Will California Embrace Progressive Sheriffs? State Starts Leaning Toward Reform

Though elected, county sheriffs are among the least accountable public officials. That may be changing.

PUBLISHED JUL 14, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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In California, county sheriffs are on their way to becoming more accountable to the public.

In California, county sheriffs are on their way to becoming more accountable to the public.   Mike Smith / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

County sheriffs, though supposedly answerable to voters every four years, have proven to be among the least accountable elected officials. According to one study, sheriffs are rarely held accountable by voters, frequently running in elections unopposed and serving in office for an average of 11 years—compared to just four years for police chiefs, who are appointed to their jobs. A similar study by the Prison Policy Initiative came up with similar results—also noting that some sheriffs have served for three to five decades.

What happens when a top law enforcement official enjoys such a high level of immunity from public accountability? According to the site Governing.com, “the consequences range from outright corruption to abuses of power to cover-ups of misconduct by their own deputies, and other offenses.”

To compound the issue of weak oversight, some sheriffs seek even greater power. In addition to espousing views that are politically conservative—which is hardly unusual for law enforcement officers—some sheriffs embrace extreme right-wing ideology and seek to establish absolute authority for sheriffs, aided by a national group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).

According to research by the Reflective Democracy Project, not only are most incumbent sheriffs reelected, but 60 percent of the time they run without any opponent at all. In the 2020 elections, incumbents across all local offices in California won 80 percent of their races

But in California, the trend may be going the other way—at least to some extent. Legislators have proposed bills to expand the range of people who can run for sheriff, and to create greater civilian oversight of sheriffs’ departments. In the 2022 elections, voters showed a somewhat greater willingness to elect reformers to the sheriff’s office and to boot out incumbents.

In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors on July 12 voted to put an item on the November ballot that would let the supes remove an out-of-control sheriff without waiting for the next election. If voters approve the ballot measure, the state’s largest county could set a precedent for reining in the power of the county sheriff.

Changes (Or Not) at the Top of Sheriff’s Departments

Sacramento County saw the departure of three-term sheriff Scott Jones, who stepped down to run for Congress in the newly created Third District—where he finished a distant third. Jones was named one of the country’s “10 Worst Sheriffs” by Prison Legal News. But his hand-picked successor, Undersheriff Jim Barnes, lost to state assemblymember Jim Cooper, who will become Sacramento County’s first African-American sheriff.

Cooper, a Democrat who had served for three decades in the Sheriff’s Department before his election to the legislature, drew a stark contrast with Jones in his campaign, blasting Barnes as “Scott Jones 2.0.” Immigration policy also figured heavily in the campaign. Barnes attacked Cooper for co-authoring California’s “Sanctuary State” law, prohibiting sheriffs and other local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE by handing over undocumented immigrants for likely deportation.

But down in Riverside County, Sheriff Chad Bianco fared much better. Bianco has been tied to far-right-wing extremist groups, including the Oath Keepers. (He was a dues-paying member in 2014, when he first ran for the sheriff’s office.)  Bianco later tried to downplay his association with the group, saying, “they certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”

The Oath Keepers, of course, were deeply involved in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol building and 11 members of the organization have been charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack. Bianco was also associated with the CSPOA, an extremist group whose members believe, falsely, that county sheriffs somehow possess ultimate power to enforce and even interpret the law, and that their authority is greater than even that of a governor or the president. 

Bianco easily won reelection in 2022 over retired Sheriff’s Captain Michael Lujan—who ran as a reform candidate. Lujan supported creation of a civilian oversight committee, and was critical of Bianco’s refusal to enforce pandemic health and safety measures, such as the since-lifted statewide mask mandate. Voters in the Southern California desert county gave Bianco more than 60 percent of their votes.

Alameda Ousts ‘Law and Order’ Incumbent Sheriff

The odds always favor incumbents, but in 2022 two Bay Area counties, Alameda and San Mateo, defied those odds. Voters there sent two incumbent sheriffs packing and replaced them in each case with Latinx women candidates who ran on pledges to reform their respective departments.

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who was also named one of the “10 Worst Sheriffs in America” by Prison Legal News, had never faced an opponent in an election—even when he first ran in 2006. But when he ran for a fourth term in 2022, Ahern didn’t make it past the primary. In a race where experts said they would have considered a runoff a major win for either of Ahern’s two challengers, 25-year sheriff’s department veteran Yesenia Sanchez ousted her boss by taking 53 percent of the primary vote, winning the sheriff’s office outright. The win made Sanchez the first woman and first person of Latinx descent to become sheriff in California’s seventh-largest county, where the sheriff’s department is 169 years old.

The fact that Ahern had never faced opposition in four elections seems emblematic of the disconnect between sheriffs and the populations they represent. In a county where Democrat Joe Biden won almost 80 percent of the 2020 presidential vote, and the three congressional House representatives all received “progressive scores” over 94 percent from the site Progressive Punch, three members of the county’s Democratic Party Central Committee condemned Ahern as a “fascist Nazi.”

