A meeting between Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas and new Attorney General Jeff Sessions set off alarms in Sonoma County on Wednesday, prompting several surprised local officials to question him about the discussion.
Freitas said he joined several California sheriffs attending a national conference Tuesday to visit Sessions and discuss a variety of issues, including asset seizure, marijuana and immigration, as well as ways federal and local law enforcement can work together.
He said they expressed concerns about Senate Bill 54, the proposed California legislation that would further limit state law enforcement officers’ cooperation with federal immigration officials.
Freitas opposes the bill because it doesn’t allow exceptions for serious and violent felons.
“I don’t think that’s safe for our community,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I don’t think our citizens want felons in our community.”
Sessions’ reputation as a fierce opponent of immigration stands in contrast to policies adopted this week by Sonoma County supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council to protect undocumented immigrants.
Freitas, who is a registered voter with no party preference, said he supported President Donald Trump’s nomination of Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Freitas said that does not put him at odds with local support for undocumented immigrants.
He described the meeting — held one day before the Republican senator from Alabama was confirmed by the U.S. Senate — as a fact-finding session to gauge the federal government’s positions on key law enforcement issues.
“He reassured us, his commitment to us, is (that) local law enforcement is really the expert on individual communities and local crime issues,” Freitas said. “He said he wants to be our partner with us and help us keep our citizens safe.”
News of Freitas’ meeting with Sessions unsettled Sonoma County amid dueling Santa Rosa and Sonoma County meetings this week packed with immigrants and their advocates urging the county’s elected leaders to demonstrate support for undocumented people.
The meeting caused a firestorm on social media, leading several Sonoma County supervisors to ask Freitas why he met with Sessions.
While Supervisor Susan Gorin said she was disappointed by the meeting, she acknowledged the sheriff is an independently elected official.
“We represent a community that is filled with fear, intimidation and anxiety about how all of the executive orders will play out,” Gorin said.
“We provide health and human services for so many people, and the board just took pretty affirmative action (Tuesday) to explore even more significant actions moving forward in the future to protect the folks living and working in our community. So I think his reaction is under-appreciating the significance of the folks living in our community.”
Gorin said she would consider asking Freitas to appear before the Board of Supervisors to publicly discuss the conversation with Sessions.
But Supervisor Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the board, also spoke to Freitas by phone Wednesday and was not troubled by his meeting with Sessions.
Zane said she understood Freitas’ concerns that Senate Bill 54 could unfairly constrain deputies’ ability to deport violent criminals.
Zane also said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice that Sessions will lead as attorney general.