It’s a sunny Friday morning on Railroad Square in downtown Santa Rosa, and sheriff-elect Mark Essick is about to spend the day removing his large and numerously deployed campaign signs from around the county.
The newly elected sheriff of Sonoma County surprised everyone at the polls earlier in the week when he gained 57 percent of the vote in a three-way race against former L.A. police captain John Mutz and Santa Rosa councilman Ernesto Olivares. As he eclipsed 50 percent of the vote on primary day, Essick was elected to his new post outright without a runoff in November.
Today Essick is dressed casually in a San Francisco Giants T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap as he sits before a big mug of coffee at the Flying Goat cafe and fields questions. Essick, 48, won’t take office until January, and next week he’s going on vacation. It’s been a long campaign season, but now it’s over. His pickup truck is in the parking lot, awaiting the piles of signage that were seemingly everywhere this spring as Sonoma County had its first contested sheriff’s race in a quarter century.
Essick has been on the force of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) for about that long, and as a manager, he’s been the point person on mental-health training for officers. He says the two biggest budget issues he’ll likely face when he takes office are both related to dealing with a shifting demographic at the Main Adult Detention Facility and the preponderance of mentally ill inmates at the jail. Today, some 40 percent of inmates suffer from one form of mental illness or another, “which is crazy,” Essick says.
The state’s “realignment” approach to dealing with its overcrowded prisons by moving them into county lockups now means that the SCSO is dealing with an older and sicker demographic at the jail, whose traditional demographic, Essick says, was typically a young person doing a short bid at the jail on a misdemeanor charge.
The state provided funds for localities to deal with fallout from realignment, and Sonoma County decided to put its $40 million in state realignment money into a new Behavior Health Unit (BHU), scheduled to break ground in late summer and be completed in about a year. The county is kicking in an additional $8 million, but it’s also been shedding mental-health workers in a climate of post-fire belt-tightening, and Essick has taken notice.
“I have spent the last 10 years of my career training officers on this, creating these partnerships between our agency and Behavioral Health, and to have those people evaporate is going to be a huge impact on us.”
And Essick says he’ll need to staff up the BHU when it’s completed.
“We have calculated that we’ll need 24 additional correctional deputies to staff the BHU, so we are going to have to go back to the [board of supervisors] and ask for some additional allocations to staff that,” he says. “I could see myself going before the board of supervisors in the next year or so as sheriff and saying, ‘This was a great idea, we spent all of this money on it, and don’t forget—now we have to staff it.'”
Essick will also be charged to continue to implement state-mandated training required annually by the state of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
“Any police organization today runs so thin on staffing that every time we take someone off the line to train them, at least 80 percent of the time we have to backfill it with overtime.”
During the campaign, Essick was pegged by opponents and detractors as an SCSO insider who couldn’t deliver on necessary reforms at the agency and who would continue an SCSO “culture” that’s been under fire for years. Critics argue that those “cultural” issues—a generally white and male force—came to a tragic head when a sheriff’s officer shot and killed a 13-year-old Latino boy in 2013. Any past progress in building community relations went out the window following the shooting.
But the Andy Lopez shooting did prompt a series of reforms at SCSO, some of which Essick opposed at the time they were implemented, such as the creation of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. There’s also a direct line that can be drawn between the Lopez shooting and the creation of a new community engagement post at SCSO occupied by Misti Harris.
During the campaign, all the candidates highlighted the need for better recruitment of women and minorities into the force. You can’t just stick an ad in the Latino community newspaper anymore, Essick says. “You have to do more,” and he pledges to do so in conjunction with the county’s Human Resources Department.
Essick is well aware of the challenges ahead in rebuilding trust in Latino and police accountability circles in Sonoma County. If it’s a truism that all policing is community policing, those challenges are as much a matter of practicality as they are a sort of moral imperative to, as Essick puts it, keep extending the healing hand.
As a practical matter, to fully engage in “community policing” in Sonoma County would require about another 10,000 officers on the beat, he says.
“That is the challenge for us,” he says, “and not just because we’ve kind of drifted off that course in the last six years, but also because the beat-cop mentality is way easier to do when you have a downtown core, when you have bikes, foot patrols.
