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When voters decide the Sonoma County sheriff’s race in June, will we keep the status quo or exercise our choice for change?

Unfortunately, many people feel that change is not possible. We are lucky, however, to live in a county where we, the people, have demonstrated our belief in such core values as genuine human justice, the guarantee of individual freedom and the protection of tolerance. And we are lucky that we have political representatives who are doing the same in the federal and state arenas.

Locally, we need to do our part in this crucial struggle by electing a sheriff who supports these values not only in theory but in practice, not by inertia but by intention.

The killing of a child on Oct. 22, 2013 by Deputy Sheriff Erick Gelhaus and the subsequent legitimization of his decision by the district attorney, coming on the heels of a documented history of police shootings of civilians, opened a wound in our community that has yet to heal. To its credit, the county Board of Supervisors promptly chartered the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, acknowledging that “Andy (Lopez)’s death has generated a need for community healing efforts …” Charged with addressing difficult issues of police accountability and transparency, community-oriented policing and community healing, the creation of the task force led to, among other things, the establishment of the efficient and productive Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

Yes, we need this oversight office, but its creation is symbolic of the need for systemic change in the Sheriff’s Office. Out of the wealth of knowledge I gained during my 18 months of participation in the task force, there is one specific lesson I learned that I believe deserves our utmost consideration in our decision to vote for the next sheriff.

In the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force meeting of April 14, 2014, two sheriff’s deputies graciously helped the task force understand the step-by-step procedure when a peace officer approaches a civilian and how the encounter may escalate into violence. The first step is for the officer “to establish a command presence.” This sparked a dialogue regarding the difference between doing that and “intimidating” or “creating fear.” One of the officers wrapped it up by stating: “The level of fear I have, depends on how much control I have.”

In view of the potential danger to an officer’s safety, the first step of establishing “command presence” and “control” appears to be the best choice for the building blocks of community policing. But I was left with a lingering question: What about first establishing a presence of mutual respect? Command and control imply intimidation. Mutual respect implies that there is nothing to fear, and we just need to talk. What is the basic assumption about our fellow citizens and residents?

At one of the task force’s public forums, a distinguished-looking elderly white woman shared that she was stopped for the first time in her life and felt so intimidated by the officer’s demeanor she thought she was “going to get shot.” This might be an extreme example, nevertheless, it illustrates one civilian’s perspective of the officer’s “command presence.”

From my experience on the task force and conversations with officers over the years, I have learned that given human nature, within all law enforcement (and military) institutions there is a silent and subtle internal struggle between those officers who see themselves as peace officers in the service of the public and those who see themselves as law enforcers who are holding the line between “us and them.” And the same polarity is reflected in the public’s support for, or antagonism against, law enforcement.

If so, what is the meaning of the long and costly history of excessive violence and shooting of civilians including the killing of Andy Lopez in terms of the leadership of, and the dominant culture within, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office? How can we change that history and build a better future? And more to the point, what kind of Sheriff’s Office do we want to have in our county?

I don’t know if there is a clear answer, but I would prefer a sheriff who is sensitive to the nature of the first encounter between deputies and civilians and who is willing to make mutual respect the dominant culture in the Sheriff’s Office. And that can only be accomplished by making systemic, not cosmetic, changes.

I encourage you to go to the websites of the three candidates and compare their platforms. Then decide to keep the status or choose to make a systemic change. We either channel it in the direction we want, or inertia drags us in the direction it is going.

Francisco H. Vázquez is professor in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University. Email him at francisco.vazquez@sonoma.edu.

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