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Dave Edmonds, candidate for Sonoma County sheriff, wants to take on agency culture

About the candidate

Name: Dave Edmonds

Age: 58

Work: Founder and executive director of 360Armor, founder and executive director of The Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Foundation, contributing editor at American Police Beat

Volunteering: Redwood Gospel Mission board member

Why he’s running: “I want to return to the Sheriff’s Office to make it respected, professional, transparent and accountable to this community, and — above and beyond that — I believe I can lead the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to become a model law enforcement office nationwide.”

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

Retirement from law enforcement doesn’t mean withdrawing from public service to Dave Edmonds.

Since his departure from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in 2013 after almost 30 years at the agency, Edmonds has split his time among diverse pursuits, including volunteering with Christian service organizations, writing for law enforcement publications and launching a national nonprofit aimed at increasing physical wellness among first responders.

So, coming out of retirement to run for Sonoma County sheriff feels natural, according to the 58-year-old grandfather.

“I want to return to the Sheriff’s Office to make it respected, professional, transparent and accountable to this community,” Edmonds said. “We need someone who knows the system, but is not beholden to it.”

This is his second run for sheriff. His first bid, in 2017, ended with his early withdrawal due to meager support.

This time, Edmonds’ campaign promises he’ll bring internal accountability, employee wellness and community trust to the “sacred role” of sheriff.

He says his blend of insider experience as a department veteran and outsider perspective, gained after retirement, gives him an edge over his opposition — establishment front-runner Eddie Engram and insurgent reformer Carl Tennenbaum.

His message has drawn a modest and mixed range of supporters — but with Engram’s institutional backing and Tennenbaum’s appeal among progressives, Edmonds is battling both low enthusiasm and outright opposition from some community factions.

“Edmonds doesn’t have the outsider status of Tennenbaum; he doesn’t have the endorsements (Engram has),” said David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University.

“Edmonds has to thread that needle, and I think that might be difficult for him.”

Some of Edmonds’ biggest obstacles have been his detractors within law enforcement. Some assert that he once represented the bully culture and “good old boys’ club” in policing, which he now condemns. They also contend that he still has a somewhat negative reputation at the Sheriff’s Office, earned in part by a lawsuit that accused him and other department leaders of discrimination and retaliation nearly 20 years ago.

The county later settled the 2005 case without admitting liability and Edmonds and the others were dismissed from it.

“He was the bully culture. He is one of the people who made the things so toxic in that department. And he is the ultimate insider,” said Nelson Pinola, a former sheriff’s lieutenant who worked with and under Edmonds.

Edmonds, though, said he has always served with integrity.

And, believing his supporters outnumber his critics, Edmonds blames autocracy at the Sheriff’s Office for discouraging any overt support for him among those in its ranks.

His resume

Growing up in a poor family in a small Central Valley town outside Fresno, Edmonds said he was drawn to law enforcement after his older brother became a police officer. After high school, Edmonds took a job with the Hanford Police Department in his hometown.

In 1985, he and his wife moved to Sonoma County, where he became a sheriff’s deputy. He held several positions across the organization, including field training officer, violent crimes and homicide detective, and internal affairs sergeant, before retiring as a captain nearly a decade ago.

In the first years of his career, Edmonds earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Sonoma State University while working the night shift on patrol. He later earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University.

Among his achievements at the office, Edmonds said, was the investigation he led related to the Ramon Salcido murders of 1989. The case took Edmonds to Mexico City, where he apprehended Salcido and, on the flight back to Sonoma County, obtained a confession to the killings while in the air over California.

As a retiree, Edmonds’ new roles include a seat on the Board of Directors at Redwood Gospel Mission, a Santa Rosa Christian organization that provides services for the homeless community.

“He has a desire to impact lives, and it’s just amazing to see how tenacious he’s been in trying to serve people, not for any gain for himself,” said Jeff Gilman, Redwood Gospel’s director and Edmonds’ longtime friend, who did not endorse a candidate in his role at the nonprofit.

