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.