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Sacramento Sheriff Stays Silent About County Jail Deaths

Since the beginning of this year, six people have died in jail custody and the county’s sheriff’s office has only publicly announced one of the fatalities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 10 people have died.

(TNS) — The Sacramento County, Calif., Sheriff's Office didn't tell the public about the Feb. 26 death of Deyyj Watts. The 40-year-old Elk Grove man had been locked in the downtown jail for about a week before a blood clot traveled to his lung and killed him.

Ten days earlier, Sheriff Scott Jones' staff also chose not to reveal that William Stevens had died after contracting COVID-19. They didn't issue a press release about Jadmon Barrett's death in April, or Karl Hutton's jail death on Memorial Day weekend, either.

The Sheriff's Office also failed to announce Darrell Paul's death in January, once again bypassing a longstanding best practice around the country of informing the public when someone dies in law enforcement custody.

Despite six men dying in jail custody this year, a Sacramento Bee review found the Sheriff's Office publicly announced just one of the fatalities — Timothy Noble, who died last month. Since the start of the pandemic, 10 people have died in Sacramento's jails, including four men between August and December 2020.

Incarceration experts say notifying the public when someone dies in a jail should be a basic expectation, particularly during a pandemic. Failing to tell the public makes it harder for watchdogs and families to understand what's going on inside the jails. It fuels distrust, particularly in an era when law enforcement practices are under scrutiny, they said.

"There's too great a likelihood that something can be termed a 'natural death' but it is actually preventable," said Michele Deitch, an expert on jails and prisons who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Law. "So, in a jail, I would be more skeptical of 'natural deaths' and would want more information about them."

Deitch added: "Any death in a jail should be a matter that raises concerns."

Sacramento County's long-troubled jails — one downtown and another in Elk Grove — are under a federal court order to improve health care. After holding off infections for months, the jails incubated a COVID-19 outbreak this year that infected at least one of the people who died from the disease.

With six deaths already this year, the Sheriff's Office is on pace to top its 2019 high of in-custody deaths. Only Los Angeles County and Orange County, which both have significantly higher jail populations, have reported more fatalities than Sacramento this year.

Jones' team at the Sheriff's Office doesn't think they're doing anything wrong.

Sgt. Rod Grassmann, a spokesman, wrote in an email that the Sheriff's Office has never issued a press release when people died of natural causes. (The causes for each of the five unannounced deaths this year are pending). The exception, he said, is "if an individual reporter or media outlet reports erroneous information."

Grassmann, who made $233,000 in 2019 as the Sheriff's Office spokesman, refused to answer detailed follow-up questions for this story. "My email to you yesterday serves as my response to your inquiry in totality," he wrote. "Best of Luck with your publication."

Beyond the human toll, every death in a Sacramento jail carries a cost to the taxpayer. Jail operations, including health care services for the incarcerated, are publicly funded. If there is a wrongful death at the hands of the Sheriff's Office, county taxpayers are on the hook to pay claims.

"They, as a public agency, have an obligation to inform the public about what's going on in their agency," said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. "Death is an extreme event, which the public should know about."

On the day that Paul died in the Sacramento jail, Jones' office posted photos on Facebook of cats and dogs for National Dress Up Your Pet Day. A month later, on the day that Watts died, the Sheriff's Office posted a photo of two people dressed as a dinosaur and a bloodhound. "Another week of crime fighting with Deputysaurus Rex and McGruff in the books," the post said. "Enjoy your weekend!"

Death in February Highlights Challenge

That Thursday night, on Feb. 25, Deyyj Watts hit the emergency call button from his cell in the downtown Sacramento jail. He passed out, and medical personnel loaded him onto a gurney. He died a few hours later at Sutter Medical Center.

Citing his history of blood clots, the coroner determined he died of a pulmonary embolism.

His wife, Mia Outland-Watts, tried in the days that followed to navigate a byzantine network of phone numbers and jail employees. She wanted to know whether he'd been given the medications he needed at the jail. She wanted to know if they were administered on time.

"I couldn't get nothing," she said in an interview with The Bee. "I emailed. I sent phone calls, voicemails. Nothing. I never got a response. I never got an answer. Nothing."

Erva Jones, Deyyj's mother, said she wanted more from the Sheriff's Office. Even if they weren't going to announce to the public that someone had died, drawing attention to her son, she thought the Sheriff's Office would at least work with her.

"The people that are incarcerated tend to have no name, no face, no power," she said. "But I did expect the sheriff's department to reach out and give us information freely, without us having to beg and plead for it and still not get it."

Deyyj told his wife that he knew he'd messed up when he acted aggressively toward her and the couple's four children at their Elk Grove home. In phone calls from the jail, he'd have moments of clarity where he realized what he'd done, she said.

Deyyj's physical health deteriorated after he left the Army, which sent him into combat in Afghanistan and took the couple around the world. He had a bad heart and even worse circulation. Last summer, doctors amputated one of his legs below the knee.