On the issues

Police reform and oversight

Dave Edmonds plans a hands-on relationship with the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach’s public-facing body, the Community Advisory Council, in an effort to “get to know one another, break down the present barriers, and let my command staff recognize first-hand my own openness as well as my expectations for theirs.” This will include regular attendance at the council’s monthly meetings.

In a broader effort to increase community trust, Edmonds offers several ideas, including a “Walk our neighborhoods” effort. He believes deputies have an “abundance of free time” to be retrained to become ambassadors to communities, and hopes to implement a culture among them of “guardians and not warriors.”

Hiring and staffing

Edmonds identifies “morale” as one of the main problems plaguing the Sheriff’s Office – the first he hopes to address as sheriff. “The good thing about the general affect of men and women who pursue law enforcement careers is that their disposition is one that absolutely takes off and then thrives under inspirational, fair and authoritative, caring leadership,” he said.

Homelessness and the opioid crisis

Edmonds has worked with homeless populations since his retirement as a board member of Redwood Gospel Mission. “As sheriff, I will have a new, systematic engagement model that I will implement where our deputies start contacting members of our homeless population in positive ways to help them,” he said.

Like homelessness, Edmonds adds, the opioid crisis “requires much more than law enforcement interdiction,” but rather “needs an intensive multi-disciplinary” response that “leans on substance abuse clinicians and experts.”

Edmonds said he initially ran for sheriff in 2017 because he believed he was the right person to lead the office — a sentiment that has only intensified through outgoing Sheriff Mark Essick’s administration.

“Morale is lower than ever there now,” he said.

Essick has endorsed Engram, one of two assistant sheriffs in Essick’s department.

In a 20-point plan, Edmonds lays out ideas for the department, including employee mental health programming, hiring on-call disaster experts, instituting training in SWAT-like tactical combat, deescalation and duty-to-intervene, and recruiting from populations like college athletes in an effort to increase diversity.

“He can walk into the department and start the job from Day 1. Not only does he know where everything physically is — he knows the players. He knows the people. He knows the county. He knows the system,” said Sally Lopez, a former community service officer and Edmonds’ campaign manager.

“However, he’s detached enough to where he doesn’t necessarily owe anyone anything.”

Support, opposition

Edmonds credits his current campaign’s endurance to the help of John Mutz, a retired Los Angeles police captain who previously ran against Essick.

Mutz said he asked Edmonds to run again because he believed he “could lead the change that’s consistent with what people wanted.”

And, while Edmonds is registered as no party preference after switching from Republican last year, Mutz said, “he’s aligned with Democratic values and principles as it relates to social justice.”

County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who endorsed Edmonds before other candidates entered the field, was impressed by his experience and “suggestions for reform and how things could be different.”

She said she is now considering making a dual endorsement.

Edmonds, alongside Tennenbaum, won the dual endorsement of the Committee for Law Enforcement Accountability Now, also known as CLEAN.

“He has made a cogent and fact-based critique of the Sheriff’s Office — both its culture and its accountability systems,” said Jerry Threet, a CLEAN member and former head of the county’s law enforcement watchdog agency. He now lives in Canada.

Edmonds, whose support continues to lag in police reform circles, has a similarly small fraction of the law enforcement endorsements and contributions, which Engram, the current assistant sheriff backed by both deputy unions and the incumbent sheriff, boasts.

“Mr. Edmonds has been retired for almost a decade. He did not experience the Andy Lopez tragedy, any of our natural disasters, or the COVID pandemic. His experience is antiquated and will not result in effective leadership in modern times,” Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Cody Ebert said.

Unfazed, Edmonds insists, “I don’t think I need the (DSA) endorsement to win this thing.”

Why some members of the law enforcement community have such an adverse reaction to Edmonds campaign for sheriff can be traced back to past controversies Edmonds can’t seem to shake — even in retirement.

“I have spoken with many long-tenured active and retired employees who do not hold Mr. Edmonds in very high regard,” said Ebert, the DSA president. “He has a reputation for being a bully as a supervisor and manager and for perpetuating the ‘good old boys club’ mentality.”

Edmonds said these allegations are untrue — and nullified by his lasting friendships with former members of the department like Lopez.

