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From left, Sonoma County Sheriff candidates, Ernesto Olivares, John Mutz and Mark Essick prepare for a debate, Monday, April 30, 2018 hosted by the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018

Candidates for Sonoma County sheriff vow to bring change

All three candidates on Tuesday's ballot — Mark Essick, John Mutz, and Ernesto Olivares — are running to improve police-community relationships.
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Three men vying to become the next Sonoma County sheriff give voters the first opportunity in more than 25 years to choose a new leader for the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

Sonoma County sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, executive coach and retired Los Angeles police Capt. John Mutz, and current Santa Rosa City Councilman and retired Santa Rosa police Lt. Ernesto Olivares are all running on platforms to improve police-community relationships.

The elected candidate will run a department with an annual budget of about $180 million, more than 600 employees and two jails housing more than 1,100 inmates. It enforces the law in 1,550 square miles of territory, including the city police departments in Windsor and Sonoma.

The sheriff will be responsible for the tenor of the department’s relationship with the 2-year-old Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach charged with reviewing internal investigations and fielding complaints. And the next sheriff could continue to face pressure from a federal government trying to get local agencies to enforce federal immigration laws.

It’s unlikely there would be a contested election without the 2013 death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy carrying an airsoft pellet gun that looked like an assault rifle who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy.

The community protested and grieved, and the shooting put Sonoma County on the map of a nationwide conversation about police shootings. Then-Sheriff Steve Freitas was widely criticized by the community and within his own department for a bunker mentality that left many feeling he had not adequately addressed the community’s outrage.

Sonoma County residents will cast votes June 5, and the top two candidates will face off in the Nov. 6 election.

VIDEO: Why are you the right person to lead the Sheriff's Office?

Here is a closer look at each candidate:

Mark Essick

Age: 48

Home: Cloverdale

Occupation: Sonoma County sheriff’s captain

Quote: “As a sheriff you get elected because of the good stuff the patrol division does. The sheriff maintains a seat because of the good work fighting crime. And the quickest way to lose your job is to neglect the jail.”

***

Mark Essick is a 24-year Sheriff’s Office veteran with experience working in the jail, patrolling the streets, conducting internal investigations, managing budgets, writing policy and overseeing a staff of hundreds.

That experience sets Essick apart from the other candidates, in addition to his belief the Sheriff’s Office has already begun to repair its public image, made strides toward promoting diversity among its staff, and emphasized the good work of its rank-and-file employees.

But Essick said there are things he would change on Day One, such as ending a controversial method of subduing unruly inmates at the jail that is at the center of an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit.

“We are on the right track,” Essick said. “We’ve made incredible gains in hiring but we’re still not where I want to be.”

He has the support of current Sheriff Rob Giordano, an appointed successor to Freitas who emerged as a widely popular lawman following the October firestorm, when his plain-spoken command presence garnered public confidence. Unions representing sworn staff in the jail and the field also support Essick.

Under Giordano’s leadership, Essick said he’s been able to improve hiring and promotion practices aimed at boosting department diversity. He said he’s also increased the accessibility of the department through community meetings and social media.

He wants the agency to more readily publish body camera video in cases when it won’t jeopardize an investigation and supports legislation giving the public access to more information about police misconduct, as long as the law continues to protect whistleblowers.

“I’m not going to be the person who says ‘I’ve got video and I’m not going to show it to you,’” Essick said. “If the topic is of public interest, I’m going to figure out a way to be transparent. That’s who I am.”

Giordano said he’s worked closely with Essick throughout their careers, and he’s “never stopped impressing me” both in his ability to master all aspects of managing a 600-person department and the way he’s pushed for the office to be more transparent with the community.

“I’ve seen him grow in his ability, like me, to recognize the big picture, what the community needs and how much we’ve got to work with the community,” Giordano said.

Essick said he and other managers felt stifled under Freitas. He was known as an introvert skilled with budgets who avoided layoffs during an era of cuts, but wooden and low-key after the Lopez shooting, a persona who failed to foster healing in a wounded community.

In 2014, Essick was appointed by Freitas to serve on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, a body established by the Board of Supervisors to generate ideas for improving police-community relations in the wake of Lopez’s death. Essick said he asked for the post.

