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IOLERO’s community council mulls censure of Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick over alleged misuse of social media

A Sonoma County law enforcement watchdog group is considering a public admonishment of Sheriff Mark Essick.

On Nov. 8, Essick, in a post on his department’s Facebook page, accused former county law enforcement auditor Jerry Threet of making racially biased remarks about Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, who is Black.

Evan Zelig, a local defense attorney who chairs the Community Advisory Council, the public arm of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Outreach and Review, acknowledges that the proposed censure, should it be approved, would have “little to zero legal impact” on the sheriff. That’s because the advisory council does not have the authority to impose disciplinary action.

Still, Zelig believes the admonition will send Essick a clear message that “although he makes the policies, and enforces the policies, he should also be subject to the policies. When he violates policies it does not go unnoticed by our community.”

On Monday, during the council’s monthly meeting, some members agreed that Essick violated his own agency’s protocol barring personnel from using social media to post abusive, discriminatory or inflammatory content. It also dictates social media only be used to share information that “supports the office mission and conforms to all office policies.”

“This was definitely a political post. It was about an upcoming election and it was supporting a particular candidate. For me, that’s in violation of the policy pretty directly — from my perspective,” Councilman Max Pearl said.

“I think this one is without argument a violation of stated policy,” Councilman Nathan Solomon added. “The question for me is now what?”

Essick’s Facebook post condemned comments made by Threet, the former head of IOLERO, who posted on his personal account about the sheriff’s decision to not run for reelection, as well as Essick’s backing of Engram, one of four possible candidates set to face off in the June 7 race for the sheriff’s post.

“As predicted by many, Essick will not run and they will seek to leverage Eddie Engram’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) status to keep the office within the control of the deputy’s union,” Threet, who is white, wrote in his Sept. 30 post. “DON’T FALL FOR THE RUSE. NOT ALL SKIN FOLK ARE KINFOLK.”

Essick, in his reply posted more than a month later, called Threet’s statement “racist.”

“At minimum, this exposes Mr. Threet as a man blinded by his personal bias against Assistant Sheriff Engram, a highly respected law enforcement leader,” the sheriff wrote above a screenshot of Threet’s words.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Essick said he found it “odd” the advisory council would consider censuring him without inviting him to speak his piece.

He said that while he is technically only accountable to the will of Sonoma County voters, “as a leader, it’s my moral and ethical duty to adhere to the policies of the Sheriff’s Office.”

He added he posted about Threet not for personal gain or to sway favor toward Engram, but because “Mr. Threet’s behavior was inexcusable.”

As a former county department head and vocal figure in the community, Essick said, Threet cannot claim to be a private person to immunize himself from push-back.

“If he’s going to call people out on their mistakes, then he needs to be called out on his mistakes,” Essick said. “I absolutely, unequivocally do not apologize for calling him out on his behavior.”

Engram declined to comment.

Zelig said the sheriff has been invited to the advisory council’s Jan. 3 meeting, where members will continue to discuss his actions and whether they will call for an internal investigation or approve a symbolic censure.

According to Sheriff’s Office Lt. Brandon Cutting, who oversees internal affairs investigations within the department and serves as a liaison with the council, there is no protocol outlining disciplinary procedures for when the sheriff’s conduct is in question.

He said that because the sheriff is the ultimate authority over his office’s policy, “it would be really hard internally for there to be an investigation into the sheriff when he is the policy himself.”

Monday’s developments follow weeks of continued controversy, in which local advocacy organizations condemned the sheriff in support of Threet, who now lives in Canada.

“Mr. Threet has demonstrated a commitment to anti-racism and living as an ally. He modeled this professionally and personally, sought out opportunities to deeply engage, uplift, and listen to some of the most marginalized people in the county. And for this work, he is now a target of defamation,” the NAACP of Sonoma County stated in a Nov. 14 news release.

The group’s statement also questioned Essick’s motives for drawing attention to comments Threet made nearly a month earlier at a time when multiple Black leaders in county government said they had experienced racist microaggressions while at work.

Essick said it was this context that influenced his decision to post his response to Threet’s comments.

On Dec. 1, the county Commission on Human Rights released a statement affirming the NAACP’s support of Threet.

Katrina Phillips, chair of the commission, told The Press Democrat that Essick’s post “totally backfired.”

“If there’s one person in this community not to go try and call a racist, it’s Jerry Threet,” said Phillips, who worked with Threet while he was also on the commission. “Anybody in this community, especially BIPOC, can tell you 100% that they feel much safer now versus 10 years ago when all the work Jerry has done wasn’t yet there.”

Phillips said that while Threet’s remark that “not all skin folk are kinfolk” could be seen as appropriating Black culture, the phrase has become universal and is not considered racist.

It is a derivative of “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” a phrase often credited to Black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote it in her 1942 autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”

“The meaning in this context is, you can’t trust somebody just because they’re the same color as you,” Phillips said. “Historically, we don’t have the type of representation we want to see, and so sometimes when we see somebody the same color as us, we say, ‘Finally, finally, finally,’ instead of really checking out the background and the worthiness of the person.”

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

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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