For the first time in nearly three decades, Sonoma County voters may have an opportunity to decide among a field of candidates running to be the next sheriff.
Ernesto Olivares, a former police lieutenant in Santa Rosa and current City Council member, has announced he will run for the county’s top sworn law enforcement post, a job held since 2011 by Steve Freitas, who rose to the office as an assistant sheriff and Windsor’s police chief. Freitas plans to step down at the end of 2018.
At least two Sheriff’s Office veterans, Capt. Mark Essick and Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto, have said they are considering a bid for the post, with plans to meet with advisers and decide over the next several weeks.
As yet, no one from within the department has come forward with a definite plan to run. Olivares would be the first candidate from outside the department to run since 1986. Since then, top executives in the Sheriff’s Office have groomed lieutenants and captains for the job in a carefully orchestrated effort to ensure one of the department’s own takes leadership of the office with annual pay of $200,000.
Olivares, 59, who retired in 2008 after a nearly 30-year career in law enforcement, said he wants to emphasize a closer relationship with the community at a time when ties nationwide between law enforcement and residents have been strained by high-profile shootings, including in Sonoma County a deputy’s 2013 fatal shooting of Andy Lopez.
“Law enforcement has to maintain and strengthen trust with the communities they serve,” Olivares said. “It’s something I have to offer, my expertise and experience in that area.”
Former Santa Rosa police sergeant Dick Michaelsen, was the last in a series of outsiders to be elected sheriff in 1986. His tenure was stormy, with top ranking sheriff’s officials publicly criticizing his management abilities, and he lost his bid for a second term in 1990 in a landslide to Sheriff’s Office veteran Mark Ihde, then a commander.
A candidate from outside the department can bring a fresh approach to policies and culture, said former Santa Rosa Police Chief Sal Rosano, who retired in 1995. Rosano was police chief in South San Francisco in 1974 when he was appointed to be Santa Rosa’s police chief. He said an outsider can focus on the big-picture strategy of a large department like the Sheriff’s Office — the county’s largest law enforcement agency — while calling upon the experience of top brass to ensure smooth operations while learning the ropes.
“Sometimes it’s healthier to come from the outside because if there’s any kind of behavior or practice that’s been institutionalized that may not be serving the public — and I’m not saying that’s the case for the Sheriff’s Office — (an outsider) can take a fresh look,” Rosano said.
Olivares is the executive director of the California Cities Violence Prevention Network and has held a City Council seat since 2009.
He has not worked in law enforcement for nearly a decade, but he is still eligible for the job. Sheriff candidates must have achieved advanced certificates from the state commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, but the certification can be inactive, according to state law.