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Sonoma County sheriff's candidates vow to change the 'culture'

The election to select a new Sonoma County sheriff isn’t until next November and the primary isn’t until June, but the overflow audience at an forum held at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building told a story of its own.

This is a closely watched campaign for a hot-seat office with unusually high interest among citizens. It is shaping up as the first contested sheriff’s race in Sonoma County since 1992.

The event began with the crowd abuzz at the news that candidate Jay Foxworthy had departed the race, citing family health issues. Foxworthy, a gay sheriff’s deputy in San Francisco who lives in Santa Rosa, had been held out by activists as one of two bona fide “progressives” in the race.

The other, John Mutz, is a former high-ranking officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who left the force not long after the 1991 Rodney King beating to focus on officer training. As gauged by audience reactions, he was the most popular candidate.

The progressive Mutz was joined by Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who distinguished himself in the forum as the candidate with the most electoral experience—he’s a former mayor of Santa Rosa and, before that, was a lieutenant with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

As such, the genial Olivares stood out for his frequent invocation of cross-agency cooperation and coordination
on thorny county issues such
as homelessness and mental-health services.

Mark Essick, a captain in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), came across as the technocrat insider with a particularized skill set—executive experience and an MBA—that he said gave him a leg up on the other candidates.

Carlos Basurto, an SCSO lieutenant and the appointed police chief of Windsor, could be fairly described, based on the content of Thursday’s forum, as the hard-headed “sheriff’s-sheriff” pragmatist of the lot, especially given an especially tough-love comment he offered on homelessness and the sheriff department’s proper response to the issue.

Basurto asserted during the event that SCSO-led sweeps of homeless camps would continue unless and until social-service agencies ramped up their game. He was the only one of the four candidates to defend the round-ups (Essick provided some context to homeless raids when he noted that SCSO officers had swept homeless encampments along the Russian River last winter to keep people from drowning).

But Basurto’s comment hit a nerve. “Fuck you,” a voice from the back of the room responded to his comment about the sweeps, and resonated throughout the hall. The exchange highlighted the tension around law enforcement in the county and the extent to which the well of police trust has been poisoned by the SCSO “culture” that all candidates vowed to change.

The forum was hosted by a consortium of Sonoma County organizations from the North Bay Labor Council to North Bay Jobs with Justice to the Wine Country Young Voters association.

The crowd featured a cross-section of Sonoma County, from Ms. Sonoma County in a tiara locked in conversation with a man in an “Occupy Santa Rosa” T-shirt, to a man in the hallway who mumbled about how immigrants were under the gun, sure, but the white man can’t catch a break either these days.

There were screaming children and documentary filmmakers on hand, along with a smattering of elected officials from around the county who showed up (though no members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors were spotted, at least by this reporter).

Looming large over the forum, and frequently invoked by the sheriff’s candidates, was the issue of how to “reform” the “culture” of the SCSO. None of the candidates directly identified what the culture was, except to say that the force of 650 sworn officers is mostly white and mostly male and that they would work to change the culture.

And the thousand-pound elephant in the room—the 2013 death of Andy Lopez, who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy—uneasily interacted with this notion of the “culture” and how to change it, given that local activists’ argument about the officer-involved shooting was that it resulted from an SCSO “warrior” culture that takes its cues from a military mindset and not a public-safety one. Lopez was shot by Iraq War veteran Erick Gelhaus while carrying an Airsoft replica AK-47 whose safety tip had been removed.

As the candidates were debating issues from immigration raids to cannabis policy, Sonoma County is proceeding in its defense of Gelhaus as it moved to appeal a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that pushed a federal civil lawsuit against the county and Gelhaus back to a district trial court, where that whole issue of “police culture” may be put to a jury trial.

The county is under increasing pressure by activists to settle a federal civil lawsuit brought by the Lopez family while it has requested an “en banc” hearing from the Ninth Circuit last week following its latest court setback (“en banc” means that a panel of 11 federal judges will rule on the appeal after a three-judge panel shot it down, voting 2–1 to remand the case back to federal district court).

Essick was the first to give an opening statement and highlighted his executive experience and college bona fides. Fresh off a series of town-halls around the county, Essick spoke generally of accountability, of “getting back to basics” and of community engagement as he sought to distinguish himself as the only candidate with relevant law-enforcement executive experience, and a master’s in business administration to boot.

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Basurto, the Windsor police chief, shot back that his 29 years of experience and current position is “pretty executive, if you ask me,” as he also offered bromides about “cooperation and trust” between officers and the communities they serve.

