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‘A different breed’ of law enforcement: Progressive Sonoma County sheriff candidate Carl Tennenbaum promises change

About the candidate

Name: Carl Tennenbaum

Age: 65

Work: Former San Francisco police sergeant

Volunteering: Law Enforcement Action Partnership, National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

Why he’s running: "The people of Sonoma County have made it clear that they are ready for a more transparent and accountable Sheriff’s Office. It is my vision to create a more inclusive and trustworthy organization that embraces all members of our diverse community.“

Editor’s note: This report is the second in a series of three candidate profiles in the race for Sonoma County sheriff.

Carl Tennenbaum calls himself a “different breed of cat” within law enforcement circles.

As a police sergeant in San Francisco, the city of his birth, Tennenbaum legally changed his last name to its initial — so that his name tag could read “Carl T” in an effort to be more approachable to members of the community he patrolled.

“It was a creative act of defiance, and it shows my tendency and propensity to think outside the box,” Tennenbaum said. “I know it seems extreme or rash, but I’m having fun, and I prevailed.”

Though he has since returned to his given surname, Tennenbaum’s philosophy on policing and public service remains the same: be on a first-name basis with the community.

It’s an approach he brings to his candidacy for Sonoma County sheriff, and has helped him attract much of the local progressive movement.

A member of national oversight advocacy groups and a volunteer with the Measure P campaign in his retirement, Tennenbaum is hoping to return to law enforcement and bring sweeping change with him.

While his platform may echo the recent national movement denouncing police brutality, it faces an obstinate institution.

The outcome of the June 7 election will decide the second contested sheriff’s race in more than a quarter century (the first in 2018), as well as questions about Tennenbaum’s electability as a reformer and an outsider. Still others doubt the former sergeant has the requisite experience to successfully run the largest law enforcement agency in the county.

“Carl Tennenbaum’s lack of experience is substantial and unavoidable,” said Cody Ebert, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the union representing sworn employees of the county Sheriff’s Office. “He only recently moved to Sonoma County ... so a working knowledge of the variety of communities throughout this diverse county and their unique wants and needs is glaringly absent.”

But Tennenbaum argues his career on the streets gives him greater insight into the needs and wants of both the community and other rank-and-file personnel than that of his opponents, Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Eddie Engram and former sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds.

For his supporters, the Sonoma County transplant represents what the agency needs.

“He’s an outsider, so he’s going to be running at a disadvantage already,” said local civil rights and police brutality attorney Izaak Schwaiger. “But from where I’m sitting, being an outsider is what this office needs to improve.”

A law enforcement history

The son of a Greyhound bus driver and a homemaker, Tennenbaum was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood in the Outer Sunset District of San Francisco.

He started in public safety as a city paramedic. In 1981, he joined the San Francisco Police Department, where his first assignment was a foot beat in the Tenderloin District.

Tennenbaum credits his strong social awareness to, in part, his experiences walking various diverse districts.

On the issues

Police reform and oversight

Citing his track record in law enforcement transparency and accountability, Carl Tennenbaum promises to author a mission statement and update policy at the Sheriff’s Office that closely aligns with the provisions of Measure P and the authority of the Sonoma County’s law enforcement watchdog agency, as well as reflects a “community first” philosophy on issues of use of force, vehicle pursuits and military equipment. He additionally plans to audit jail operations, with a special focus on its mental health caseload.

“I want to reduce the fear that too many Sonoma County residents have with the Sheriff’s Office, while reining in the fear that deputies carry as a result of poor training and discipline,” Tennenbaum says. “I've learned that officers and community members benefit from meeting together on a regular basis, creating joint plans, developing mutual respect and trust, and recognizing they have the same goal ― safety.”

Hiring and staffing

Tennenbaum said one of the biggest problems with staffing is the standard training, “where force is often the first option, when it should be the last.”

He hopes to update policies to be more community focused, which he expects will attract candidates “with lived experiences” from communities who have not been represented at the Sheriff’s Office, and who “do not ascribe to a police first, paramilitary ethos.”

This will help eliminate what he described as a “cowboy culture” at the department and alleviate low morale among staff, which he believes is in part a result of high-profile cases of excessive or deadly force clouding the office.

Homelessness and the opioid crisis

Tennenbaum has been visiting homeless encampments in Santa Rosa and delivering food with a local nonprofit for the past year. He said the problem of local homelessness seems to have gotten even worse since he encountered it walking San Francisco’s Tenderloin District at the beginning of his career.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” he said. “It’s not meant to be responded to by law enforcement. It is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Board of Supervisors and the residents of Sonoma County.”

He pledges to be a partner in expanding existing resources and creating a comprehensive response by developing “first responders who can help direct houseless residents to the appropriate services of Sonoma County.”

“I was just in the heart of the city dealing with some real intractable social issues, drug addiction, alcohol use,” he said. “I was the epitome of a community police officer before that term was ever even dreamed of.”

And it was his experience off the old-school foot beat in narcotics enforcement that showed him the harms of aggressive, punitive policing to marginalized communities.

“I also saw the discriminatory enforcement we were doing. We were primarily in the Black neighborhoods, in impoverished neighborhoods. People were getting hurt left and right,” he said, adding that his partner was struck by a car and killed during a drug bust.

During his career, he supervised substations, worked at the police chief’s office as an administrative assistant and served as a hostage negotiator.

In 2012, Tennenbaum was the center of controversy when a video of him speeding through the Broadway Tunnel in a Lamborghini went viral. In the comment section of the video originally posted on Facebook, Tennenbaum wrote, "It's roomier than you'd think. Plus, we were all drunk."

He was investigated and punitively transferred off the street because of the incident, but he maintains that the video and associated comments were “fully tongue-in-cheek.” In a video about the incident posted to his campaign website, Tennenbaum said the department found no evidence of misconduct.