“In Sonoma County, we have about 20 distinct communities, and it would be my dream if we could have a community-policing presence in all those communities. I see that as a challenge. Guerneville is great because we have a substation there, but we don’t have one in Geyserville or Penngrove—and wouldn’t it be cool if we did?”
Essick’s election comes at a moment when law enforcement agencies across the country are re-examining tried-and-truisms around policing, especially when it comes to use-of-force issues.
Longstanding police protocols, such as the “21-foot rule” and the principle of “drawing a line in the sand” when dealing with perpetrators, are being reexamined, if not outright set aside, as agencies incorporate de-escalation tactics into their training protocols and work to enhance communication between officers and the communities they serve. The 21-foot rule delineates a line where a perpetrator, even if unarmed, is in a position to attack a peace officer, and a 2016 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) recommendation highlights that de-escalation training is a necessary precondition to eliminating the old rules and traditions. Essick gives props to Mutz and Olivares for raising diversity and de-escalation training issues in the campaign.
Throughout the campaign, Essick identified a very tricky nexus point of homelessness, mental illness and use of force as he waded into issues raised by the PERF study, which called for use-of-force reform, highlighted communication as a prime de-escalation strategy, and that encouraged more training in mental-health for officers, “crisis intervention training” or CIT. As a trainer, Essick’s speciality is CIT.
Essick may be the new sheriff in town, but he’s also just a regular guy. He grew up in Novato and listened to Def Leppard and AC/DC as a kid, and says his first concert ever was AC/DC at the Cow Palace. He graduated high school in 1988 and is married with two kids. On his downtime, he likes to go camping with his wife, bicycling with his son, and says he attends the Healdsburg Community Church, a half-Presbyterian and half-Methodist house of worship which he’s been going to for three years.
“I grew up in a family that was absolutely non-religious,” Essick says. “We never went to church, and I was a non-church-going person for the first 45 years of my life, though I wasn’t against it or anything.”
That changed when Essick and his wife were on the edge of being empty-nesters (their children are 19 and 21 years old), and all the various community-service activities they’d done that involved their children “started to evaporate for us,” Essick says. “My wife and I were having dinner one night, and I said, ‘I’d kind of like to check out going to church.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, let’s check that out.’ It was very natural for us, this next step to serve our community. We’d heard from friends about the Healdsburg Community Church, a husband-and-wife team are the pastors, and the first time we went—the subject was forgiveness. Someone came to Jesus and said, ‘How many times are you going to forgive that person for his wrongdoing?’ And Jesus says something to the effect of, ‘I will never stop forgiving him.'”
Essick pauses. “Look, I’m not a person who can quote you chapters from the Bible, I’m just not, but they talk about Jesus washing the feet of the Samaritans, and at that point, the Samaritans were the under-people, they were the dregs of society, and Jesus would wash their feet. People said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Service. And my mentality on that is you never stop. You always have to take the higher road, look for the sunny side of the situation and keep extending the hand. If it gets batted away, take a different route.”
During the campaign, Essick took some heat for his departure from the Republican Party, which his opponents framed as a matter of political expediency. But Essick describes himself as a moderate who has voted for Democratic and Republican candidates. As the father of a 19-year-old daughter, he says he left the Republican Party after Trump was elected, because the party left him.
“I’ve always voted my conscience,” he says, noting that he’s been a member of both parties over his lifetime. “As a Democrat, I probably voted for Republicans, and as I Republican, I’ve supported Democrats. I voted for President Obama, and I have no problem saying that. I was really disappointed in the way Trump talked about women. Really disappointed. I thought the Republican Party was the party of moderation, but it’s not.”
Essick later notes that his daughter’s career objective is to work a position similar to the one held by Misti Harris, whose job was created in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting.
“We all evolve,” Essick says, as he reflects on a hard-fought campaign. “Of the hundreds of people I met during the campaign, one or two of them stood out as jerks, but mostly they were really, really good people, and having them come up to me and say, ‘I want to support you, but here is what is important to me,’ hearing that perspective, definitely enlightened me. We are always in a process of learning about ourselves, evolving as humans, and if I can be more compassionate, more understanding, that’s a work in progress that I’d like to get to.”