'My experience ... puts me in a position to understand’: Sonoma County sheriff candidate Eddie Engram’s priority is public safety

Eddie Engram points to the unique perspective his identity affords him – as well as his experience in management at the Sheriff’s Office, his roster of endorsements and his promises of diversifying recruitment and community engagement – as evidence he is the right pick for sheriff come June’s election.|

About the candidate

Name: Eddie Engram

Age: 48

Work: Assistant sheriff at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

Volunteering: 100 Black Men of America, Verity board member

Why he’s running: “I’ve got the right experiences within law enforcement and without to help shepherd the office in the right way for the community."

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.”

On the issues

Police reform and oversight

Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Eddie Engram views community oversight of law enforcement “as an overall positive benefit,” which helps the Sheriff’s Office gain and maintain trust with historically disenfranchised communities. This level of review helps the Sheriff’s Office improve and gain trust from the communities it serves.

Accountability needs to be strengthened in the Sheriff’s Office, Engram said. He said he would not hire a deputy who was fired from another law enforcement agency or resigned during allegations of misconduct, or any deputy found guilty of serious misconduct even if they were not terminated.

Hiring and staffing

The Sheriff’s Office has lost 66 positions in the past decade, Engram said, and detention and corrections is the most “chronically short-staffed.” Engram hopes to push the Board of Supervisors to hire more staff and promises to “identify and recruit a diverse group of highly qualified candidates” who are “representative of the community it serves.”

Homelessness and the opioid crisis

To Engram, the issues of homelessness and substance abuse are personal, as his father has suffered from both. “That experience has remained with me and reminds me that anyone can become homeless, and to show compassion,” he said. As overseer of the Sonoma County jail, where an estimated 25% of detainees self-report as transient and many use opioids, he instituted the Medical Assisted Treatment program, which provides inmates an opportunity to safely detox.

“Homelessness is not a law enforcement issue. It is a complex social issue that requires coordination with policy makers, housing developers, nonprofits, service providers, healthcare providers, community members, and law enforcement. You can’t arrest your way out of homelessness,” Engram said.

Assistant sheriff since 2020, Engram now runs the county detention facilities. He is the only candidate with corrections experience.

A point of pride for Engram is his implementation of a Medically Assisted Treatment program for inmates as a response to the country’s growing opioid epidemic. The jail now offers them the option to enroll in the program, to help them more safely detox from the drugs.

Despite the county watchdog agency’s criticism of the jail’s medical contractor and several active lawsuits regarding inmate deaths, Engram said he is pleased with his administration of the jail.

Still, he added, “I would say that everywhere, you can always strive to do better.”

Engram, 48, who lives in Santa Rosa with his wife and a blended family of five children, said he is running for sheriff out of “obligation to the office and to the people of Sonoma County.”

The department’s strengths, he believes, include its disaster response, crime investigation, law enforcement and its collaboration with other police agencies.

“We have some deficiencies,” he added. “I think our real big deficiency — and it kind of bleeds over into all areas — is our engagement with the community and really promoting the things that we do well. I also think that historically we have a little bit of a defiant streak, for lack of a better term.”

Significant backing

Engram has won the endorsements of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) and Law Enforcement Association, two unions representing local rank-and-file public safety personnel.

DSA President Cody Ebert said Engram’s experience and his status as the only active-duty candidate are among the reasons the union endorsed him.

“We believe Eddie can deliver reasonable reforms that will be accepted by our membership and satisfy the desires of the community,” he said.

Engram’s other endorsers include the Sonoma County Farm Bureau that cited his support of the Rural Crimes Task Force, “which is crucial to our local agriculture industry,” Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said.

County Supervisors James Gore and David Rabbitt endorse Engram, as well.

“It’s been a difficult time to be in law enforcement at any level. Eddie understands that,” Rabbitt said. “I think there are people from the outside who want to blow everything up and reform things in their own vision. I see that as creating a great deal of chaos, and I’m not convinced things will be any better.”

But vocal critics say drastic change within the agency is needed — and demanded by Sonoma County residents.

Public opinion of the Sheriff’s Office has taken a dive, according to a Press Democrat poll, dropping to 48% in 2021 from 70% in 2018.

And Measure P, which vested the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (known as IOLERO) with more oversight authority of the Sheriff’s Office, was overwhelmingly supported by voters in November 2020.

That initiative, which would have empowered IOLERO to independently investigate deputy misconduct and recommend discipline, is now in limbo. After the deputies’ union challenged the referendum, saying it violated labor rights, a state board gutted it.

