By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Francine Tournour is the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother who worked as many as three jobs as a nurse to provide for them.
As a child, Tournour ironed and readied her mother’s uniform for when she came home from one job for a brief nap before heading off to another. It wasn’t her only family task. An older brother suffered from mental health issues exacerbated by drugs and alcohol. He’d often come home primed to fight. It was Tournour’s job to find something to occupy and subdue him.
“There was one person who had his arms and my mom had him in a chokehold. It was like the Highland Hospital Darth Vader death grip,” she said, referring to the renowned Oakland trauma center where her mother earned on-the-job combat training.
Tournour recalled the family phoning the police during one incident. Two officers arrived. Decades later, she still remembers their names. The officers, she said, were notoriously bad news in the community and eventually went to prison for their misdeeds.
“They weren’t our regular beat officers, so they weren’t necessarily familiar with the history that we have been dealing with, with my brother’s mental health issues or alcoholism or whatever else. They were just like, ’You know, it’s not our job to raise your kids and you need to get off welfare.’”
The disrespectful comments angered Tournour and a seed was planted.
“I remember thinking, ’I want to be a cop. I do not want anybody talking to somebody else’s mama this way.’”
She was 8. “I was little enough to know to be quiet, but I was old enough to be offended,” she said.
Tournour fulfilled her childhood promise to herself and went into law enforcement, working as a deputy sheriff in Contra Costa County. She desired to change things from within.
“It came from a very passionate place.”
Tournour left law enforcement to come to Sacramento in 2006 and serve as deputy director of the City’s Office of Police Safety and Accountability. She was promoted to director in 2008. Tournour retired from the office in 2019 and vowed her next steps would involve doing what “feels right.”
Tournour said her new role is like coming home.
“It has always felt right, being a part of, and working with, the community,” she said. “I think my makeup has always been that I want to help people. I’m the type of person that leans in when there’s an issue.”
The Board of Supervisors unanimously selected Tournour for the oversight role after a national search. She was the “best and most qualified candidate,” Don Nottoli, board chair and District 5 supervisor, said in a statement.
Area activists have argued the inspector general essentially was a mouthpiece for the sheriff’s office, which runs local jail facilities. According to the County, the inspector general’s office facilitates the board’s responsibility to oversee without interfering with the sheriff’s investigative or personnel deployment functions. The County outlines the role as ensuring “the integrity of the citizen complaint process and the thoroughness and fairness of related sheriff’s office investigations.” Fostering positive relations with the community is also part of the job.
Tournour will present recommendations based on her examinations to the Board of Supervisors, county executive and county sheriff. The inspector general serves on a contract basis, with the current running through Aug. 31. The Board of Supervisors can renew the agreement for two additional one-year terms.
Tournour spent the last three years in the private sector. “It was a great experience,” she said. “It helped me hone some of my investigative skills and look at things from a perspective that was more specific to the corporate field, but being a part of the community and doing the good work of the community is really where my heart lies.”
Tournour is back in Sacramento after living in Portugal for the last six months. She’s returned refreshed.
“Stepping away from things and then coming back, you get a new perspective, or you can provide a new perspective, when you’re not in the middle of it and dealing with it.”
The climate in Sacramento was tumultuous when Tournour retired in 2019. Two police officers fatally shot 22-year-old Stephon Clark in March 2018 after mistaking the Meadowview man’s cell phone for a gun. Clark’s death sparked months of protests and prompted California lawmakers to call for use-of-force reform. Local activists still were saying the name of another African American, Joseph Mann, who was shot 14 times in 2016 by two officers in Del Paso Heights. Officers initially tried to run over Mann with their squad car. While District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert cleared the officers of wrongdoing in 2017, they reportedly left the department that same year.
In Tournour’s absence, the City hired its first inspector general to review use-of-force cases involving the Sacramento Police Department. Dwight White, who is Black, took the position in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and that of several controversial police-involved shootings in the Sacramento area. White previously worked as an investigator for Chicago’s civilian office of police accountability.
City and County mechanisms are vastly different, but Tournour looks forward to the new position’s challenges. She’s meeting with people, scheduling jail tours and ride-alongs with deputies to see different parts of the city.
“There’s a lot going on, like the Mays Consent decree within the jail, getting up to date on some of the issues that have already been pointed out and just helping that process to make sure that the necessary changes are being made,” she said. “And where the changes aren’t being made that are required, [asking] why not. If it’s an issue of personnel, then that’s where accountability comes in.
“I’m going into it understanding there are always areas that can be improved in any correctional institution,” Tournour added. “The main reason I wanted the job is because I am passionate about this type of work – reform and trust-building. Being that I was formerly in law enforcement, I do understand the challenges that can take place when you’re in that position. It gives me a bit of a unique perspective.”
Her Oakland upbringing is also helpful. “Being raised by mom, with a single income in a very tough area, I know how I felt on the other side as well. I want to help both sides reach each other.”
Sometimes people judge law enforcement and engage with them unfairly, she said, based on biases or a failure to see things from their point of view. In some instances, law enforcement can, for lack of a better term, shoot themselves in the foot when interacting with the public.
“It’s not that the officers are trying to be less compassionate,” Tournour said. “It’s just how they’re trained. Sometimes that doesn’t look good.”
Tournour’s work reviewing the City’s fire and police departments as OPSA director, cleared some of wrongdoing and led to others’ dismissal. She earned a reputation for increasing transparency. She championed families asking to see police body cam footage in controversial incidents and recommended alternative police interaction with mentally ill individuals. Former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her as a community member to a state board governing jail conditions, which she describes as both helpful and eye-opening.
Being responsible for oversight will earn Tournour friends and foes. As a Black woman, the first to serve in her new capacity, some will expect her to solve all the County’s ills and become frustrated when she can’t. Others will take issue simply because she is a Black woman doing the work. Race shouldn’t be an issue, she said. It isn’t for her.
“I’m proud to be in the spaces that I’m in. It is a blessing and I think that God puts me exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “What I have learned is that I cannot let other people’s issues become my own. If they take issue with the way I look or how they perceive me without knowing me, then that’s something they need to work through personally.
“So I let my work stand for itself. I know what I’m capable of when it comes to my work product and that’s what I stand behind.”