When San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks returned from his detention at an illegal Las Vegas brothel to his post as top cop in Redwood City last year, the Board of Supervisors claimed it was unable to discipline him.
The sheriff may have violated his department's own general orders by bringing shame and disgrace to the sheriff's office, but here in San Mateo County the top law enforcement officer is not held accountable to anyone but the voters every four years.
In fact, he's not even subject to his own department's code of conduct, according to the county counsel's office, whose officials explained that only a criminal indictment, a voter recall or a civil grand jury inquiry into misconduct could pave the way for the sheriff's punishment or dismissal.
Under such circumstances, the sheriff of San Mateo County has the privilege of policing himself without any firm guidelines whatsoever.
A survey of Bay Area's sheriff's departments found that the top cops in most counties hold themselves voluntarily accountable to the rules and regulations that their deputies must uphold.
Two Bay Area counties — San Francisco and Napa — have detailed protocol for investigating a sheriff accused of violating his or her department's general orders and the ability to punish the top law enforcement officer if the charges against them are substantiated.
"You can't have the sheriff out there involved in activity that is inappropriate or illegal," said Napa County Sheriff's spokesman Capt. John Robertson. "He's going to have to lead by example."
Civilian employees and deputies at the Napa County Sheriff's Office are already held to a high standard, "and as you move up to supervisory and administrative ranks, you're held to a higher standard the further you go," the captain said.
"The sheriff being at the top," Robertson added, "he's held to the highest standard."
To hold the sheriff accountable to that highest standard, the Napa County Sheriff's Office has a detailed procedure established in the event its leading law enforcement officer is accused of misconduct — whether it's a crime or a violation of the department's general orders. The case would automatically get referred to the county's district attorney's office, whose conflict of interest would necessitate that the buck gets passed to the state attorney general's office.
If the charges against the sheriff are not criminal but simply allege violation of the department's general orders, the attorney general would bring the case back to the county.
Once in Napa, the case would land on the desk of the county manager, who would automatically arrange for private investigators to review the case. The results would be given to the county manager and the Board of Supervisors, and if the investigation determined that the sheriff was guilty, then the board and the county manager would settle on a penalty.
There are several steps in the process, but the protocol is in place, Robertson said, because "in an organization like law enforcement, where you have the ability to take away the rights and potentially the lives of a citizen, you've got to be without reproach and not just in appearance — you have to actually act that way."
In San Francisco, the county charter dictates the people's right to hold elected officials, including the sheriff, accountable to a legislated code of conduct, according to Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner.
Should an official, elected or appointed, engage in "conduct that falls below the decency, good faith and right action required of all public officials," the mayor can suspend the accused and file formal complaints of misconduct.
Then, the city's ethics commission would hold an open hearing to determine guilt before forwarding the results to the Board of Supervisors. The board would then have to vote by a three-fourths margin to sustain the charges.
Not all Bay Area counties operate on the same principle of accountability for its elected officials.
In Santa Clara County, just as in San Mateo County, the sheriff is not formally subject to her own department's code of conduct. However, the sheriffs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties do consider themselves bound to the same rules and regulations they must enforce against their deputies.
"I would feel uncomfortable being the only person who doesn't practice rules that apply to the rest of the organization," said Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren Rupf.
Marin County Counsel Jack Govi said, "Our sheriff believes he's subject to the general orders of the department, and if he violated one of the general orders, he would discipline himself."
Self-enforcement may seem like a dangerous protocol — "The public may view it as the fox running the hen house," Govi said — but the system depends entirely on the integrity of the individual in charge.
Unlike the systems favored by Napa and San Francisco counties, these counties believe the buck stops with the sheriff.
But this sort of self-policing system is not without its checks and balances, according to Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who also considers himself accountable to the same general orders as his employees.
"If I were to seriously violate one of those orders or policies, I probably would not be re-elected," Ahern said.
Not that voting in an election every four years is the only way county residents can hold their top cop responsible, said Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner, who is president of the state Sheriffs Association.
The county Board of Supervisors could make life difficult for the sheriff by slashing his department's budget. "Everyone suffers, but that's one way (to punish the sheriff)," he said.
The bottom line, Bonner says, is that "as long as we elect sheriffs or hire police officers from the human race, there will be some mistakes. Some mistakes are going to be 'there before the grace of God,' and others are going to be more egregious."
The case of Sheriff Munks may have been a "sad story" and an "embarrassment" for the county, Bonner said, but the system of accountability in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office doesn't place the fate of an errant sheriff in the hands of county residents or even other elected officials.
The people who decide whether the sheriff will complete his four-year term may be the men and women of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, Bonner said. If the sheriff can manage to maintain confidence among his deputies, "they're going to stand by this guy," he said.
For Munks, whose top brass and rank-and-file leaders have publicly defended him in the face of the scandal, the future now seems more secure.
However, some current and former sheriff's deputies (interviewed by the Times on condition of anonymity) said that the Las Vegas incident has damaged the sheriff's credibility, and more high-ranking law enforcement officers now seem willing to decry Munks' visit to an illegal brothel as a less- than-pardonable offense.
"Those of us in law enforcement, we know what happened in Las Vegas," said Charles Plummer, a state law enforcement legend who stepped down as sheriff in Alameda County after two decades in charge.
"I'm not one to criticize people in my own profession if I don't have to," Plummer said. "But you cannot expect your people to abide by anything if you've gone out to the wilderness to some Asian house with no marking when in Las Vegas every hotel would give you a massage.
"If that was me, I would have resigned," he added. "Because the fish rots from the head."
Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at (650) 348-4331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.