New Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick embraces new era for policing, detention

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Mark Essick remembers walking into the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium Building in 1994, his eyes scanning the hundreds of applicants who gathered there, vying for a handful of job openings at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

He was 23 years old and had graduated from Sacramento State University’s criminal justice program a year earlier. Though he had some experience as a group counselor at El Dorado County’s Juvenile Hall, where he supervised the youth for about two years, Essick couldn’t land a law enforcement job in Northern California. While working as a Sonoma County Jail correctional deputy was not what he envisioned, he recognized the job could provide better opportunities down the road and decided to apply.

“I thought, ‘Well, I don’t really want to work in detention. I want to work as a cop,’” said Essick, who grew up in Novato and attended San Marin High School. “But it was closer to home and it was a foot in the door.”

On Monday, 25 years after getting the correctional deputy job, Essick, 49, was sworn in as the Sonoma County Sheriff, putting him at the helm of a department with a $177 million annual budget and a total of 635 employees, including sworn deputies and detention staff.

A ceremony was held at noon in front of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, where 250 people, many Sheriff’s Office employees and leaders from other law enforcement agencies, gathered to witness the event. Essick’s wife, Andi, pinned a sheriff’s badge onto his olive-green suit as their two children stood feet away. Essick then took the oath of office, administered by Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt.

“I look forward to our continued collaboration in tackling whatever challenges and opportunities come our way in the next four years,” Rabbitt said during the event.

The ceremony comes more than six months after Essick was elected sheriff in June’s primary election, the first contested race for the seat in a quarter-century. Essick, who was a sheriff’s captain, touted his experience within the agency during his campaign, something he said gave him a leg up over the two other candidates, both retired police officers. Essick garnered 57 percent of the vote during the primary, beating his opponents by a large enough margin to avoid a November runoff.

Essick will earn an annual base salary of $201,000, Sonoma County spokeswoman Briana Khan said.

Speaking ahead of Monday’s swearing in, Essick, who now lives in Cloverdale with his wife and has two adult children, said one of his top priorities is improving how sheriff’s deputies connect and build relationships with community members in unincorporated Sonoma County. The task is difficult given his deputies cover a larger, less densely packed area compared to city police departments, Essick said.

While taking criminal justice classes at College of Marin, he learned about the community policing model, which places officers in the same patrol areas for an extended period of time to work together with the community to reduce crime. Hearing their stories about walking a beat and developing relationships with local residents and business owners was enough to entice him to continue his studies in the field, Essick said.

“In a good scenario, you should know the name of the cop that patrols your neighborhood,” he said last week. “That’s what builds the relationship. That’s what builds the trust.”

The Sheriff’s Office began assigning deputies to the same patrol area for a year at a time, something Essick said he worked on implementing while he was campaigning for the sheriff’s job. Deputies now are required to check in at local schools and talk to resource officers there to offer additional help, he said.

In his new post, Essick also will oversee the county’s jail, which houses roughly 1,100 inmates at any given time.

With 45 percent of them suffering from mental illnesses, Essick reached out to the county’s Department of Health Services to develop diversion programs.

“People with mental illness do not get better when they are in jail,” Essick said. “They need treatment and they need programs. All the research out there shows it.”

However, conditions at the jail have been the subject of a number of lawsuits in recent years, some resulting in subsequent multimillion-dollar settlements. In a recent case, the county agreed to pay $1.7 million in June to former Sonoma County inmates who alleged they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse at the hands of correctional deputies as part of the department’s “yard counseling,” or behavior counseling policy.

Mike Vail, the president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, highlighted Essick’s experience as one of his strengths coming into the sheriff’s role. He said Essick’s 25 years with the agency has made the transition an easy one for rank-and-file employees.

“Mark comes in with a full, working understanding for how the office works and can make the best choices for our future based upon that experience here,” Vail said.

While the office currently has no vacancies, he said it has seen a decrease in the number of alloted sworn deputy positions in recent years. Keeping the Sheriff’s Office a competitive place to work at as the county faces a projected $12.8 million general fund shortfall by next fiscal year will be something he and Essick will have to focus on moving forward, Vail said.

As the agency comes under new command, the county’s law enforcement watchdog tasked with auditing the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations is preparing for its own leadership change.

Jerry Threet, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, announced in August he would step down from his post, citing health concerns as his reason for leaving.

An annual report published by Threet’s office at the end of 2018, and the Sheriff’s Office’s subsequent response, made it clear relationships between the two agencies had soured following disagreements over the watchdog’s role, access and scope.

Essick said he sat on an interview panel for candidates looking to take on the watchdog director role and was satisfied with the person picked for the job. The candidate has not been announced because they are undergoing a background check, Essick said.

“I’m excited,” Essick said. “I think this person will bring a different perspective to IOLERO than the current director.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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