Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said Friday he will not run for re-election next year, revealing he plans to retire at the end of his second term in charge of the largest local law enforcement agency, where he was a politically tested leader who confronted both deep recession-era budget cuts and sharp public criticism in the aftermath of the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting.
Freitas, 54, a 26-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was unopposed both in 2010 when he stepped up as Windsor’s police chief to win his first term as sheriff and in 2014 when he was re-elected. His second term runs through December 2018. His retirement plans will set off succession talks among top brass at the department, which has not seen a contested election for sheriff since 1990.
“We knew the job was going to be hard and take a lot of time, and my family was supportive of that,” said Freitas, who with his wife, Michelle, has two sons. “They also knew I promised them I would serve two terms, then we would get the chance to spend more time together as the kids get into high school.”
Freitas’ tenure was marked by major budget cuts stemming from the historic 2008 recession and then by the death of Lopez, a Santa Rosa middle schooler shot by a veteran deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft gun for a real assault rifle. The deputy, Erick Gelhaus, was later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and was promoted to sergeant.
Public fallout from the incident and its handling — including an ongoing federal lawsuit brought by Lopez’s family against Freitas, Gelhaus and the county — continue to shadow the agency. Freitas drew wide criticism for failing to engage with the Latino community, especially in the aftermath of the shooting. Critics said his leadership was so low profile that he appeared inaccessible.
“The sheriff has had many opportunities to change policies that would have positively affected the Latino community but has failed to do so unless he was forced to by orders of the court or law,” said Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman, former chairwoman of the community advisory council working with the head of the county’s newly established civilian oversight office. As of this month, Roman is no longer a member of the group.
But his supporters say he has been a consistent advocate for his department, agreeing to work alongside the civilian oversight office, a level of scrutiny none of his predecessors faced.
He has earned praise from elected leaders and other county department heads as a skilled manager for how he shepherded the department through belt-tightening years that at one time threatened the popular and renowned helicopter team and led to the temporary loss of programs, including the community policing unit.
His leadership was tested mightily after Lopez was killed, a crisis many inside and outside of the department said called for a stronger public persona to address community outcry. His department also experienced an unprecedented exodus of deputies who left for jobs elsewhere to seek better pay and benefits and, for some, to escape the turmoil sparked by Lopez’ death.
Former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, a Sheriff’s Office supporter and veteran political observer, called the shooting and resulting crisis Freitas’ “greatest vulnerability.”