Shortly after the Lamborghini scandal and his reassignment, Tennenbaum retired, got married, and moved north to Sonoma County.

In retirement, Tennenbaum joined Law Enforcement Action Partnership, or LEAP, a nonprofit organization of current and former law enforcement aimed at advancing police accountability and healing relationships with communities.

“Carl, in my opinion, is pretty good at speaking to the dangers and continued policies of the war on drugs. He’s a top expert in community-responder models and how those should be implemented,” said spokesman Denis McLaughlin when asked about Tennenbaum’s work with LEAP prior to his candidacy. LEAP does not endorse candidates.

Tennenbaum also became a member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, having worked under formal oversight his entire career in San Francisco.

He lent his help to the campaign for Measure P, which sought to give the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach more authority over the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2020.

“When that passed resoundingly, I’m like, ‘OK, so this community, Sonoma County, is ready for change,” Tennenbaum said.

These shifting tides in favor of change pushed him to run.

Progressive support

Tennenbaum has emerged as the local left’s favorite, winning the endorsement of the Sonoma County Democratic Party in April. The party originally endorsed former Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke before he dropped out of the race, leaving Tennenbaum as the sole registered Democrat vying for the sheriff’s post.

Tennenbaum is “an experienced peace officer who has a demonstrated commitment to Democratic Party values over his life and a sincere and continuing involvement in efforts to encourage oversight and reform in Sonoma County,” said endorsement chair John Kelly.

Other powerhouse progressive groups, such as Coalition for a Better Sonoma County, the North Bay Labor Council and the Latino Political Action Committee, have gotten behind Tennenbaum, citing his promises to work with diverse communities and improve public confidence in the Sheriff’s Office.

The Committee for Law Enforcement Accountability Now, which previously worked with Tennenbaum on Measure P, endorsed both him and Edmonds in the race.

Jerry Threet, a CLEAN member and the former director of the Sheriff’s Office watchdog agency, said that while both Edmonds and Tennebaum ultimately impressed the group, only Tennenbaum has “made commitments that go further than either other candidates” on issues of oversight.

County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins has also gotten behind Tennenbaum, though she declined to comment on her endorsement to The Press Democrat.

For other individuals who have endorsed Tennenbaum, his regular appearance at community events and actions are what convinced them to give him their votes.

“I keep seeing Carl Tennenbaum at almost every function that I go to,” said Katrina Phillips, who did not formally endorse a candidate as chair of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission. These function include weekly Sonoma County Acts of Kindness food drives.

“He’s very active in the county, and that’s very refreshing to see.”

Schwaiger, the area’s leading police brutality attorney, said that he decided to endorse Tennenbaum when he heard from several former clients that the candidate had phoned them unsolicited.

“Carl had been reaching out to people that he could identify as being victims of police violence in Sonoma County, and he wanted to know their experiences,” Schwaiger said. “It wasn’t like a political stunt.”

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Natalie Rogers, called Tennenbaum “real and genuine about wanting to be present and bring change to our community,” which she said was “comforting” as a Black woman and the mother of Black children.

Limited experience

However, others familiar with the race and the politics surrounding the Sheriff’s Office doubt that Tennenbaum, who never reached an executive management post during his career, is prepared to manage an office with a $200 million budget, about 750 workers and two detention facilities.

"To our knowledge, Carl has never hired or fired employees, has never managed a budget, has never been responsible for policy and procedure adoption, and has never needed to collaborate with other department heads in other areas of government,“ said Ebert with the deputies’ union, which has endorsed Assistant Sheriff Engram.

”Carl’s experience cannot add up to the qualifications our community should demand from their sheriff, so we could never endorse him.“

This sentiment is shared by other prominent figures, who point to Tennenbaum’s rank upon his retirement, which is the lowest rank of the three candidates, as well as his lack of experience working in the Sheriff’s Office.

“Someone who has never worked at the Sheriff’s Office before is going to really be at a disadvantage,” said Sheriff Mark Essick, who endorsed Engram.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, also an Engram supporter, agreed. He called the Sheriff’s Office a “difficult organization” that requires deep, existing relationships to run.

Even John Mutz, a former sheriff candidate who ran on a similar progressive agenda in 2018’s race, said, “I think (Tennenbaum) does sound good, but when you look deeper, he’s just short on the experience.”

Tennenbaum counters that his lack of exposure — to Sonoma County sheriff work, and to upper management generally — is to his advantage.

“I’m not beholden to anybody. I don’t have any favors to be called in or given out,” he said. “My strength is, and what I bring to this race, is something none of my opponents can ever claim: the experience working in the community and knowing what the needs are.”

This is the primary tension in the race for sheriff many are waiting to see play out — the widespread calls for change at odds with the common desire for a homegrown leader.

For Sonoma County to “elect someone who would alter the orientation and approach (of the Sheriff’s Office) to the community, it would take someone with experience in deep management and deep change in a department,” said Sonoma State Political Science Professor David McCuan. “Outsiders do not have the combination of experience, resources and wherewithal to be successful at the ballot box.”

Rogers believes that a fresh perspective “is a good thing, actually.”

However, “Everyone might not look at it that way.”

EDITORS NOTE: This story has been updated to more accurately describe punitive actions against Tennenbaum taken by the San Francisco Police Department.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

About the candidate

Name: Carl Tennenbaum

Age: 65

Work: Former San Francisco police sergeant

Volunteering: Law Enforcement Action Partnership, National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

Why he’s running: "The people of Sonoma County have made it clear that they are ready for a more transparent and accountable Sheriff’s Office. It is my vision to create a more inclusive and trustworthy organization that embraces all members of our diverse community.“

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