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New Sheriffs in Town?

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DISTINCTION: If elected, JoAnn Walker would be the only Black sheriff in California.

Alameda, Contra Costa sheriffs challenged in 2022

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern has been in office since 2007, running unopposed multiple times. Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston has been in office since 2010, also running unopposed multiple times.

This despite long-running complaints about conditions at county jails, collaborations with ICE, increased militarization of law enforcement, and, in Ahern’s case, accusations of ties to far-right groups. But both Ahern and Livingston will face at least one opponent in the 2022 elections. For the first time in years, there could be a couple of new sheriffs in town.

If elected, Hayward resident JoAnn Walker would be the only Black sheriff in California.

The 25-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department holds a Police Officers Standard of Training (POST) Master Certified Instructor. In 2016, she received the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing.

In Walker’s view, the sheriff’s office has for too long been a “legacy” position. “The ‘Top Cop’ picks the successor, and no one in law enforcement will run against their boss,” she said. Given that, changing the culture of a sheriff’s department has been difficult. Walker believes it can be done. “My goal is to shake up the leadership, and create a team of people who are committed to community-oriented policing.” Deputies need to feel “support from the top,” she said. “I will focus on hiring people who have a new energy, and want to re-imagine how we connect with the community.”

A modern sheriff is a “CEO of an organization” and needs administrative skills, which she believes she would bring to the office.

Walker has closely followed complaints about Dublin’s Santa Rita jail. “There have been 47 deaths there since 2014, with two more deaths in April. People who are not convicted of anything go into Santa Rita and come out dead,” she said. Her platform includes a complete revision of procedures at the jail, from booking to maintenance.

On April 23, a five-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department concluded with the announcement that Alameda County is violating the U.S. Constitution by unnecessarily institutionalizing people with mental health needs and by subjecting them to prolonged solitary confinement in the Santa Rita Jail. “There is no way a mentally ill person should be brought in without being screened and stabilized,” Walker said, noting her work as a Crisis Support Services volunteer.

She does not support cooperation with ICE. “I will not let ICE into county detention facilities,” she said. She does support AB-937, the “Vision Act,” which would protect community members who have been deemed eligible for release from being transferred by local jails and the state prison system to immigration detention. The bill is co-authored by the East Bay’s Sen. Nancy Skinner and Rep. Buffy Wicks.

Yet another hot-button issue is the increasing militarization of law enforcement, and the purchase of surplus military equipment. “We have weaponized our officers to look like an invading force,” Walker said, pointing to Ahern’s “Urban Shield” program. Deputies often are dealing with people who are “having the worst day of their life,” she said. “Why are these weapons the first things we use to solve problems?”

She knows many communities have lost faith in the concept of “protect and serve.” She’s created goals she calls “ARC,” which include Accountability/Transparency, Reforming the Criminal Justice System and Community Partnership. “A modern sheriff’s office needs the public trust,” she said.

Benjamin Therriault joined the Richmond Police Department in 2009, after spending a number of years in the U.S. Air Force Security Force. In 2016, he was elected president of the local union, the Richmond Police Officers Association, a position he still holds. A Native American, he was raised in Montana on the Flatland Indian Reservation. After years of living in Richmond, he is now a resident of Martinez.

Asked why he is challenging an entrenched sheriff, he said, “I want to treat it as a public office. People do not know who the sheriff is and what the sheriff does.”

Like Walker, he believes most law enforcement personnel are afraid to challenge the status quo. “It’s hard to find people willing to take that risk,” he said. Also like Walker, he sees the office as best filled by someone with administrative skills as well as policing experience, who can run a well-managed organization with “the right people in the right places.”

Reforms are needed at Contra Costa detention facilities, he said, stressing that people who have not been sentenced deserve to be in a safe environment. “It does require resources, but those are resources well spent.”

Addressing the plight of those arrested while in mental health crises, he signaled his support for AB-988, which, if passed, would create mobile crisis support teams and a 988 crisis hotline. “Police forces were not designed for this task,” Therriault said, “and we need to stop [mentally ill individuals] from ending up in jails.” This bill was introduced by East Bay Rep. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan. Fellow East Bay Rep. Buffy Wicks is a co-author.

Asked if community-oriented policing can ever become a reality if it isn’t supported by the rank-and-file, he responded, “It starts at the top, and must be reflected in promotions and evaluations.” In his view, it would also include a more diverse workforce, a commitment to transparency and working with government agencies that deal with public safety.

His opinion on purchasing surplus military equipment differs somewhat from Walker’s, in that he doesn’t think the majority of people “know what hardware is out there on the street” that law enforcement has to face. Nevertheless, military-grade equipment and weaponry does not need to be used on a day-to-day basis, he believes. “There is a clear distinction between civilian and military police forces.”

Local sheriff’s departments should not be tasked with matters pertaining to ICE, Therriault said. “It’s not the role of the sheriff to engage in immigration policies.”

On SB-271, which would completely revise the law permitting only law enforcement personnel to run for sheriff, he differs from Walker, who has endorsed the bill. “With respect, it isn’t the right solution to the problem,” Therriault said. “People want elected officials to have experience in the fields they represent.”

State Sen. Scott Weiner is the author of SB-271. Co-authors include East Bay representative Sen. Nancy Skinner and Rep. Buffy Wicks.

Weiner pointed out that for 139 years—from 1850 to 1989—anyone could run for sheriff, and that the longest-serving sheriff of San Francisco City and County, Michael Hennessey, was not a police officer. “Sheriffs are some of the most powerful elected county officials,” he said, “and they run big agencies with big budgets.” Their jobs are primarily administrative, he said, adding that 35 states do not require sheriff candidates to have law enforcement backgrounds.

In line with comments by Walker and Therriault, Weiner stated that county sheriffs often have no opposition because only a “microscopic” percentage of the population qualifies under the current law.

The bill, currently still in committee in Sacramento, would repeal SEC. 2. Section 24004.3 of the Government Code, which requires county sheriff candidates to meet at least one of five conditions, all of which require law enforcement certification or background.

It’s receiving the expected pushback from some law enforcement officials. “We have a long list of supporters,” Weiner said, “but there are a number of problematic sheriffs in California who run terrible jails.” He qualified this by adding that many current sheriffs are doing excellent jobs.

Asked how passage of SB-271 accords with the current push to reexamine law enforcement, he said, “There are sheriffs who are failing at all aspects of their job, including incarceration and running a health system. We need leadership that recognizes the need for reforming our incarceration models and for criminal justice reform.”