“Steve had people around him like me, like Giordano, who said, ‘Steve, we have to get out, we have to engage the public, we have to do more,’ but he resisted it,” Essick said. “I continued to do what I could from my position.”

Giordano recalled a meeting with Essick urging Freitas and top department executives to implement one of the advisory group’s ideas and create a special community liaison position to promote better public communication, despite considerable opposition within the agency, in part because of a multiyear staffing deficit.

“He told the rest of us, ‘Here’s what they’re voicing, here’s why they’re voicing it and here’s why I support it,’” Giordano said. “There were still people who didn’t agree but we still went for it because of Mark’s insight.”

Essick lives in Cloverdale with his wife Andi and their two children. A registered Republican until spring 2017, Essick says it wasn’t his decision to run for sheriff that led him to switch parties.

“As a husband to a woman and the father of a young woman, I was not happy with the way Donald Trump spoke about women and the way he treated women,” Essick said. “Although I was a registered Republican, I thought, ‘I can’t be associated with a guy who treats women like this.’”

Essick said the change doesn’t represent a dramatic philosophical shift for him because he’s voted for both Republicans and Democrats, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

He is the sole candidate to say he would expand the criteria for issuing permits allowing people to carry a concealed firearm to allow more people with demonstrated safety concerns to be armed.

He has raised nearly $48,000 for his campaign. Donation records show his supporters come from local groups like the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and the Sonoma County Alliance, groups that supported Freitas. He has secured endorsements from the majority of the Board of Supervisors, including Shirlee Zane, David Rabbitt and James Gore.

Essick became a sergeant in 2007 and oversaw the bomb squad and worked in the main department and the Windsor Police Department. He became a lieutenant in 2014 and oversaw internal investigations until promoted to captain in 2015. He currently heads the administrative services bureau, overseeing some of the agency’s core functions such as its patrol, dispatch, court and transportation divisions, as well as the Windsor and Sonoma city police departments staffed by deputies.

“The job of the sheriff is to get out there, hold a press conference, meet with the public, hold community meetings and say, ‘Here’s what we know so far,’” Essick said.

John Mutz

Age: 69

Home: Unincorporated Sebastopol

Occupation: Executive coach

Quote: “Our challenge is to make sure we bring people in with a deep sense of service and humanity and to also make sure they don’t lose that in the course of their experience with the challenges they meet on the street.”

***

Retired Los Angeles police Capt. John Mutz was already 15 years into a second career as an executive coach when he walked into the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square neighborhood four years ago for a Black Lives Matter meeting about policing.

His was an unfamiliar face among a group of stalwart Sonoma County activists discussing how to push for changes within the Sheriff’s Office. It was more than a year after the Lopez shooting, and the county was deep into public discussions about how to improve police-community relations.

“I explained to them that the only way they could really challenge the system in terms of the Sheriff’s Office would be to elect a sheriff who would represent more of the community values and lead the Sheriff’s Office in a different direction than it had been going for the last 25 years,” Mutz said.

Mutz, 69, of Sebastopol, said at that time he didn’t envision he’d later campaign for the job. He’s never sought elected office, and had built a post-retirement career with Right Management coaching executives in private sector industries like banking. He also offers expert testimony on police practices in trials involving law enforcement personnel and is a trained mediator and facilitator.

He and his wife Heather moved from Laguna Beach to a rural estate west of Sebastopol about 2011 to raise their three sons in a country setting and send them to the Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm on Willowside Road. Their twin boys are now 8 and their older son is 11. Mutz also has three adult daughters from a prior marriage who live in the Sacramento area.

Mutz started his law enforcement career in 1971 at the Sutter County Sheriff’s Department and was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1974. He was a station commander in the San Fernando Valley in 1991 when four officers beat Rodney King and shot him with a stun gun, a violent encounter caught on camera by a bystander and broadcast across the world. Mutz was transferred to another station after the beating, a political maneuver, he claims, to appease city unrest. He had only been there about six weeks.

Unrest followed Mutz. He was a station commander overseeing patrol officers serving about a quarter of Los Angeles when the 1992 announcement that a mostly white jury had acquitted the officers of excessive force in the King case sent the city into six days of violent turmoil — the Los Angeles riots.

