021.
(Sundee Weddle)

Four people, their faces looking pained, hold poster-sized photos of their loved ones.

The independent review board that provides oversight of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department took the unusual step this week of faulting the entire department for failing to keep illegal drugs out of its jails.

That finding Tuesday was tied to the death of Saxon Rodriguez, who was found unresponsive in his cell in the Men’s Central Jail in downtown San Diego on July 20, 2021, four days after his arrest. He was 22.

According to the county medical examiner, Rodriguez died after ingesting a combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Paul Parker, the executive officer of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, said the board’s finding was tied to a complaint filed by Rodriguez’s mother, Sundee Weddle.

San Diego Central Jail in downtown San Diego.

While the review board automatically investigates all in-custody deaths involving the sheriff’s and probation departments, anyone can also file a complaint asking the board to investigate certain allegations.

“Rodriguez’s mother, in her signed complaint, wanted to know if there were any procedural violations pertaining to ‘keeping illicit drugs out of the jail system,’” reads the board’s summary of findings.

From left to right, Saxon Rodriguez, his mother Sundee Weddle and siblings Sabrina Weddle and Seth Rodriguez in 2015. (Sundee Weddle)

The summary goes on to say that although the Sheriff’s Department has taken steps to keep dangerous drugs out of its six jails, “there is no doubt that Rodriguez, while as an incarcerated person in the custody and under the care of the SDSD, acquired and took fentanyl and methamphetamine, which resulted in his death.”

While review board investigators were unable to pinpoint how the drugs made it into the jail, “The evidence indicated that either sworn SDSD personnel and/or non-sworn SDSD personnel failed to prevent illicit drugs from entering the detention facility,” the finding says.

Drug-related deaths have plagued San Diego County jails. A study by Analytica Consulting, commissioned by the review board and released in April, found that compared to other large counties in California, “inmates in San Diego jails have the highest death rates.”

The report goes on to say that a person incarcerated in a San Diego jail is twice as likely as someone incarcerated in another California jail to die from a drug overdose.

Video | Man called 911 for help, died after deputies pepper sprayed him on way to jail

Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Lt. Amber Baggs said that the department is focused on keeping illegal drugs coming into county jails through use of body scanners, urine tests and medication-assisted treatment programs. All deputies carry the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone, which is also readily accessible in jails for anyone who encounters an overdose.

“We commend the work of our employees who work very hard every day to prevent drugs from entering our jail system, as well as saving lives when people overdose,” she said.

“The people who are housed inside our jails are also a segment of the outside community,” she added. “Sadly, there are many people in our community suffering from drug addiction. We have seen the havoc and devastation that fentanyl, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs have caused to our friends, families, and loved ones. We share the concerns of our communities and are committed to providing a safe environment for those in custody. We care about the people we serve, both in custody and out of custody. We are a part of those communities as well, and we send our deepest condolences to those who have lost someone due to this epidemic.”

The review board also voted Tuesday to forward a recommendation to the Sheriff’s Department to ensure that safety checks of detainees are conducted hourly, as required under California’s minimum standards for detention facilities.

The current practice is to begin safety checks every 60 minutes, but that could mean more than an hour goes by before a person is actually seen via the “direct visual observation” required by policy.

A photo of Saxon Rodriguez taken in early 2021. (Sundee Weddle)

While Rodriguez’s autopsy report said that nearly two hours passed between when deputies last saw him alive and when he was found unresponsive in his bunk, the review board’s executive officer, Paul Parker, said surveillance video showed a shorter time period — 65 minutes and 28 seconds.

Whether avoiding those extra five and a half minutes could have prevented his death is unknown, but when it comes to incarcerated people’s safety, “every second counts,” the finding says.

According to Rodriguez’s autopsy report, medical staff believed there was a chance he could be revived.

They gave him five doses of naloxone, the medication that can reverse opiate overdoses, performed CPR and summoned paramedics. Twenty-five minutes passed between when he was found unresponsive and when he was pronounced dead.

From L to R: Saxon Rodriguez, Sundee Weddle, Sabrina and Seth Rodriguez in 2015,

As with the other finding in Rodriguez’s case, the review board took the unusual move of issuing a misconduct finding against the entire department, rather than only against the deputies responsible for the safety checks when Rodriguez died.

“A sustained finding will not be recommended against the involved deputies following the standard practice but, instead, against the (sheriff’s department) itself for knowingly allowing practices that routinely violate (state code) Title 15 and its own policy and procedures.”

San Diego County Sheriffs downtown central jail

Weddle told The San Diego Union-Tribune she agrees with the review board’s findings and recommendations.

“The sheriffs have to follow and practice these policies and recommendations, and unfortunately, I just don’t see that happening consistently,” she said. “We won’t see real change until all jail staff, both sworn and medical, are held accountable when someone dies on their watch.”

Currently, the review board does not have jurisdiction over jail medical staff. But that may soon change. For the last two years, Parker has advocated for the review board to have jurisdiction over all jail staff, not just deputies.

SAN DIEGO, CA-NOVEMBER 18, 2015: | Sheriff's Deputies escorts inmates down a secured hallway at downtown Central Jail. | (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Tuesday, Parker said that he has had multiple meetings with county lawyers.

“We have decided to expand our jurisdiction not just to medical service providers but also all personnel who work for the Sheriff’s Department,” Parker said.

The next step, Parker said, is for county lawyers to meet with any labor unions whose members might be affected by the policy change, as required by state law.