My Vision for the Sheriff's Office
“To serve and protect,” is a phrase many Law Enforcement agencies use as their mission statement when they interact with their communities. The “protect” part is easy: we, as sworn officers, protect the citizens and their property from any criminal element. Where many agencies fall short is Serving their communities in a way that not only upholds the letter of the law, but understands that the values of their community are vitally important to performing their jobs effectively.
I myself was subjected to unjust laws for most of my life – laws that never served nor protected me. As a gay man, I had to hide while serving my community, first while in the Army under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and then as an officer who swore to enforce laws that discriminated against my friends and family. My personal experience has taught me that not all laws are just, and they don’t always last. Some laws on the books need to be thoughtfully considered and enforced in a way that reflects the values of our local community, especially if we are to carry out the greater mission “to serve and protect.” Never has this been more important than now in our current political climate.
Today, laws are being cherry-picked and used as a way to hurt, rather than help, so many good people that make up our diverse country and our local community. The proper and prudent enforcement of laws should be the first line of defense, not only against criminals, but also against governmental overreach.
I offer these five areas to start our conversation where, if I were elected Sonoma County Sheriff, I will make positive change in Sonoma County when it comes to enforcing laws and truly reflecting our county’s values.
Immigration Enforcement that Rebuilds Community Trust
Local Law Enforcement should be working to rebuild trust with immigrant communities, especially now that many are fearful over President Trump’s calls for more deportations. Sonoma County’s success and fortunes are built on the hard work of men and women who are sometimes mistakenly and offensively called “illegal.” I don’t believe any human being is illegal. We can’t even discuss immigration without the term “Illegals” being thrown around. Terms like “Illegal alien” implies a person’s existence is criminal. It is a horrible idea to have Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputies engaged in the work of immigration enforcement, both because it is not their job and it undermines our community’s trust in our ability to protect and serve.
As Sheriff, I would keep an open line of communication with ICE, but never allow them in my facilities or allow them to determine the terms of enforcing immigration laws in Sonoma County. There are those who believe that no one should be deported, not even those convicted of violent crimes. I respectfully disagree since there are predators in our communities that will hurt and take advantage of the people that we are sworn to protect. Violent felons and proven gang members should be removed from Sonoma County for the good of the communities we are sworn to protect and serve. Working in San Francisco and enforcing that city's “Sanctuary City” laws has given me a very clear understanding of what works, and what doesn’t.
Reducing Use of Force with De-Escalation
For many in our county, the fatal shooting of 13 year old Andy Lopez brought close to home the national problem of officers ignoring their training before using deadly force. The idea to many that a kid was shot because he was carrying a toy gun, where kids play, is indefensible. As a parent of a 17 year old Latino male, I was very disturbed by the incident. My son has already had a few run-in’s with local Law Enforcement, not because of his actions, but because of the color of his skin. The idea of racially profiling our residents based on some preconceived idea of proactive policing can do real damage to the trust of our citizens.
We must reduce police use of force in Sonoma County. If we are to change the conversation between Law Enforcement and people of color, those who are disenfranchised, we need to learn how to communicate in volatile situations. We must employ de-escalation – a combination of communication, empathy, instinct and sound officer safety tactics. Officers should be taught to not be afraid to implement tactics that slow down a volatile encounter. Training needs to be implemented that teaches officers how to reduce force by backing off in situations where immediate offensive action is not mandated.
I recently attended a training called the “Principles of Policing” and what I learned about the miscommunication between Law Enforcement and the public was eye opening. The studies conducted on how we in policing see the people we serve, and how we respond, challenged my own progressive perceptions of Law Enforcement. The studies presented at the class were very clear that people of color are treated very differently at the hands of Law Enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground and shot before their white counterparts. In a study of officers in Denver, they were shown photos of black and white men, some holding guns, others holding harmless objects like wallets or cellphones, and asked to press “shoot” or “don’t shoot” button for each image. Officers of all colors and backgrounds fired faster when showed the photos of people of color. Future shootings like that of Andy Lopez could be prevented if every Department understands the factors that contribute to shooter bias and implements real changes in the way our officers are trained. There’s a lot of work to do.
