Contra Costa Courthouse in an Uproar

Deputy district attorneys and sheriffs angle for promotion

Usually, when a deputy sheriff grows the cojones to run a campaign against his boss, he comes to the party packin’ heat: evidence of corruption; outraged community leaders; a sex scandal, if possible. But when Scott Jacobs announced he was challenging Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren E. Rupf this March, local politicos sniffed in disappointment after Jacobs failed to deliver the goods. Even Rupf, the ten-year incumbent, seemed unsatisfied by his latest challenger. Following a snoozer debate in January, Rupf shook hands with Jacobs and whispered in his ear, “I should have brought a bigger lunch. I was told you were going to eat mine.”

If it’s been a long time since a sitting sheriff needed to defend his badge from one of his underlings, it’s been even longer since the district attorney’s job was available. After owning the job for eighteen years, DA Gary Yancey is retiring, and three of his deputies are wrestling for the office space. With all the inter-office competition swirling about Contra Costa County these days, the water coolers in Martinez have never been such a popular place.

“It makes it an interesting working experience for sure,” says Bob Kochly, chief deputy district attorney, Yancey’s designated successor and the undisputed front-runner in the race. “I don’t see the other guys (deputies Mark Peterson and Mike Gressett) on a daily basis and right now, it’s probably for the better.”

In sprawling Contra Costa County, where the crime rate is usually described as “steady” (sans Richmond), and the DA’s conviction rate is equally pleasant overall, upstart candidates have had to dig deep to find the hot issues this election. There’ve been no flubbed high-profile trials sparking calls for a house cleaning in the DA’s office, and no rogue cop scandals requiring the reforming hand of a new sheriff. And there’s certainly no wacky dog-mauling case tailor-made for grandstanding. So, as can be expected, the small-item details are dominating both races.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Kochly has worked for Gary Yancey since 1985, and his opponents from the other cubicles complain he’s prematurely accepted the job from his old friend. “Groomed, then broomed,” says one county supervisor’s aide, noting that Kochly will get swept into the office. Even Yancey admits, “This is a natural progression that Bob’s worked his way up to.” While Yancey gained a rep as a comfortable incumbent who supervised the prosecution of “new crimes” like high-tech crime and identity theft, Kochly has distinguished himself as the savvy newbie DA ready to be “more forward-thinking than my boss” — and yet still attach his credibility to Yancey’s legacy.

“I don’t need to turn the office upside down to accomplish anything,” Kochly says. “We can always improve, and that’s what I want to do. I want to take the office to a more progressive level than my predecessor, but we don’t need to shake things up to do that.” Last week, for instance, Kochly spent Tuesday afternoon at the county’s Child’s Interview Center, where he’s trying to create a new investigating system that calls for children of violent crimes to be interviewed only once. In the past, he says, child victims have had to tell their stories of what happened up to a dozen times, and then again at trial. Kochly wants a single videotaping that will record the story the first time, and suffice as testimony in court later. “I’m going to be a big advocate of children’s issues,” he promises.

If getting anointed by a popular incumbent weren’t enough to ensure the DA’s job come November (the large primary field may well deny Kochly the 51 percent required to avoid a run-off), he’s also been the recipient of a front-page Contra Costa Times profile that gushingly described him as “The slight but dynamic man in the dark blue suit [who police officers] are not shy about calling the next district attorney.” Without much effort, Kochly has also picked up a bundle of endorsements from regional law enforcement agencies, including one from County Sheriff Warren E. Rupf.

Sheriff’s deputy and candidate Scott Jacobs complains his boss needs to lighten up on the dress code. It may seem like an unlikely issue, but he isn’t alone. Jacobs has worked as patrolman for just six months (though he’s been with the office six years), yet he’s already gained the support from the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association for his war against the uniform policy. Nor are his concerns purely cosmetic. “It’s not about baseball caps,” Jacobs replied to Rupf when teased about his concerns during the debate. “It’s about respect.”

Sheriffs in Contra Costa County patrol a varied landscape whose climate varies from sunbaked canyons in the east to frigid bay fronts on the west, with breezy mountain ranges in between. “You can start out the day in a dry field where it’s a hundred degrees,” says union president Rich Jensen, “and you can be working at night when the fog rolls in and suddenly it’s fifty degrees. It’s not like any other place.”

Under the current administration’s policy, sheriffs can’t wear baseball caps unless they wear the accompanying heavy brown wool sweaters. Wearing both is stuffy and unpractical, Jacobs says. And so is the jacket policy, which stipulates that deputies wrap up in heavy jackets only if they wear long-sleeve shirts with ties. Jacobs says the uniforms are too hot to do casual business in the county’s fast-changing climatic conditions, and he’d like to allow for individual officers to be able to dress themselves appropriately. “The uniform issue is authoritarian and outdated,” he says. “It’s symbolic of the fact that the administration doesn’t care about what the line staff needs.”

In December, propelled by Jacobs’s arguments against the reigning uniform policy, the Sheriffs’ Association board members voted 4-3 to endorse Jacobs over Rupf — the first time in fifteen years that the union board has backed a challenger against a presiding sheriff. The board was also angered that Rupf hadn’t publicly supported the union during ongoing contract negotiations with the county, but even president Jensen acknowledges Rupf isn’t responsible for going to bat for the union in contract disputes with county administrators. “He can’t really be against us, but he hasn’t always supported us.”

Ten days after the surprising endorsement, things really turned confusing for Jacobs. After many of the 800-plus union members complained that the board’s vote gave the appearance of a no-confidence statement from the entire union, the board withdrew its blessing. The next week, however union members did get their chance to mark ballots, and again, Jacobs emerged victorious: 215 voted for Jacobs, 116 backed Rupf, and 95 wanted to remain neutral. “This says that we want something to change,” Jensen says. “We want someone who will be responsive to us. We want somebody who’s going to be open-minded to the changes we want to make, whether it’s over baseball caps or uniform styles. Scott’s been on patrol recently, and that’s where he’s coming from.”

Sheriff Rupf says he decided not to ask the union for its endorsement earlier this year; Jacobs served as the vice-president, and seemed the union’s man from the start. The uniforms issue, Rupf adds, is an election-season red herring, one that he’s come across in the past. “The fact is I’m always open to ideas, but there’s a difference between listening to ideas and agreeing with them. The public bases their opinion on us largely by what they see because they don’t interact with us. We have to present a professional look. We want folks to look at us and see professionals.”

Last year, Rupf and Jacobs worked in the same office when deputy Jacobs pulled a nine-month stint in the administration building. Co-workers say the two moved politely around each other, even after Jacobs posted a Web site announcing his political intentions. “I like Scott,” Rupf says. “He’s bright and intelligent, but I’d be less than candid if I didn’t say I don’t think much of what he’s done with this campaign.”

Jacobs offers that his boss has been “a little grumpy” ever since he declared his candidacy, and says the post-debate eat-your-lunch comment didn’t ruffle him. “In this campaign he’s taken every opportunity to belittle me. He calls me ‘Young Mr. Jacobs’ or ‘Deputy’ whenever he can. I’m thirty-eight years old. The last time he arrested someone was thirty years ago.”

Munch, munch.

Previous articleA Patch of Green
Next articleSuck, Baby, Suck
Support the East Bay Express, local news, donate

Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

few clouds
57.2 ° F
61 °
53 °
67 %
20 %
61 °
67 °
77 °
69 °
67 °