“I am being disparaged by members of that union,” he said in response, “because I am the challenger. I am an outsider. … The reason I am getting attention is I am a threat to stasis.”

Kevin McGoon, DSA vice president, countered, “Based on what I have been told by current and former (DSA) members who worked with him, he is the embodiment of the bully culture and cronyism he claims the current Sheriff’s Office and sheriff’s administration to be.”

Pinola, the former Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, said he often clashed with Edmonds over his philosophy and treatment of others.

“It was little things — microaggressions,” said Pinola, one of two Native Americans in the department for much of his career. “He would throw Republican pamphlets on my desk and talk about how superior Republicans were. ... He would take church literature and drop it on my desk.”

Edmonds, Pinola said, was one of the reasons Pinola retired from the department in 2013.

Edmonds categorically denies every accusation against him, citing as evidence his membership in a progressive church.

He admits Pinola and he butted heads when Pinola was his subordinate. He also acknowledged that “in the ‘80s, Rush Limbaugh (a politically conservative talk radio broadcaster) was on around the office all over the place, and we all laughed.” Edmonds, however, said he is now “the perfect moderate.”

Still, Ebert and several other critics point to the 2005 lawsuit filed by two female employees at the Sheriff’s Office accusing a number of men in management of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation and other claims.

Edmonds, who was named in the suit, was accused of disciplining a young, lesbian trainee after she reported a racist comment from a co-worker and of following her into the women’s locker room as she cried.

“This behavior does not reflect who we are as an organization or who we want as our leader, both internally and as a leader in our community,” Ebert said.

Edmonds, however, said he did not discipline the trainee and only followed her into the women’s room to ask if she was OK, seeing she was distraught.

He maintains that he was dropped from the lawsuit early, “rightfully so.”

But according to Rick Simmons, the attorney who represented Edmonds’ accuser and who settled with the county for $160,000, Edmonds was dismissed after a year of litigation alongside all other individually named defendants once county liability was established — a common civil trial strategy.

“I handled everything professionally and compassionately for an employee who was in some level of crisis and distress,” Edmonds said.

Essick, though, called the 2005 lawsuit a stain on the office’s history.

“Let’s face it: there’s not a lot of women in law enforcement, and not a lot of openly gay women in law enforcement,” he said. “I’m not pinning all that on Dave — he was in a position to cultivate those kinds of things we need, and he was doing just the opposite."

The lawsuit, McGoon added, “is indicative of his overall use of bullying and intimidation in positions of leadership. Like microaggressions, any individual action is not necessarily noteworthy, but when spread across an entire career, it paints a larger picture of poor leadership qualities. The vast majority of current and former employees of the Sheriff’s Office have nothing nice to say about him.”

Edmonds said that DSA leadership is not representative of the feelings among all the Sheriff’s Office staff. He said members of the agency have told him they are afraid to support him vocally.

Nevertheless, even in his outside work, Edmonds has raised eyebrows. The website for his nonprofit, 360Armor, sells apparel with Thin Blue Line iconography, which Edmonds has been pictured sporting himself.

The origins of the Thin Blue Line flag are not definite, and its meaning is contested. To Edmonds, it represents “a positive cultural value in law enforcement” of sacrifice for the public.

But to others, such as Human Rights Commission Chair Katrina Phillips, the iconography has been used to intimidate those who protest police misconduct and brutality.

To defense attorney Omar Figueroa, for Edmonds to trade in the image suggests an “under-siege mentality” in his approach to policing that “is not a productive way to engage with citizenry.”

Edmonds said he doesn’t like that so much of his campaign has been about defending against his critics, but he is encouraged by the challenge:

“The brighter I turn up the lights, the better I’m going to look.”

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

About the candidate

Name: Dave Edmonds

Age: 58

Work: Founder and executive director of 360Armor, founder and executive director of The Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Foundation, contributing editor at American Police Beat

Volunteering: Redwood Gospel Mission board member

Why he’s running: “I want to return to the Sheriff’s Office to make it respected, professional, transparent and accountable to this community, and — above and beyond that — I believe I can lead the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to become a model law enforcement office nationwide.”

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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