(Basurto, despite being the chief of police in Windsor, is actually below Essick in the SCSO hierarchy; he’s a lieutenant and Essick is a captain.)

Olivares promised to “build a new culture” if elected sheriff of SCSO, while highlighting his long-standing role as a community leader and elected official (and former local cop). He’s nabbed an endorsement from Blue Dog Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson.

Where candidates could highlight their strong local roots, they did. Where they couldn’t, they highlighted their outsider, reform-minded posture.

That describes Mutz, who elevated the rhetorical urgency of the occasion when he argued that the county was at a crossroads and that it had to make a choice to lead the way with 21st-century police reforms or not.

His activism was the result of the “horrific Rodney King beating” in 1991, which gave rise to a new training regimen in Los Angeles that, he said, replaced a system based on quotas and with one based on the ethic of respect.

He left the LAPD, he said, to focus on training. “I know it can be done, and I know how to do it.”

The candidates addressed a series of issues, from immigration and deportation changes under President Trump, to cannabis policy in the county, to mental health and criminality, to police accountability in light of the emergence of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), headed up by Jerry Threet.

On the immigration question, Basurto described it in personal terms as he vowed to protect so-called Dreamers (young people who were brought to the United States
by their undocumented parents, and who now face deportation under Trump) and positioned himself as the only candidate with active law enforcement experience who also comes out of the Latino community.

His supporters were out in force at the event—anecdotally, they seemed to be the most numerous and with the slickest campaign materials. “As a Latino sheriff, I feel I can build trust and protect them in times of uncertainty,” he said.

According to a recent report in the Press Democrat, Basurto was narrowly edged out by Essick to nab the endorsement of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association (SCDSA), 87 votes to 84.

Basurto has been endorsed by retired Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas. Interim Sheriff Rob Giordano says he won’t make an endorsement and is staying out of politics.

Olivares, who earned four votes from the SCDSA, described the immigration problem as a federal issue that had been forced upon localities, such as Santa Rosa, as he pledged, if elected, to work with other agencies to protect immigrants, like the county’s public defender’s office. Olivares also took a shot at SB 64, the “state sanctuary” bill which he says “does not go far enough,” as he highlighted the need for a local sanctuary bill that the Santa Rosa electeds have yet to pass.

Mutz put the deportation question in its most direct light: “We are here to serve the people,” he said, “not the federal government,” as he too pushed back against county participation in deportation raids undertaken by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Essick repeated a common mantra among active law enforcement officers, when he said, “I have never, ever asked for the immigration status” of a suspect. “We are guardians of the community.” He pledged to continue with town-hall meetings as sheriff as he drew out one of the big concerns from his “listening campaign,” centered on the question of diversity among the ranks at the SCSO, where fewer than 5 percent of the officers are female (a fact which popped up during a recent Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meetings) but 100 percent of the people onstage at the Veterans Memorial Building were men.

“Women in law enforcement change the culture,” Mutz said.

Basurto pledged to lead a sheriff’s department that “looks like the community we are trying to serve” as he pledged to move beyond the rhetoric of diversity: “You will see me out there, doing the recruiting.”

Olivares said that the “culture of the SCSO is set by the sheriff,” and that might presumably mean a culture that’s not grounded in a sort of warrior ethos around policing, though he did not elaborate.

As for the IOLERO, created in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting, the candidates struggled to outdo each other in their praise for the independent police auditor.

Essick drew on his experience as having been “deeply involved in the creation of IOLERO,” as he noted that he “loved the relationship with Jerry Threet and saw opportunities to expand its purview into sheriff’s policies and also expand the mandate for community engagement.

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Basurto said simply that IOLERO is “one of the best things to come to the county in a long time,” and pledged to engage on a daily basis with Threet’s office.

In his praise of IOLERO, Olivares took a shot at the SCSO’s current management for its failure to leverage $600,000 in state grants that would help build trust, community and the audit services provided to SCSO by Threet (the annual SCSO budget is itself $150 million).

Mutz pledged to enhance the partnership with Threet as he stressed that transparency and accessibility have to spring from the SCSO if the auditor is to have any chance at doing its part to change the proverbial culture. “It’s just a step,” said Mutz. “More needs to be done.”

The candidates were also asked to address the issue of mental health in the county’s criminal justice system, and especially at the Main Adult Detention Facility where, as Essick noted, an estimated 440 of the jail’s 1,100 inmates struggle with some form of mental-health issue or another, often with drug addiction to go along with the mental illness.

Drawing a page from, of all people, former Senator Hillary Clinton, Essick said that dealing with the county’s outsized population of mentally ill prisoners “truly does take a village. We are the de facto largest mental health institution in the county.”

