Code Cops, Not Real Cops

Critics are happy code enforcers won't carry guns anymore, but they still want those reports



The deed is done. The position of a Humboldt County code enforcement unit investigator has been officially stripped of law enforcement duties. No more guns. No more issuing and enforcing search warrants, although, a CEU investigator will still be able to write a search warrant to hand over to law enforcement to carry out, and to bring along sheriff's deputies for backup if needed.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved the job description revision this Tuesday, in a 4-0 vote (Supervisor Jill Duffy was absent). It was a bit anticlimactic. We already knew they'd no longer carry guns, after the board voted in December to put the unit under the county counsel's supervision. Before that, it had operated under the supervision of the county counsel, the district attorney and the sheriff, and the investigators had been sworn peace officers. The December vote clearly indicated that the CEU investigator position was headed for non-peace-officer status. Tuesday's vote just made it official by revising the job classification (but keeping the same pay grade as before).

There's been tumultuous debate for nearly two years over where to put the unit ("How about out of its misery," some have suggested) and what its duties should be, ever since a string of high-profile code enforcement raids in 2008 in several rural Humboldt communities. (See "Codes, Damned Codes," Feb. 28, 2008.) Meetings following the raids drew hundreds of ticked-off and fearful residents, some of whom accused the CEU of using code enforcement inspection warrants -- normally used in civil procedures to investigate code violation complaints of, say, illegal plumbing or substandard housing or junk vehicles -- to sniff out illegal marijuana grows. Many also complained of what they saw as heavy-handed police presence -- drawn guns, in once instance at least -- on these code visits. A task force was formed in April 2008 to study the situation and make recommendations, and it ended up making 17 of them.

So now it is settled. The code cops won't be real cops. But Tuesday's vote wasn't enough for a few Humboldt residents who've long followed the issue, including Bonnie Blackberry of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, and Dan Taranto. They both served on the code enforcement task force, and they wondered why the board seemed to be ignoring those recommendations. Where, they asked, was the new CEU manual detailing the unit's responsibilities? And when, they wondered, would the county produce some annual reports on the CEU's doings? According to Taranto, the CEU was supposed to have been producing annual reports at budget time, detailing fines, fees, penalties, forfeitures and so on, ever since the board made it a requirement in 1994. But, he said, there hasn't been an annual report in 13 years.

"And so you've been operating on, I would assume, just hearsay for the past 13 years," Taranto said during public comment. "And I don't know how you can really make discerning decisions based on no information. And so I certainly urge that you request at least three years of those missing annual reports so that yourself as well as the general community can see precisely what the code enforcement unit has been doing. Nobody knows. There is no report."

Later in the meeting, County Counsel Wendy Chaitin said that her office is working on an annual report for 2009. But she intimated that a report for 2008 wasn't necessary. "I think it's clear from the year 2008 -- which was the year of the task force -- I would think members of the public probably received a lot more information in 2008 than they would ever have received in an annual report," Chaitin said. "I mean, there were weekly meetings about the unit."

Supervisor Mark Lovelace said the revision of the CEU investigator's job classification was just one step. "This is not a completion of the actions that are necessary to implement all the changes," he said. He said clarification of the position had to be done quickly, otherwise the CEU position would be out of alignment with its new placement solely within county counsel. He also noted that, while there have not been the requisite annual reports from CEU, the board has regularly, and publicly, received reports on specific code enforcement items.

Supervisor Bonnie Neely added that "the other issues will come at a future time."

After the vote, Taranto, Blackberry and Tom Grover stood in the courthouse lobby talking. They complained that the board had just put the cart before the horse, officially defining the CEU investigator's duties before officially defining the purpose of the actual unit itself.

"I think they want to keep this unit, but they are not being fully forthcoming as to why they want to keep it," said Taranto. "And that's what's making folks suspicious and untrusting. Because what they're doing does not comport with what they were created to do. The original authorization of it was to go out and help the community clean up the junk yard -- the people with the junk cars, the people that like to pile up their garbage so that the rats can proliferate, and whatever."


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