ER District attorney frustrated about lack of authority over code enforcement officers

District attorney frustrated about lack of authority over code enforcement officers

Unless the Code Enforcement Unit packs up and moves to Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos’ office, he won’t be deputizing Code Enforcement Unit officers anytime soon.

During testimony at the code enforcement task force meeting Friday, Gallegos shared his frustrations about a “mutant” structure where he has no authority over code officers, yet all the responsibility for their actions in the field.

“The problem I’ve had, no matter where (code enforcement officers) go,” he said, “is that the existing structure is something I personally don’t want to operate under.”

Whether code enforcement officers even need the police powers given to them by the District Attorney’s Office was brought up during the meeting, as well. Those powers don’t exist for code enforcement officers in other rural counties in the state.

Who has authority?

One of the problems with the Code Enforcement Unit’s procedures identified by the task force so far revolves around just who has authority over code enforcement officers at any given time.

Interim County Counsel Wendy Chaitin said at a previous meeting that when officers investigate cases, they fall under her authority, but when they enter the field, they’re under the capacity of the District Attorney’s Office.

The problem: Gallegos said he has no direct authority over the officers in the field, even though he deputizes them. Until he does, he said he won’t deputize code enforcement officers, whose police powers he rescinded in April.

“They would have to be my employees,” he said.

Mike Hislop, who also attended the task force meeting, said that when he took over as chief investigator for the District Attorney’s Office two years ago, he noticed a “lack of law enforcement supervision” over code enforcement officers in the field.

As a way to exert more oversight over code enforcement officers after hearing complaints about what was happening in the field, Gallegos said his office set up a review process in which code enforcement officers had to get their operational plans approved before serving a warrant.

“We wanted to make sure not only the officers were safe,” Gallegos said, “but that they were acting in a way that was safe for everyone.”

Those operational plans include the personnel involved in executing a warrant.

Hislop reviewed, and approved, the operational plans for the series of warrants executed in the Wood Ranch Road area earlier this year, but not the inspection warrants.

In fact, nobody reviewed those no-notice inspection warrants, and testimony at the meeting revealed they were obtained without the knowledge of the county counsel.

Those inspection warrants were written, and executed, by former Code Enforcement Unit Officer John Desadier.

He since voluntarily transferred back to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office on June 1 for pay reasons, he told The Eureka Reporter in a past interview.

Gallegos was open to the idea of bringing the Code Enforcement Unit under his authority, but warned that he would need more staffing to adequately run the program. Otherwise, his office would only be able to handle the most “extreme” cases.

“We would like the resources to do it,” he said, “so it’s not an empty assignment.”

On deputizing code enforcement officers

Some members of the task force have debated the issue of deputizing code enforcement officers and, as a result, arming them.

Code enforcement officers can request assistance from other law enforcement agencies, such as the HCSO, which usually occurs when officers execute inspection warrants in the field.

Task force member Bonnie Blackberry questioned why code enforcement officers needed to carry guns in the first place if they still bring backup from other law enforcement agencies.

“We need guns here because why?” she asked.

She also wondered why building and environmental inspectors don’t carry guns in the field if code enforcement officers do.

Task force member and former code enforcement officer Jack Bernstein said that code enforcement officers need those police powers to ensure their safety in the field.

“I don’t think you’d be able to adequately complete the tasks necessary (otherwise),” he said. “It’s better safe than sorry.”

According to a survey conducted by the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers, 46.5 percent of officers have police powers, 6 percent carry a weapon and 11 percent wear a bullet-proof vest.

On the issue of officer safety, 63 percent experienced an incident that involved their safety in the field.

Not all code enforcement units in rural California counties deputize their officers.

Del Norte Code Enforcement Officer Dave Mason said in an interview that Del Norte County code enforcement officers are not sworn in and don’t carry firearms, but it would be nice.

“I would feel better if I was armed, so I wouldn’t have to hide behind people,” he said.

About three times a year, Del Norte County code enforcement officers call in the assistance of the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office.

Del Norte County code enforcement officers face problems similar to those dealt with by their counterparts in Humboldt County, such as illegal dumping, abandoned vehicles and substandard housing. They also deal with methamphetamine labs in trailers.

When the Del Norte County unit was first formed, the county decided that the officers shouldn’t be deputized, Mason said. That could change at some point, as there are still people who want officers to be armed, he said.

Madera County, a rural county of similar size to Humboldt County, doesn’t deputize its code enforcement officers either.

“It’s basically that the county decided at this point not to do it,” said Madera County Code Enforcement Officer Eric Yancy.

Also facing problems with junk and abandoned vehicles, the Madera County unit, which has a 90 percent compliance rate, has never issued a no-notice inspection warrant.

Code enforcement officers in Humboldt County, who use inspection warrants for only 8 percent of their cases, give no notice 65 percent of the time in those cases.

When backup is needed, the Madera County unit coordinates with the sheriff’s office. Yancy said the operation can be shut down at anytime.

“We do what they say,” he said. “They’re the ones that are going to save us.”

By JOHN C. OSBORN , The Eureka Reporter
Published: Jul 12 2008, 12:09 AM · Updated: Jul 12 2008, 4:39 AM
Category: Local News