Basurto and Olivares both observed that the county has met the challenge through a new Behavioral Health Unit now under construction next to the jail.

But the plain-spoken and blunt Basurto observed that the new unit is essentially a capitulation to the very thing that nobody wants to see: mentally ill people winding up in jail when they ought to be in treatment centers.

Mutz picked up on the thread. “This is a justice issue, plain and simple,” he said, and an unreconciled one. “We have to stop criminalizing mental illness.”

When it came to cannabis and the various ongoing ironies of a federal ban and state legalization set to fully unfurl in 2018, the candidates generally agreed they’d leave pot smokers alone who were puffing or ingesting in compliance with state and local laws.

The currently employed SCSO lawmen, Basurto and Essick, both emphasized that the SCSO would always be faced with black market cannabis and that there was some violence that came along with it they’d work to end.

Legalization, said Basurto, is a “reality that we have to accept.” He noted that he was “going to follow the vision of the [Sonoma County Board of Supervisors]. Our job is to assist them with that vision.” (Their vision is basically to leverage the tax and business opportunities afforded by pot with an eye on public safety.)

Olivares pledged to work with other agencies to sort out the vast cannabis regulatory framework as he teased out a vision that would draw legal growers out of the shadows, but with public safety as the primary concern, given the preponderance of a national black market where, as he noted, a pound of cannabis that costs $1,000 in Sonoma County will fetch $5,000 on the East Coast.

Essick also highlighted safety issues when the data-savvy candidate noted that six of 10 homicides in Sonoma County this year “were directly related to marijuana.”

The candidates were also asked a series of “lightning round” questions of a yes-or-no variety, including whether the SCSO should accept military-issue equipment from the federal government.

But it turned out to be not quite the yes-or-no question. Essick said that “it happens that some things are very helpful,” such as tents and blankets that the SCSO distributes to the homeless. But he also said that the sheriff’s office has “heard loud and clear” that citizens don’t want armored personnel carriers in their midst, regardless of any law enforcement pledge that they’re used for officer protection only. He said SCSO has stopped accepting stuff like bayonets and rifles from the military. Olivares highlighted the “image problem” inherent in the so-called militarization of police and said simply that there “needs to be some controls.”

Mutz was characteristically soaring and unequivocal as he said that “accepting military equipment from the attorney general is not the direction” the county should be headed, as he envisioned an SCSO with “no militarization in our future.”

Mutz was also the only one of the four candidates who drew on his own history as a police accountability protester when the question came up about First Amendment rights in Sonoma County (part of the question asked whether the candidates had ever participated in a protest; he was the only one to say he had). “My mindset changed when I was on the other side,” he said.

The three other candidates expressed pride at Sonoma County’s respect for protesters and counter-protesters, and Olivares recalled the Occupy protests that took place while he was Santa Rosa mayor.

Basurto said, “We do a great job with protests,” and Essick went by the sheriff’s playbook when he said that “our responsibility is to ensure that people have the right to express themselves.”

The protest question also asked about use of force issues in the county.

Basurto said simply that it should be used when it needs to be used. Mutz said, “I have seen video of use of force [in Sonoma County], and we have to do more work in this area.”

Cue the inevitable audience question about Lopez, whose tragic death can be viewed as a jump-off point for greater SCSO accountability—and whose latest stop-off on that long road was this very meeting of the candidates.

Freitas was unpopular among local police-accountability and Latino communities at the time he retired for health reasons in August. Freitas was unequivocal in his support for Sgt. Gelhaus, who remains on the SCSO force. Audience members shouted, “Fire Gelhaus!” when the rhetorical question was raised about what is to be done in the aftermath of the incident.

Mutz said of the Lopez shooting that there’s “no greater unresolved issue in Sonoma County than this one,” and said future deaths such as Lopez’s were preventable with training reforms in use-of-force issues.

Sonoma County and the SCSO have taken the position that the shooting was justified under the circumstances, while concurrently employing a “use of force simulator” to better train officers in those split-second life-or-death decisions that they find themselves making on occasion. Mutz was the only one of the candidates at the forum to state that he’d go to the Lopez family and express deep regret for the incident.

Essick and Basurto both mentioned the use of force simulator in their responses to the Lopez question. Basurto noted that Lopez’s death did get the county to move on body cams for its officers and to get serious about community engagement, “everything we should have been doing but weren’t. . . . We also can’t keep going back to the same tragedy,” he added.

He was met with angry catcalls from the overflow crowd: “Then settle the lawsuit! Settle the lawsuit!”

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