The county appealed the action last year.

Engram said he intends to work with IOLERO and improve agency transparency.

But opponents doubt that will happen given that he’s supported by the deputies’ unions and Farm Bureau, which both spent tens of thousands of dollars in 2020 to fight increased oversight.

Former IOLERO Director Jerry Threet pointed to the antagonistic relationship the Sheriff’s Office and its auditor had when Engram served as department liaison.

“Things became much less cooperative with the office,” he said.

Threet, who now lives in Canada after retiring in 2018, said there were problems getting complete information about internal investigations into complaints, which IOLERO is tasked with reviewing.

Threet accused Engram of cutting off IOLERO’s access to the Sheriff’s Office personnel database, though Engram and Essick attributed that decision to then-Sheriff Rob Giordano after they said Threet failed to properly vet a newly hired assistant.

Threet’s issues with the office flared again last September, when Threet, who is white, posted on social media after Engram’s candidacy announcement that “not all skin folk are kinfolk.” The phrase, which is often credited to Black writer Zora Neale Hurston, means those who share identities don’t always share similar interests.

Essick later posted a screenshot of Threet’s comment on his office’s official Facebook page, calling it racist. Progressive groups sided with Threet, invoking his history of community and advocacy work.

Engram has been reticent to address race during his campaign except to say that his distinctive experience sets him apart and ensures he will be an effective sheriff.

"I don’t want to bring a racial aspect to the campaign,“ he said. ”I want to stand on the issues and on my experience.“

But over the weekend, he learned that someone had written the words "Uncle Tom" on one of his campaign posters in Monte Rio. The words refer to the title character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe and are meant as an offensive characterization of someone who is subservient to white people or betraying their culture.

Engram said it was the fifth time one of his campaign posters had been vandalized and the second time the vandalism made a racial reference. Somebody spray-painted "KKK" on one of Engram’s signs in the Sonoma Valley, he said.

Engram used paint thinner to wipe the writing off his poster in Monte Rio on Sunday morning and reported the vandalism to the Sheriff’s Office, he said.

He said he didn’t report the earlier graffiti on his sign in the Sonoma Valley because he didn’t want to draw attention to it.

“I don’t want people to view me as a victim,” he said, adding that he prefers voters “look at my credentials and the ideas I bring forward.”

Engram said he was “disappointed” to see the writing on his sign over the weekend. He said he has “had to deal with discrimination my whole life,” but he called racism “a fringe element” in Sonoma County.

"I’ve lived here 20 years and the vast majority of people I’ve come across have been open and welcoming,“ he said. ”I think that it’s a little unfortunate that an individual or individuals put a blight on the county as a whole.“

Transparency concerns

Bay Area attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who has won a number of civil rights lawsuits against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, believes Engram’s pledge to improve transparency is disingenuous.

"How could he, being part of this culture that historically thwarts efforts of transparency and accountability, gain a foothold in voters who want transparency and accountability?” he asked.

Engram does not believe the Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force record is a systemic problem.

“We do have opportunities to improve there. However, I don’t think the Sheriff’s Office has a culture of brutal law enforcement,” he said. “I think there is a reputation of it, but I would also say we are not the same Sheriff’s Office as we were 10 years ago. ...we’re not the same people. There’s been a generational transition in law enforcement.”

Nevertheless, in 2020, the high cost of numerous excessive force lawsuits skyrocketed the department’s liability insurance premiums. Since then, additional civil claims have been filed against the office.

Phillips, the Human Rights Commission chair, said Engram must speak candidly about the Sheriff’s Office’s problems if he hopes to attract marginalized communities who have felt most harmed by local law enforcement.

“That takes a lot of courage to be able to look at your own office and pinpoint, ‘Yes, this part needs big improvement,’” she said. “He doesn't say anything like that, and I personally believe the Sheriff’s Office needs a lot of change.“

She added that Engram will need to “get out there more. Be with the people more. Talk to people more.”

Phillips, who is Black, relates to the uphill battle he faces as a Black leader in Sonoma County.

“It’s obviously not an equal playing field,” she said. “I know how he feels about being such a minority in this county. In that perspective, I’m like, ‘Yeah, get it, do it.’ But at the same time, l ask, ‘Are you the right person for the job?’”

Staff writer Matt Pera contributed to this report.

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

About the candidate

Name: Eddie Engram

Age: 48

Work: Assistant sheriff at the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office

Volunteering: 100 Black Men of America, Verity board member

Why he’s running: “I’ve got the right experiences within law enforcement and without to help shepherd the office in the right way for the community."

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