A Community Approach for Homeless & Transient Populations
Homelessness is truly the hardest area for us to tackle when it comes to enforcing laws and county policies. From a personal perspective, I was homeless here in Sonoma County as a child. My mother was transient, moving from one location to another. Many of the interactions my mother and I had with Law Enforcement were negative. I come from the perspective that. Law Enforcement should work to engage and interact with our homeless community like we would any other. Punishment tactics don’t work on this segment of our population. Arresting and citing individuals for quality of life crimes makes very little difference. Public urination, drinking in public, littering and loitering tend to be common charges when it comes to homeless individuals – but the solutions are not limited to law enforcement.
I recently read a story of Sonoma County Sheriff deputies citing homeless individuals living at Vacation Beach for polluting the river. The story tells about the closing of Guerneville’s winter shelter causing many more homeless to camp at the beach. Issuing this community more citations will only cause more long term harm, to them and Sonoma County as a whole, unnecessarily burdening the courts and jails with minor offenses committed by those who pose no threat to public safety.
The Sheriff needs to take the lead on new solutions, working with social workers, medical professionals, veterans organizations and local government, to ensure that plans are adopted that can intervene and prevent such quality of life crimes from happening in the first place. Law Enforcement is not always the best first responder for homeless issues. Unfortunately, many times when an officer approaches a homeless person for the first time, there is an adversarial relationship before a word is even spoken. The homeless person has learned that when police show up, something must be wrong. For many homeless, the appearance of Law Enforcement equals a loss of their sleeping space or personal property, and the interaction quickly becomes antagonistic. The county needs to find good long-term solutions to help change the adversarial relationship between our homeless citizens and Law Enforcement. Homelessness is not just a Law Enforcement problem; it’s a responsibility for the whole community.
Diversity in Hiring
As we choose new leadership, now is the best time for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department to fill their ranks with a diverse staff that reflects the population of Sonoma County. Having worked in San Francisco Sheriff's Department, one of the most diverse departments in the world, I have seen the strength and immense value that a diverse department brings. As Sheriff, it would be important to me to make sure that I devote time and resources reaching out to Latinos, Women and LGBTQ people. These groups are historically underrepresented in local Law Enforcement. I am a firm believer that racial bias in policing comes from within departments that do not reflect the population they swore to protect and serve.
Looking at the lack of female leadership in Sonoma County Sheriff's Office has me concerned about the lack of opportunity that currently exists in the department. Working in San Francisco, where women fill many of the highest ranks of the department, I have seen for myself the value their leadership brings. It's hard to imagine a department in Sonoma County with zero female leaders represented. Research has shown that women officers are less likely to use excessive force or pull their weapons. They are defendants in lawsuits far less often than men, saving cities and counties millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements. Priority should be given immediately to broaden our diversity and attract more women, minorities and people of different cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Better diversity will lead to a better Sheriff’s Office.
Modernizing Services in Sonoma County Detention Facilities
As a Deputy Sheriff In San Francisco, I have spent 12 of my 22 years of service working in three of the city’s six jails. A proactive detention facility should strive to maintain a safe and secure jail system and to facilitate an environment in which various educational and rehabilitation programs can accomplish their missions. I have a clear understanding of how a Detention facility can be used to help educate and rehabilitate individuals who will be returning to our community. Sonoma County would benefit from all efforts to return individuals back to society who are healthier than when they were originally incarcerated. I’ve had the great opportunity to experience and help deploy innovative rehabilitation programs to criminal offenders in San Francisco – programs that consist of educational, vocational, substance abuse treatment and intervention classes, all with the goal to help ex-offenders reenter the community after periods of incarceration.
Presenting a different challenge, the number of homeless and mentally ill people continue to rise in the jail system, here and nationally. Sadly, many of our jails have become de facto mental health facilities. I am an advocate for advanced mental health training for all law enforcement. Yet a larger societal issue persists when mentally ill people disproportionately commit lower-level crimes, they are more likely to fall through the cracks and head back into our community without addressing their treatment and medication needs. Like with homelessness broadly, we need a joint approach where the Sheriff’s Office works with the broader to community to address this challenge more holistically.
