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Many Elected Sheriffs Lack Accountability. Here’s Why

This article is the first of a two-part series on the county sheriffs system and how it could be reformed.

PUBLISHED DEC 29, 2021 12:00 A.M.
California is taking at least small steps to reform the county sheriffs system.

California is taking at least small steps to reform the county sheriffs system.

Frank Deanrdo / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Generic License

On Dec. 14, 2021, the Santa Clara County civil grand jury took the extraordinary step of formally accusing Sheriff Laurie Smith of corruption,  alleging that she traded concealed-carry weapons permits for gifts and campaign contributions. She took the payoffs in exchange for permits from “VIP” applicants while letting permit applications from non-VIPs languish without a timely response, the civil grand jury charged.

The accusations were seen as the first step toward removing Smith from the county sheriff’s job, which she has held since 1998, when she became the first woman sheriff in any California county.

When a law enforcement official faces serious corruption allegations, it is common for that person to step down. But in the case of county sheriffs, the process is complicated by the fact that unlike most other law enforcement officers, sheriffs are elected officials who in theory answer only to voters.

The scandal was only the latest in a series for Smith. In 2016, a county medical examiner testified that Smith interfered in death investigations, withholding evidence from examiners and trying to intimidate them.  In 2018 three male former deputies publicly accused her of sexual harassment in the years before she was elected sheriff.

She has also been accused of seriously mishandling the county jail system, over which the sheriff’s office has jurisdiction. She was accused of allowing the abuse and neglect of inmates, including the 2015 beating death of Michael Tyree, an inmate who suffered from bipolar disorder (three deputies were convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in Tyree’s murder).

In August of 2021, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed a vote of “no confidence” in Smith and asked her to prepare for retirement. She refused. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also called for Smith’s resignation. But only a civil grand jury can initiate the process that could lead to the sheriff’s removal, and it would require a full jury trial.

The Problem With Sheriffs

Smith’s case reached an inflection point as she faced the possibility that she could be kicked out of office before she got a chance to run again in 2022. But hers was far from the only case of an elected sheriff getting involved in a scandal or political controversy.

According to a paper by Michael Zoorob—a researcher at Northeastern University who specializes in the study of county sheriffs—there were 68 instances of misconduct that personally implicated a county sheriff in 2015-2016 alone. In South Carolina, Zoorob reports, one of every four county sheriffs has been accused of lawbreaking, from corruption to driving under the influence. In Georgia, from 1981 to 1984, 21 sheriffs were arrested, most of them on charges related to drug trafficking.

In California, Monterey County Supervisors voted to censure Sheriff Steve Bernal in May 2021, after a district attorney’s report accused him of misappropriating funds by assigning deputies to chauffeur other law enforcement officers during a 2019 sheriff’s association conference. Bernal, who has held the office since 2014, said he would not run again in 2022.

In both Los Angeles and Orange counties, sheriffs have seen jail time. In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca faced criminal charges for systematically obstructing an FBI investigation into abuses in the county jails. Baca is now in federal prison. In Orange County, Sheriff Mike Carona was convicted in 2009 of witness tampering for trying to get an aide to lie to federal investigators probing corruption in his department.

In rural Del Norte County, which sits in the northwest corner of California, Sheriff Erik Apperson abruptly and without explanation announced his resignation in July of 2021, amid allegations of, as the Sacramento Bee put it, “dysfunction” that included a sergeant almost shooting a deputy in the face by accident, and a correctional officer spraying a mentally ill, female inmate with enough pepper spray to cause guards in another section of the jail to tear up.

Then there’s Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, whom Bee columnist Marcos Bretón described as “the worst sheriff Sacramento County has had in the 30 years I’ve lived here.” After his deputies shot and killed a mentally ill man, Jones blocked County Inspector General Rick Braziel from conducting an investigation into the shooting, even locking Braziel out of sheriff’s department headquarters. 

Jones’ department has been plagued by lawsuits over misconduct, including a settlement in a class action suit over inhumane jail conditions under Jones’ jurisdiction that could end up costing county taxpayers $100 million.