Ahern presided over a county jail system that includes Santa Rita Jail, the fifth-largest county jail in the country, and a system where 58 inmates have died since 2014. A 2021 investigation of the county jails by the United States Department of Justice found “reasonable cause to believe” that Ahern’s department failed to provide proper services to inmates with serious mental health issues, often placing them in isolation, violating their Constitutional rights under the Eighth and 14th Amendments. 

The now-outgoing sheriff’s record on immigrant rights also seemed way out of step with the county. Ahern cooperated closely with ICE , providing information on inmate release dates to the federal agency, until the practice was prohibited by the 2017 “Sanctuary State” law, SB54. Even after passage of the law, immigration rights advocates said that Ahern got around the restrictions by publishing release dates on the sheriff's department’s online “inmate locator.” 

In one of the more extreme examples of Ahern’s hardcore approach, when a group of homeless mothers calling themselves Moms 4 Housing occupied a vacant Oakland West Okaland house, Ahern brough out his department’s full military hardware to evict the unarmed moms—including assault weapons, body armor, and a BearCat Armored SWAT Vehicle. 

Sanchez has promised to cease the department's cooperation with ICE, and to support the establishment of a civilian oversight board for the sheriff’s department.

In San Mateo County, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos found himself out of a job after just one term, defeated in the primary by Sheriff’s Captain Christina Corpus, who ran away with nearly 57 percent of the vote. While Bolanos was not known as a militaristic “law and order” sheriff in the vein of Ahern, he lost to a candidate who promised increased “transparency” and to "permanently end casual hand-overs of individuals to ICE."

Corpus, however, did not promise to end any cooperation with the federal immigration agency. She said that she would review requests from ICE on a “case-by-case basis” and would turn people over to the agency if she determined that they posed “a clear and imminent threat to our community’s safety.”

Sheriff Troubles in Los Angeles County

The state’s most heavily populated county has dealt with a long litany of sheriff problems over the past couple of decades. In 2017, former Sheriff Lee Baca was sentenced to three years in federal prison after he was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation into abuses in the county jail system. The 77-year-old Baca began serving his sentence in 2020.

Current Sheriff Alex Villanueva won the office in 2018, defeating incumbent Jim McConnell—who had won his own election four years earlier over Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, now also in federal prison himself. Villanueva ran as an anti-corruption candidate, and a Democrat. 

But he started his term by promising to eliminate two “Constitutional Policing Advisors,” whose positions had been created by McConnell in an effort to put the illegalities of the Baca era in the past. Since then, Villanueva has been in near-constant conflict with the county supervisors. He created a secretive unit of investigators known as the Civil Rights and Public Integrity Detail whose main job, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation, appears to be investigating Villanueva’s critics and political enemies.

He also refused to enforce COVID measures, including the county’s mandate that sheriff’s deputies receive a COVID vaccination. Perhaps most troubling, he has downplayed the existence of “deputy gangs,” dangerous and sometimes violent “subgroups” of sheriff’s deputies that generally form in heavily minority areas.

“Some of these subgroups have tattoos, hand signals and rituals that are similar to a criminal street gang,” according to a Loyola Law School report. “The concern is that these subgroups foster a culture that resists police reforms, such as community policing and constitutional policing, by encouraging and even celebrating aggressive tactics and excessive use of force against minority communities.” 

Villanueva (who also makes the Prison Legal News "10 Worst" list, giving California a trifecta) has shrugged off the gang activity as "hazing run amok."

L.A. County Supervisors Make a Move to Take Control

On July 12, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took a step that, if voters give the OK, would give them the power to fire Villanueva, or any other sheriff, even though the office is itself elected. With only one dissenting vote, the five-member board passed a motion that will place a measure on the November 2022 ballot giving the supes that authority.

The motion authored by supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell singles out Villanueva as being “openly hostile to oversight and transparency and [testing] the functionality of existing oversight structures by consistently resisting and obstructing these systems of checks and balances.”

If voters approve the proposed amendment to the County Charter, the supervisors would then have the ability to—by a vote of at least 4-1—remove the sheriff for a variety of reasons—including “flagrant or repeated neglect of duties; a misappropriation of public funds or property; willful falsification of a relevant official statement or document; or obstruction of any investigation into the conduct of the Sheriff.”

Villanueva, not surprisingly, was dismissive of the supervisors’ move.  

“It’s just a big power grab for the supervisors, as if they don’t have enough power already, and they’re trying to eliminate the few checks and balances in county government. That’s all it is,” he told KCBS TV.

The proposed amendment is set to go to voters on Nov. 8 in Los Angeles County. On the same day, however, the county’s voters will also decide between Villanueva and former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna in a runoff election for the sheriff’s post. The power of incumbency came up short for Villanueva, at least in the primary election, where he garnered just 34 percent of the vote to Luna’s 25 percent. 

“There should be no surprise based on all the controversies and negativities surrounding this sheriff that he did not get the support he expected,” Luna told KCBS on primary election night.

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