My goal as Sheriff of Sonoma County would be to provide opportunities for all incarcerated individuals to return to their families and communities with better understanding and skills, so that they have the ability to avoid relapsing into behaviors that would bring them back into the jail setting. San Francisco has implemented amazing programs that have a proven track record. For example:
- B.Tech./ B.E / MCA degree in Computer Science, Engineering or a related stream.
- Five Keys Charter School: Is a state certified high school, helping custodies earn diplomas while incarcerated.
- No Violence Alliance Project: NOVA’s goal is to interdict violent crime on an individual basis by identifying persons with a history of violence.
- Post-Release Educational Programs: Provides reentry services that include case management, education, employment, counseling and classes.
- Treatment On Demand: Provides support to post-release participants who need resources that will support their rehabilitation and recovery.
- Women’s Resource Center: Designed to provide women with necessary services to maintain safe and healthy lifestyles.
These are just a few of the amazing programs that San Francisco Sheriff's Department has deployed as a way to reduce recidivism rates. Under these programs, and a Sheriff who understands the complex problems in San Francisco, I was able to witness a jail population drop from 2,400 to 1,200 today. My contacts and relationships within the San Francisco Sheriff Department gives me an amazing opportunity to bring many of the same concepts and practices to Sonoma County.
Cannabis Policies Should Reflect Our Local Values
The growth, distribution, and sale of legalized cannabis in Sonoma County is an increasingly important area that the county is working to integrate within our current economic structure. Cannabis in particular has the rare distinction of going from an illegal status to that of a legal, controlled substance similar to alcohol.
I believe that it is the purview of the Sheriff’s Office to ensure the safety of the community, not to wage a “war on drugs,” which is really just a war on people. Having grown up with a mother who was mentally ill and struggled with self-medicating addictions, I’ve seen firsthand that substance abuse is best addressed as a public health issue. Arrest and incarceration do little to reduce the activity of drug sales or use and often times create more disparity and disruption to the families that need support services.
It is not the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Office to serve as a tool of agricultural corporations who may wish to use law enforcement as a means to drive competitors out of the market. How Sonoma County wishes to integrate cannabis into our current agricultural and professional profile is a matter for voters and local leaders. The Sheriff's duty is to uphold the laws developed.
One of our greatest challenges is educating our communities, policy-makers, and elected officials on the proper use of local law enforcement when creating new regulations concerning the appropriate management of cannabis. Does the county want regulations making it easier or harder for local operators to grow and distribute cannabis? That’s not for the Sheriff’s Office to decide. The Sheriff should be involved in the same manner as that of alcohol use and distribution, with priority placed on community safety, not on writing regulations.
Meanwhile, the current federal administration under President Trump is signaling a crackdown based on outdated federal drug laws, leaving many in local government searching for answers. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging local law enforcement to take a tougher stance against cannabis production and distribution. As Sheriff, I would be against assisting any federal agencies when it comes to violating California and local laws on cannabis. Another side effect of the Federal government's stance on legal cannabis is the prohibition of allowing our banking institutions to accept cannabis money, creating targets in our community for burglaries and robberies, this new industry will need security services and patrol services like any other high commodity business in our county.
Our county has many challenges ahead when it comes to implementing new cannabis policies. It will take all leadership and perspectives at the table working together to streamline an effective implementation of state and local regulations. I will lead the Sheriff’s department in a constructive direction, helping with the enforcement of those policies that reflect our local community’s values.
This has been called a “once in a generation” choice for our next Sheriff. As we open this conversation in Sonoma County about what we want from our next Sheriff, I hope you’ll reach out to me and share your ideas too. I’ve offered just a few items above. Soon, I’ll be adding more thoughts about how we can protect our seniors and how we address our newly emerging cannabis industry, for example. I look forward to hearing from you!