When the hospital sent him home, he struggled to adjust, Mia said.

In the week that he'd been incarcerated, Mia and Deyyj — who'd been together 23 years — researched diversion programs that can get people out of jail and into treatment. Mia said she was speaking with someone at the VA about a program that could help her husband get back on track.

He was hopeful the last time they spoke, she said. He was also realistic.

"All I can do is just do what I'm supposed to do," she remembered him saying.

He died two days later.

'Jails Cannot Be A Black Hole'

Sheriffs who run California's local jails, like all law enforcement agencies, are legally required to submit some information about deaths to the state Attorney General's Office. While the state publishes an annual report about deaths based on that information, the data is often delayed several months and omits the names of those who died.

The Bee obtained through a Public Records Act request the preliminary report for this year. It includes the names of those who died and whose deaths had been reported through June.

In addition to reporting to the state, sheriffs can decide for themselves whether to tell the public about a death on their watch. While many counties choose to announce when a death occurs, Sacramento stays mum.

Grassmann, the spokesman, said that the delayed report from the Attorney General's office is sufficiently transparent.

Critics disagree.

Failing to inform the public about people who die in jails is unacceptable, said Margot Mendelson, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which recently settled a lawsuit against Sacramento County that demands improvements to health care services and jail conditions.

" Sacramento County's jails cannot be a black hole," Mendelson wrote in a statement. "Through the Mays consent decree, the sheriff's department committed to necessary and overdue changes to jail conditions and the provision of care to people in the jails.

"That commitment must include transparency to the community."

Other Counties Announce Deaths

In San Francisco, where jail deaths are especially rare, the Sheriff's Office issues a press release with basic details about what happened. When someone died of natural causes last August, they announced it on Twitter. "Fortunately, we have not had many deaths in custody," Nancy Crowley, a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which has long had among the highest jail death rates in the state, is coming to embrace a more proactive policy after years of scrutiny from advocates and journalists.

Officials in April said they would publish press releases within 24 hours of a death, after a preliminary autopsy is completed and next-of-kin have been notified. Until then, the department was inconsistent with death announcements — reporters would have to file records requests to learn whether someone had recently died and family members were often kept in the dark.

With an investigation ongoing, Butte County on Friday announced basic details of a death from the previous night.

And the Orange County Sheriff's Department likewise issues press releases for most jail deaths. The exception is for someone whose death is expected, like in the case of a terminal illness such as cancer. Officials in 2019 vowed to announce unexpected deaths, both to get in front of any misinformation as well as to avoid any suggestion that they're hiding deaths, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman.

"We err on the side of transparency," Braun said.

In the past, Sacramento County has at times been more forthcoming. The department has, on occasion, promptly announced when people died in custody, including from medical issues.

While the Sheriff's Office no longer tells the public about deaths, a sheriff's office spokesperson is still brought into the fold, according to the department's policy manual.

They're just choosing not to report what they know.

"When a person passes in-custody, regardless of the circumstance, an immediate, very public and transparent multi-agency process is initiated," Grassmann wrote. He listed the investigative steps, which include notifying homicide investigators, collecting evidence, calling the District Attorney and doing in-person next-of-kin notification.

The public, however, rarely learns the details of that "very public and transparent" process because they never heard about a death in the first place.

Even family members are left in a lurch trying to obtain records about the death of a loved one.

'The Public Should Know'

Sacramento is among a dozen California counties with a coroner that is separate from the sheriff. As of last week, completed autopsy reports were available for just one in-custody death this year: Watts.

Kimberly Gin, the coroner, said her office has historically left the press release about jail deaths to the Sheriff's Office because it was more practical — they have a public information officer and she does not. She said she was unaware that the sheriff hadn't been notifying the public.

The sheriff confirmed a person died in custody last August only after a Sacramento Bee reporter noticed the death in records from the county medical examiner. A Sacramento News & Review investigation in September found the inconsistent announcements about deaths dated to 2019.

Sgt. Tess Deterding, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office at the time, told the SN&R last year that no policies had changed but the lack of announcements had strayed from prior protocols. "It would be [a] normal course of action to release information on inmate deaths," she told SN&R.

When The Bee asked about her comment, Grassmann wrote: " The Sacramento Sheriff's Office has NOT deviated from its historical policies and practices in regards to in-custody death press releases."

He would not answer a follow-up question about whether Deterding had misspoken.

While the Sheriff's Office did announce the July death of Timothy Noble they did so days later and only after prodding from a Sacramento self-described "leftist" journalist looking into an unconfirmed report of a death.

Grassmann said they announced the death because of "erroneous information." He refused to say what that "erroneous information" was.

But Deitch, the jail and prison expert, said notifying the public of every death under the supervision of the sheriff brings transparency to a public-funded system.

"Obviously, they don't want to be criticized for it," said Deitch. "But I mean, my God, that's so important. That's the ultimate need for transparency."

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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