Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas disappeared into the upbeat crowd of government employees and community members gathered over fruit and cookies on a recent weeknight at a county meeting room in Santa Rosa.
The group was celebrating the opening of the county’s first program providing civilian review of law enforcement — a layer of evaluation that Freitas believes is unnecessary, although he has pledged to support it.
In a white dress shirt and black slacks, gun and badge clipped to his belt, Freitas stopped to shake the hand of the attorney hired to audit complaints about his deputies. He politely listened to speakers, passed up a chance to address the group and, once the formal part of the event was done, slipped out the door.
“I love nothing better than to be off the radar,” Freitas said later. “You can get things done and accomplish your goals without being the center of attention.”
But Freitas’ penchant for the sidelines, to be part of the team rather than the face of his department, has compounded the greatest tests of his leadership — ones of public communication and accountability — crystallized in the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, whose 2013 death fueled a community outcry that led to civilian review of the Sheriff’s Office.
Freitas’ leadership style has been criticized inside and outside the Sheriff’s Office following the Lopez shooting and a series of high-profile civil rights lawsuits over the treatment of inmates at the county jail. His low-key approach, critics say, has lowered morale and exacerbated an exodus of experienced deputies, a staffing drop that made it difficult for deputies to do more than respond to 911 calls.
Supporters credit the sheriff, who will decide over the next 10 months whether to seek a third term in 2018, for the way he handled financial challenges, adjusted to low staff numbers, revived the department’s focus on rural crimes and formed a citizen Latino Advisory Committee to help him work with one of Sonoma County’s fastest-growing populations.
“I’m very proud of the budget stuff; I’m very proud we survived that time,” Freitas said.
As sheriff of the county’s largest law enforcement agency, Freitas oversees a $159 million annual budget and roughly 600 employees who run the jail and patrol 1,550 square miles of mostly rural land.
Freitas, 53, is a numbers guy, a thinker, a by-the-book lawman, according to interviews with about 40 current and retired law enforcement personnel, government officials and community members. His strategic acumen helped Freitas steer the department through years of budget cuts, followed by a complex challenge when the state shifted thousands of prisoners to county jails.
But supporters and critics alike say Freitas could have eased the unrest in the community by maintaining a stronger public presence in the aftermath of the Lopez shooting, which led to months of protests and two years of public meetings about police-community relations. From the start, Freitas’ response was restrained, often relayed via written statements and spokespeople.
“I wish he had been more visible, more accessible in the community in the aftermath of the Lopez tragedy … to hear their concern and provide some reassurances he is out there listening,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said.
In his own department, some deputies say Freitas seemed to be “hiding” and that a more prominent presence could have eased morale problems that helped fuel an unprecedented exodus of veteran deputies, a drop in productivity and difficulty recruiting new hires.