Mutz said the following large-scale civil disobedience and public discourse opened the door for new strategies in policing. He said he made connections with community leaders and tried to shift the department’s mentality away from arrest quotas toward problem-solving.

Mark Kroeker, 74, of San Juan Capistrano, a deputy chief in the department of about 10,000 sworn officers at the time, said Mutz “did a world of good” in the aftermath of the King verdict. Kroeker described a tense atmosphere of scrutiny from critics who said the department was insulated and out of touch with the communities it served. He said Mutz was “a cop’s cop” who “stepped forward with new initiatives of community policing.”

“John was able to hold his hand in two places: inside the organization saying, ‘I know who you are, don’t worry about my impression of you’ and to the community saying, ‘I care about you, why don’t we get together,’” Kroeker said.

After Mutz retired in 1999, he continued his involvement with the city, participating in a dispute resolution program created by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. In 2004 he helped convene community meetings after an officer shot and killed a 13-year-old boy backing up a stolen vehicle in his direction.

If elected, he would take his stature as sheriff to Sacramento and push for appropriate legislation, such as a current bill giving the public greater access to information about police misconduct. Mutz said he believes law enforcement unions should take a stand in cases of true misconduct, and not defend any and all actions regardless of their merits.

“Blindly following the law and at the same time making no effort to improve policy and practices keeps things just the way they are,” Mutz said.

He was approached last year by a group of activists who asked him to run for sheriff, and said that was the push he needed. He’s since raised about $63,000, including a $32,500 loan. Campaign statements show his financial supporters primarily come from his strong network of Southern California contacts. A registered Democrat, he’s received local endorsements from local progressives such as Santa Rosa attorney and former state Sen. Noreen Evans, and Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs, and secured the support of key Latino community leaders including Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman, who briefly served on a community board advising the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, and Francisco H. Vázquez, a professor at Sonoma State University.

“Freitas did not listen to the community and that’s why we have the issues we have,” Roman said. “I feel Mutz is that needed change. Mutz is relaxed and open to listening. That says a lot — and means a lot — to me.”

If elected he wouldn’t seek pension benefits from his tenure at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, he said, because he’s able to support his family with his coaching work and pension from the Los Angeles Police Department. Mutz is on leave from his position with Right Management and would return to the job if he doesn’t win the election.

Mutz doesn’t hesitate to call himself an “activist.”

“Activist isn’t a bad word — it means challenging the status quo,” Mutz said. “In the criminal justice system we have a lot to challenge.”

Ernesto Olivares

Age: 60

Home: Santa Rosa

Occupation: Santa Rosa city councilman, nonprofit executive

Quote: “How do you engage the immigrant community in policies that impact them? How would you like to see us use body worn cameras? These are examples of how you involve the community.”

***

The only candidate with political experience, Ernesto Olivares has served on the Santa Rosa City Council since 2008 when he retired from the Police Department.

Olivares points to his work pushing for public discourse on violence prevention and collaborative approaches to policymaking as hallmarks of his career, both in policing and politics.

“When Sheriff Freitas was in office, we had his policy in immigration. We wouldn’t have Olivares’ policy on immigration, we would have our policy in immigration,” he said.

Over the course of 30 years in law enforcement, Olivares worked as a detective, served on internal affairs investigations, trained in crisis negotiations and was an acting commander when promoted to lieutenant in 2004.

When assigned to the domestic violence/sex crimes investigations unit, Olivares brought victim advocates and child protective services agents to work alongside detectives, a unique collaboration two decades ago, said City Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, a former Santa Rosa police chief. Schwedhelm said Olivares has been consistent in his ability to involve various groups to solve community problems.

“He’s modeled the behaviors he expects of others,” Schwedhelm said.

As a councilman, Olivares has supported housing-first strategies to address homelessness, and has opposed a push to establish rent control in the city currently facing a housing shortage. On the council, he defended the police department in 2011 when officers let children hold assault rifles at a community event, which led to a public outcry and a policy shift.

He was a councilman in 2013 when Lopez was shot, and said his first response was a private one. He sent a letter to Lopez’s parents, Sujey Lopez Cruz and Rodrigo Lopez, expressing condolences, not as a public official but as a father and a Latino who emigrated from Mexico as a toddler.

