Darrell Berkheimer: Some investigations just raise more questions
April 27, 2018
Today I must applaud fellow columnist George Boardman for his April 23 column. He raised some of the same questions I was planning to raise today, regarding observations on the Detective Jason Mackey misconduct investigation conducted by the Nevada County Sheriff's Office.
But George beat me to the punch — throwing a monkey wrench into my column as originally drafted. And George provided more background details than I had planned. So I encourage any readers of The Union who might have missed Boardman's Monday column to read through it. We both see some of the same unanswered questions.
I think a major conclusion we both reached is that Sheriff Keith Royal's office has been poorly managed in recent years. His office apparently has muddled through with too much blundering, as some staff members failed to receive adequate mentoring and monitoring. Online comments at the bottom of the internet copy of Boardman's column also cited high turnover in the sheriff's office — another indication of poor management.
A couple other online comments noted how well defense attorney Stephen Munkelt summarized the Mackey investigation in an April 15 Other Voices. It was Munkelt's report that prompted me to weigh in on the issues.
I don't have the in-depth knowledge of past events the way Boardman and Munkelt do because I came here only three years ago. And I have no personal acquaintance with any of the parties involved, so my observations are based solely on the issues as I read about them in The Union — and resulting from my years of experience as a newspaper writer and editor. But what I have read has prompted my concerns on the deportment of both the sheriff's and district attorney's offices.
I must admit, however, that I have a deep skepticism of internal investigations, because they are susceptible to overlooking conclusions and issues that might draw considerably more questioning and examination by an external or independent investigation. And it appears that was the case in the probe initiated nearly three years ago by Sheriff Royal's office, which he claimed to be "the most extensive in department history."
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If it was so extensive, why did it miss the difference between the court's copy of a Mackey affidavit and the one in the sheriff's records? That discrepancy was not discovered until last month by Assistant DA Chris Walsh, because the Sheriff's Office "never took the obvious step of checking the court files" to compare them with versions in the sheriff's records, Munkelt wrote.
As Munkelt indicates, the double-checking of records to make sure all versions agree is standard operating procedure for the beginning of any investigation.
Former Assistant DA Glenn Jennings was expected to do that checking when DA Cliff Newell outlined a plan to investigate potential Mackey misconduct back in May of 2015. But a couple days later, Newell canceled his investigation at the request of Sheriff Royal, in favor of the sheriff's internal affairs probe.
That was a big mistake. I believe an investigation into reported problems within one department normally will be perceived by the public to have more credibility when done by another agency. And in this case, an important investigatory step was neglected.
My concerns have nothing to do with whether Mackey's errors in some affidavits were deliberate or bumbling as a result of incomplete training. It's more a question of whether the Sheriff's Office failed to follow standard investigation procedures.
How can an investigation be considered extensive if it failed to conduct one of the most important early steps of any investigation — a check to see whether all documents agreed on the stated facts?
And why should Newell be expecting Jennings to sign a document stating that Mackey was cleared after a full investigation, when Jennings had been directed by Newell to bow out of the investigation? How many of us would be willing to sign our approval of an investigation's results when we were not a participant?
Doesn't that situation also raise a fundamental issue of possible collusion between two agencies that should be making sure each is following proper procedures? (Maybe the DA should not have been doing the investigation, either, considering the close relationship between the two offices.)
Jennings later refused to process another warrant application initiated by Mackey and subsequently resigned. And now he is a candidate running against Newell for District Attorney.
I realize Royal, and Newell, can give different takes on why the court checking was neglected. But even if everything else in the investigation was thorough, that one factor alone looms as an extremely important oversight. And this is not the first time that Newell has caused me to raise a questioning eyebrow.
In late August 2015, members of a black family attending a reunion at Rollins Lake reported they were threatened by two men. Both children and adults reported they were scared by the two men, including one who threatened the use of a shotgun. The Sheriff's Office responded to the incident.
Three months later Newell said he was continuing to review the evidence in the incident. He said: "I am not going to rush to a conclusion; I have three years to file a felony."
I have been wondering ever since why he would say something like that. And what would require a delay of as much as three years to issue a report or take action?
This coming summer will bring an end to the three years. And I have been watching for a public report on the incident. But to my knowledge there still has not been one.
These two incidents alone prompt me to question whether the "good ol' boys" network is operating in Nevada County, and whether major changes are needed in both the Sheriff's and DA's offices.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of five books available through Amazon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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