California took a step to end sheriffs’ apparent immunity in 2020 when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1185, a bill that allows counties to set up civilian boards to provide oversight to sheriff’s departments. The law gives those boards subpoena power, an important investigative tool. But not all counties have created the oversight boards.

Isn’t It Better to Let Voters Decide?

In theory, sheriffs are accountable to voters in their counties, who can throw them out if they don’t do a good  job. Democracy in action, right?

In practice, it often doesn’t work out that way. According to a far-reaching study conducted by Zoorob, elected sheriffs have almost three times the job security of appointed law enforcement officials such as police chiefs. Assembling a database of 5,500 local sheriff’s elections dating back to 1958, Zoorob found that the average tenure of a county sheriff was 11 years, compared to just four years for a police chief.

After her initial election in 1998, Smith faced no serious opposition until 2018, when she was forced into a runoff election against former undersheriff John Hirokawa. The situation is similar in other counties. Alameda County has seen just two sheriffs since 1986, and neither ever faced a contested election.

In Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the state, Baca defeated incumbent Sherman Block in 1998, then easily dominated his next three elections, winning by more than 50 points in 2002 and 2006, then running unopposed in 2010—before he was forced out of office and ultimately into prison.

Nationwide, according to research by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, almost 60 percent of county sheriff’s elections consist of an incumbent running unopposed—meaning that voters had no choice at all. Partly as a result, the group’s research found, the demographics of the nation’s 3,083 county sheriffs are disconnected from the makeup of the American people. While about 30 percent of the United States population consists of white men, about 90 percent of sheriffs fit that description. Men of color are only 8 percent of sheriffs, though they are 19 percent of the population.

White women are 31 percent of all Americans, but only 2 percent of sheriffs. Women of color hold less than 1 percent of sheriff’s positions, despite being 20 percent of the population, according to Reflective Democracy Campaign data.

The situation in California isn’t much better. Of the state’s 58 county sheriffs, 49 (84 percent) were white men in 2021, four were white women, three were Latinx men and two were Asian-American men. That means that while white people make up 37 percent of Californians , 91 percent of county sheriffs were white.

Reflective Democracy Campaign Director Brenda Carter labeled the extreme lack of diversity among county sheriffs in comparison with the general population as “apartheid-level demographics,” saying in her organization’s report, “such a concentration of unchecked police power in the hands of white men calls into question the very legitimacy of the sheriff’s role and of the systems sheriffs control.”

What Is California Doing to Reform the Sheriff System?

With sheriffs answerable to no one but voters, and with voters often being deprived of meaningful choices in sheriff’s elections, what can be done to reform the system? In addition to passing AB 1185, the sheriffs’ oversight committee authorization bill, the state legislature is now considering a bill by Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, SB 271, which would open sheriff’s races to a wider range of candidates.

Since 1989, California law has limited eligibility to run for sheriff only to law enforcement officers—citizens holding Peace Officer Standards and Training certificates. Wiener’s bill would ditch that law and revert to the eligibility requirements that were previously in place since the state’s admission into the U.S. in 1850. During that 139-year period, any registered voter in California could run for sheriff. Wiener’s bill would reinstate that much broader eligibility standard.

“It’s time we prioritize democracy and diversity in our sheriff elections,” Wiener said in a statement announcing his bill. “Anyone who wants to run for sheriff and is qualified should run, and voters can democratically elect whomever they believe is the best candidate. We need sheriffs who actually represent the beliefs and values of their constituents.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, sheriffs have opposed the bill, as have some county supervisors.

Then there is the alternative of simply abolishing the office of county sheriff altogether—something the state of Connecticut did in 2000. Connecticut voters replaced sheriffs with state marshals, who come under the executive branch of the state government, and whose job is primarily to serve legal papers, such as eviction notices, restraining orders and so on.

Alaska, which has no county governments, also has no sheriffs. Neither does Hawaii, though the state Department of Public Safety includes a Sheriff’s Division which employs deputy sheriffs.

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