'My experience ... puts me in a position to understand’: Sonoma County sheriff candidate Eddie Engram’s priority is public safety
Editor’s note: This report is the first in a series of three candidate profiles in the race for Sonoma County sheriff.
Eddie Engram knows the many faces of law enforcement.
Long before he became a Sonoma County assistant sheriff, he was raised in low-income areas of East Palo Alto and Tampa, Florida, where his family had a complicated relationship with the police.
“Being a victim of crime at a young age, I had compassionate law enforcement come and comfort me when my bike was stolen, or our family when our house was broken into,” he said. “And I’ve seen the other side, being a teenager sat on the side of a curb because I matched the description of something that happened in the area.”
It was the culmination of these experiences that pushed him to enter law enforcement. And now, as he campaigns to become Sonoma County’s first Black sheriff — and only the second Black sheriff in California’s 172-year history — it is his intimate knowledge of disadvantaged people’s fraught experience with the police that informs his platform.
Engram points to the unique perspective his identity affords him – as well as his experience in upper management at the Sheriff’s Office, his roster of high-profile endorsements and his promises of diversifying recruitment and community engagement – as evidence he is the right pick for sheriff come June’s election.
“I think that my experience both professionally and personally puts me in a position to understand … what they want, especially marginalized communities,” Engram said.
By most conventional measures tracked by campaign experts, Engram has an edge in the race against former sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds and former San Francisco Police Sgt. Carl Tennenbaum. He has more donations and contributors than the other two candidates combined and has the support of outgoing Sheriff Mark Essick in a contest often seen as stubbornly in-house.
Yet, the sheriff’s race this year is far from conventional, prominent local voices argue.
It’s one of the most contentious on the June ballot. It’s also the first election for sheriff since 2020 protests against police brutality flooded local and national streets and shifted the politics of policing in Sonoma County.
As the Sheriff’s Office deals with low public trust, political controversy and a number of in-custody deaths, Engram’s experience and his institution’s endorsement may be less of an advantage than they once were.
Police reform advocates raise concerns about the four deaths at the jail under Engram’s watch and point to his initial opposition to Measure P, and his hesitancy to forcefully criticize the department as evidence of his commitment to the status quo.
“Engram is trying to stand on his own,” said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University, who has been following the sheriff’s race closely. “The question for (him) is how is he different from his predecessor and how is he going to improve accountability and access at the Sheriff’s Office?”
Whoever prevails is “going to be inheriting a lot of problems, and they are really going to have to work with different organizations in the community to fix those problems,” added Katrina Phillips, chair of the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights. “But the question is: Did you help create those problems? How do we know that you’re going to fix them?”
’A defiant streak’
In 2000, Engram got his start in law enforcement as a 27-year-old correctional officer with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. He joined the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in 2002.
As he rose through the ranks, Engram has held many roles, including sexual assault and domestic violence detective, internal affairs sergeant, and professional standard’s unit lieutenant.
During the 2019 Kincade fire — the largest in Sonoma County history — he coordinated the office’s fire management effort, overseeing patrols, dispatch and personnel outside the agency.
Sheriff Essick, who has endorsed Engram, was impressed with Engram’s performance during the fire, when he led 800 public safety personnel.
“It’s a major project to manage that many people in a crisis,” he said. “It’s a huge logistical task, and Eddie really rose to the occasion. His ability to be calm, his ability to reassure people, his ability to be thoughtful during a time of crisis was a huge credit to him.”
Assistant sheriff since 2020, Engram now runs the county detention facilities. He is the only candidate with corrections experience.