“It wasn’t for me to judge whether what happened was right or wrong,” Olivares said. “But as a Latino, understanding the struggles we have, I wanted to acknowledge the loss of their son.”

He did not take a public stance and did not address the protesting crowds who took to the streets. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the council canceled its weekly meeting and shut down City Hall because of a protest two blocks away at Old Courthouse Square.

Lopez’s death exposed how distrustful immigrant communities and others were of the Sheriff’s Office, Olivares said, a mistrust he knew firsthand from childhood when his immigrant community feared police would deport them.

Fundamentally, the public outcry combined with then-Sheriff Freitas’ lack of community response is why Olivares would three years later become the first to announce his candidacy for sheriff, which he did in spring 2017.

Olivares was a political ally to Freitas, and served as Freitas’ campaign treasurer. He was disappointed in how Freitas failed to use the connections to the Latino community Olivares offered and to acknowledge “historical racial issues left unchecked” that surfaced after Lopez.

“You would think that as a sheriff’s candidate I would be getting a lot of questions about crime and safety, but that’s not the priority for the community,” Olivares said. “What’s really important to the community are issues we’ve been dealing with for a while and that’s trust and relationships.”

A registered Democrat with strong political ties in Sonoma County, he has drawn support from fellow council members Schwedhelm, Jack Tibbitts and Chris Rogers, and is endorsed by Sonoma County’s senior congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. He has raised just under $29,000, according to campaign finance filings.

Olivares believes agencies cannot shape policies alone and must seek community input and work with local organizations to improve a department’s engagement with various communities.

He would invite community members, school officials and officers from other agencies to sit on hiring and promotion panels — a strategy he said might have helped Freitas avoid the public outcry when he promoted Erick Gelhaus to sergeant 2½ years after he shot Lopez.

As sheriff, Olivares would publish more data beyond crime statistics, such as numbers on use-of-force incidents, complaints, injuries during contacts with law enforcement and other information that can give the public a metric to understand the department.

Olivares said he has no opinion on whether the shooting was justified and never reviewed the public reports on investigations including Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s criminal investigation clearing Gelhaus of wrongdoing.

He would re-establish the school resource officer program and create a department-wide community-policing program.

“Right now it’s individualized, it’s when a deputy chooses to do that. There’s no true accountability,” Olivares said. “How are the deputies and rest of the employees being evaluated in the way they engage in community policing?”

Olivares and his wife Rita have three grown daughters. Olivares became a U.S. citizen when he was 16.

In his post-retirement career, he has worked with statewide groups on issues of violence prevention and keeping youth out of gangs. Collaboration, he says, is an asset he would bring to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I think the big issues in our community are the building of trust, the building of accountability. That’s so important,” Olivares said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Read other stories about the sheriff's race

Sheriff’s candidates question each other's records on outreach
May 1, 2018 - At a forum Monday night, the differences among the candidates crystallized once they began asking each other questions.

Sheriff candidates support making police misconduct records public
April 20, 2018 - Sonoma County sheriff candidates support greater transparency in police personnel records and changes in state law, but disagree on how to go about an overhaul.

Sheriff candidates discuss cannabis at forum
April 12, 2018 - The three candidates focused how the department’s culture has changed, or should, in an era of legal marijuana.

Sonoma County sheriff candidates return to campaign trail after fires
Dec. 2, 2017 - Candidates for Sonoma County sheriff have refocused their campaigns after suspending political activity during the October wildfires.

Read other stories about the sheriff's race

Sheriff’s candidates question each other's records on outreach
May 1, 2018 - At a forum Monday night, the differences among the candidates crystallized once they began asking each other questions.

Sheriff candidates support making police misconduct records public
April 20, 2018 - Sonoma County sheriff candidates support greater transparency in police personnel records and changes in state law, but disagree on how to go about an overhaul.

Sheriff candidates discuss cannabis at forum
April 12, 2018 - The three candidates focused how the department’s culture has changed, or should, in an era of legal marijuana.

Sonoma County sheriff candidates return to campaign trail after fires
Dec. 2, 2017 - Candidates for Sonoma County sheriff have refocused their campaigns after suspending political activity during the October wildfires.

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