47 Calif. sheriff’s deputies removed from active duty after poor psychological exams

An internal audit revealed that each was hired despite falling short of psychological testing standards


By Jakob Rodgers
Bay Area News Group

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. — Nearly four dozen Alameda County sheriff’s deputies were wrongfully hired over the last six years despite unsatisfactory scores on their psychological exams — a revelation that forced the deputies, about 10% of the force, off active duty, and could put an untold number of criminal cases in legal limbo, the department confirmed Monday.

Beginning Friday, the 47 deputies — most of whom worked at the county’s Santa Rita jail — were told to turn in their firearms and move to desk duty after an internal audit revealed that each was hired despite falling short of psychological testing standards established by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

The moves followed the arrest of a sheriff’s deputy earlier this month in the execution-style killings of Benison Tran, 57, and his wife, Maria Tran, 42, in their Dublin home. The deputy, Devin Williams Jr., was hired by the sheriff’s office in September 2021 after failing to pass a probationary period with the Stockton Police Department.

Lt. Ray Kelly, a sheriff’s spokesman, declined to say whether Williams was among the 47 deputies who failed their entrance psychological evaluations, citing employee confidentiality laws. However, Kelly said Williams was “the reason for the audit, and he’s the reason that we discovered the background discrepancies.”

The botched hires bring an ignominious end to Sheriff Greg Ahern’s tenure at the Sheriff’s Office, which he has helmed since 2007. He recently lost his re-election campaign to the commander of the Santa Rita Jail in an election that centered largely on conditions at the jail and a stream of lawsuits against the county alleging woeful mental health care there. Earlier this year, the jail was placed under a federal consent decree in a bid to improve conditions at the facility.

Kara Janssen, one of the attorneys who helped secure the consent decree, described the latest revelations of improper hires by the sheriff’s office as “very concerning.”  She expressed alarm at how the changes will affect staffing at the jail, which is one of the nation’s largest.

“It also speaks too just how bad conditions have been at that jail for so long, and the real need to change the culture in the institution,”  Janssen said.

The revelations also raised questions about the handling and fate of criminal cases investigated by the deputies. A spokesperson from the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said the office is aware of the issue and is evaluating its potential impact on past and current cases.

In a statement, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office said it was still trying to grasp the breadth of the issue, having yet to receive a list of the deputies who were relieved of active duty.

“If these deputies were not fit for duty, then how can we trust them to investigate our clients and testify against them in court?” Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods asked in a statement “How can we trust them to treat people properly at the jail? This revelation could compromise hundreds of cases – closed and pending.”

On Monday, Kelly blamed faulty advice from California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training for the error. He also acknowledged that the revelations were “very alarming and shocking” to the employees removed from active duty.

The affected deputies will receive the same pay and benefits while awaiting the result of new psychological exams, Kelly said.

“This falls solely on the agency and not on the individual employees,” Kelly said. “This is not a fault of theirs. This is the fault of the agency that did this.”

“This is an internal review, and an internal audit that we have brought forth, by checking our work and finding that our work was inaccurate,” Kelly added. “And as soon as we found out there was a problem, we immediately have taken steps necessary to remedy it and to fix it.”

The news was first reported by KTVU.

The mass benching stems from psychological exams administered to new hires beginning in January 2016. Kelly claimed the California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training gave the green light that year written and verbal messages to hire people who received a score of “D-Not Suited” on a typical academic scale of “A” to “F.” He declined to release those messages Monday.

In a statement on Monday, the commission said it is investigating the situation.

The tests encompass multiple-choice questions and an oral exam. They are typically used to gauge an applicant’s ability to handle the mental rigors of being a law enforcement officer, while also assessing whether an applicant usually tells the truth, or is prone to lying.

All 47 of the deputies removed from active service on Friday received “D” grades during that time, Kelly said. Ten were hired from 2016 to 2018. The other 37 had been hired since 2019.

Thirty of the 47 affected deputies worked at the Santa Rita Jail — forcing the agency to fill about 100 shifts a month to account for their absences, Kelly said. The rest worked in other areas of the sheriff’s office, including on patrol, in courthouses and at the Oakland International Airport or with AC Transit.

Most of the 47 deputies were either transfers from other law enforcement agencies or graduates of California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training program, Kelly said.

All 47 deputies must now undergo new psychological exams, Kelly said. The new evaluations will be done by independent psychologists certified through the state’s training commission, he added.

“We have no control over the process,” Kelly said. “And it’s entirely up to the psychologist to review that.”

It remains unclear what could happen if someone fails the test. The sheriff’s office plans to retain deputies who receive “suitable” grades from their make-up tests, according to the letter issued Friday to the 47 deputies.

Deputies still on probationary status could be laid off. Tenured deputies who fail again “do have work rights and job rights to their position, and that’s something that would have to be worked out through a legal process,” Kelly said.

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