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Endorsement: The vote for Sheriff

The campaign for Sonoma County Sheriff brims with issues that didn’t exist the last time the county saw a contested race for the office. That was 28 years ago.

From navigating the waters of newly legalized cannabis to balancing state “sanctuary” policies in the face of federal immigration demands to building a more diverse and better-trained workforce, the next Sheriff’s challenges will be vastly different from those faced by the Sheriff’s office 10, or even five years ago.

But let’s stick with five years ago, because this coming Oct. 22 will mark five years to the day since Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in a Santa Rosa vacant lot after mistaking his airsoft toy gun for an assault rifle.

As Santa Rosa became the latest city name associated with the police shooting of an unarmed minority member, community protests erupted and the Lopez case grew beyond the inherent tragedy of a young boy’s wrongful death to symbolize the simmering belief that the Sheriff’s office is dogged by a lack of transparency, accountability and cultural sensitivity, especially in regard to the county’s sizable Hispanic community.

It’s under that lingering cloud that three candidates – Santa Rosa City Councilmember Ernesto Olivares, Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Essick and former Los Angeles Police Station Commander John Mutz – vie to replace Sheriff Rob Giordano, appointed by the Board of Supervisors in August, who impressed many with his leadership last year during the October fires, but decided not to seek election. But, from a broader perspective, the next Sheriff will really be succeeding former Sheriff Steve Freitas, who resigned in 2017 after six years on the job, citing health concerns. Whomever earns the gold star will inherit a workforce of about 650 employees, a $160 million budget, operation of two jails and a lingering public perception that the Sheriff’s office, at best, isn’t attuned to the community and, at worst, botched the Andy Lopez response in such a way as to affront the entire Latino community – it’s a perception that, as all three candidates attest, Freitas failed to wholeheartedly acknowledge.

Unless one of the candidates earns more than 50-percent of the vote, the top-two vote getters will advance from the primary and face off in the general election in November.

Ernesto Olivares is a former lieutenant with the Santa Rosa police department and current member of its City Council. Olivares, 60, believes he can lead the Sheriff’s Office toward better community engagement and increased transparency through public outreach and more diverse hiring practices. He’d invite community members to be involved in recruitment, hiring and promotions at the Sheriff’s Office and hold regular community forums to promote engagement. Olivares names “community policing” as a priority to allow locals to identify problems and solutions in their own neighborhoods. He has served as chair of the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership and is currently the executive director of the California Cities Violence Prevention Network. Additionally, he told the Index-Tribune, his council experiences on such big issues as homelessness, and leading the community toward a legalized cannabis economy, will be invaluable in the coming years.

Mark Essick, 48, is currently a Captain in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s department and says his experience managing both the Administrative Services Division and the Field Services Division give him the necessary skills to step up and lead the department. He has the support of outgoing Sheriff Giordano, as well as the county’s Deputy Sheriff’s Association and its Law Enforcement Association. Like the other candidates, Essick, too, has been critical of the Sheriff’s Office community engagement and believes public outreach and improved transparency will be necessary to increase trust in the community. Essick, a Cloverdale resident, served on the touted Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force that was formed in the wake of the Lopez tragedy.

John Mutz, 68, is positioning himself in the race as the candidate who can truly change the culture of the Sheriff’s department. He was the Los Angeles Police Department station commander in 1992 where the infamous Rodney King beating occurred and he says in the wake of that he led a group of progressive-minded LAPD officials who brought a “cultural overhaul” to the department. Since retiring from law enforcement in 1999 and moving with his family to the outskirts of Sebastopol, Mutz has worked as a mediator and career coach with particular expertise in “transforming law enforcement cultures in order to improve community trust.”

Despite the many daunting challenges the Sheriff’s Office faces in the years ahead, there is genuine reason for optimism based on this Sheriff’s race – as county voters have three highly impressive candidates from which to choose. Two are seasoned leaders of sizable law enforcement divisions, the third offers a career of experience in the Santa Rosa Police Department as well as a second career in the service of its City Council.

We previously mentioned several issues directly facing the Sheriff’s Office and they’ll all be significant during the coming term. But the matter most under the microscope of many Sheriff’s Office watchdogs is that of reform:

A re-envisioning of the Sheriff’s role — beyond crime prevention and safety, to one of a community partner with mutual respect, a transparent work ethic and level of trust among the community that hasn’t existed in the past. Sonoma County’s is far from the only law enforcement agency undergoing such evolutions – but undergo them it must.

Olivares understands this well. He has strategies for 21st century hiring and promotional practices that would likely lead to a more diverse force and well-qualified command. A

s a childhood immigrant from Mexico, he’d identify with the county’s too-often marginalized Latino community – a key partner in hopes for better community-law enforcement relations.

His work with the California Cities Violence Prevention Network and on the Santa Rosa City Council have provided him a breath of experience in working alongside community partners to deal with city strife at the street level. If municipal reform were the goal here, or if he were running for another city office, he’d likely get our vote.

But this Sheriff’s Office reform is about properly run county jails, the transparency awarded through properly functioning (and turned on) body cams, warding off ICE threats, recognizing inherent bias among deputies, and holding law enforcement officers accountable, while still holding their respect. The world of law enforcement is evolving at a rate like never before.

Mutz’s work to reform his L.A. station command in the wake of the Rodney King beating is probably about as high a hill as a reform effort could be. His priority is to reform the Sheriff’s Office, but his experience in directly overseeing personnel – over 400 in L.A. – is demonstrative of a proven capability to manage a full department. “Cultures are changeable,” he has said of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. But they are based on “service, education, trust and respect.”

Essick is the insider in the race but he, too, makes a vocal call for reform.

He served on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force formed to increase community engagement in the wake of the Lopez tragedy. He also testified last March against a former county Sheriff’s deputy, Scott Thorne, in a case involving alleged use of excessive force. In interviews with the Index-Tribune he’s been openly critical of former Sheriff Steve Freitas’s handling of the Andy Lopez tragedy and his former boss’s lack of community engagement in general. He says he’d pattern his sheriffing closer to Giordano’s openness for transparency and accessibility. He says he knows the department more than anyone, and knows how to transform it.

It’s been nearly five years since Andy Lopez was killed at the tender age of 13. But there seems to be another Andy Lopez every day. On March 18, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot more than six times in his grandma’s backyard by Sacramento police who thought his cell phone was a weapon.

His senseless death just the latest in an ongoing string of killings that stun minority communities and tragically justify their disenfranchisement and distrust of authority.

The ghost of Andy Lopez walks on. It will be the burden of the next county Sheriff to ferry it toward peace.

Assuming two candidates continue on toward a November election runoff, we recommend John Mutz and Mark Essick.

– Jason Walsh, editor

– John Burns, publisher