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Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office data raises questions with supervisors on commitment to public health order

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has issued no citations for violations of public health orders since the summer, nor has it been able to produce records of any formal action in more than seven months — disclosures that again call into question the department’s commitment to enforcing countywide restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Sheriff’s Office data, obtained by The Press Democrat through a public records request, details active enforcement throughout the county during the early days of the pandemic, beginning with the first stay-home order in mid-March. Sheriff’s deputies issued 16 public health order warnings and cited or arrested eight other people into the middle of April. Through the first week of May, the Sheriff’s Office warned four more individuals or businesses, and arrested or cited another four people in connection with other criminal activity, generally adding violations of the health order to other suspected offenses.

Since that time, the Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest law enforcement agency, has logged just one other case involving the health order, in July when a man was arrested on suspicion of obstructing a peace officer while deputies investigated reports of a disturbance on a bus near Cloverdale. He was also booked into the county jail on suspicion of a public health order violation.

The confirmation of fewer than three dozen documented public health order cases — none of them over the past seven months that included a winter surge of infections and deaths — follows a high-profile discrepancy involving a deputy’s visit to a Santa Rosa-area church openly defying state and county limits on religious gatherings. That incident, in which the deputy’s account of a service at Spring Hills Church on Jan. 24 clashed with what Sonoma County code enforcement officials observed, prompted a Sheriff’s Office internal affairs investigation of the deputy. The county fined the church $100 based on code enforcement officials’ report, the first of three such penalties it issued to Spring Hills.

Word of the modest Sheriff’s Office caseload spanning almost 11 months of evolving local and statewide shutdowns during the pandemic gave pause to a majority of the Board of Supervisors. Chair Lynda Hopkins described the total as “surprisingly low,” and called on Sheriff Mark Essick to publicly renew his commitment to enforce the county’s health order.

“Statements of principle matter. I think that public statement, that affirmation, would go a long way,” Hopkins said. “It’s very confusing and sends mixed messages when that application or enforcement is inconsistent. I think it’s important for the public to know that we are all rowing in the same direction and all abiding by a common set of laws and rules.”

The enduring friction represents the latest example of an elected county leadership team still struggling to put forth a united front for working through issues during the almost yearlong pandemic. That internal trust and outward guidance has perhaps never been more important than now, as Sonoma County looks to take the next steps of reopening the economy and public schools with greater access to vaccines, while also bracing for the potential impacts of virus variants that could once more require shutdowns or greater adherence to public health guidelines well into 2021.

Essick, a 26-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, including the past two as the county’s voter-approved top cop, said in May that his department of 500-plus sworn deputies would no longer enforce the public health order. After a four-day public feud with the Board of Supervisors over Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase’s ongoing coronavirus restrictions, Essick agreed to again rejoin his fellow elected leaders in supporting the local limits on personal activities and business operations, with his deputies following suit.

Multiple requests over several days for an interview with Essick about his department’s enforcement of the public health order and the recent supervisor critiques were declined by Sheriff’s Office communications staff.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick talks on the phone with local radio stations explaining when evacuees will be allowed back in their homes during the Kincade fire in October 2019. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick talks on the phone with local radio stations explaining when evacuees will be allowed back in their homes during the Kincade fire in October 2019. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Sheriff’s Sgt. Juan Valencia, the department’s lead spokesman, said the Sheriff’s Office continues to respond to all health order complaints just the same as any other public safety calls reported to dispatch. The agency continues to support the county permit department in its civil investigation and enforcement role in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, and still prefers to inform potential violators of the rules rather than issue formal warnings or citations, he said.

Sheriff’s Office dispatch received more than 760 public health order complaints from mid-March to late-July, according to data that Debbie Latham, chief deputy county counsel, reported to the Board of Supervisors this past summer. The Sheriff’s Office has not specifically tracked the number of calls regarding public health order complaints since that time.

“As calls for service come in, we go provide education, with enforcement as a last option — and we hope people don’t put us in that position,” Valencia said. “I can tell you for certain, we go out and investigate the calls. It’s not like somebody calls and we brush it off. We don’t keep track of every time we give someone a verbal warning. It’s impossible. We’re out doing it, but not documenting it.”

He sidestepped answering questions about criticisms leveled by supervisors at the department’s approach to enforcement. Supervisors can take up their individual issues with the sheriff directly, Valencia said.

The Board of Supervisors empowered the county’s permit department to tackle public health order complaints during the majority of the workweek as a direct response to the sheriff’s bristling last summer over enforcement. Since August, when the county launched its tip hotline, email address and “SoCo Report It” online platform for reporting possible health order violations, it has received more than 3,000 complaints. The department’s code enforcement team has issued 15 citations — each of those with at least one prior warning — including the repeat $100 fines late last month to Spring Hills Church that made it the only entity in the unincorporated county to receive more than two citations for health order violations, according to Tennis Wick, director of the county’s permit department.

Mase said earlier this month she was unfamiliar with any issues related to communication or enforcement between the two county agencies, and felt overall enforcement had increased since the change. Wick, meanwhile, said he believed his department and the Sheriff’s Office remained on the same page for health order enforcement.

“I have no information or experience to the contrary,” he said. “Of course, if we had differing information from staff members in different departments, eventually we would like to reconcile it.”

By comparison, Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, has received just over 2,000 complaints since August and issued 20 formal warnings within city limits, and one $1,000 fine to a restaurant that continued to offer indoor dining in December. Ten of those warnings were to individuals at the same city park in early December who were witnessed playing team sports without masks or proper social distancing, and the overall total also does not include the two-dozen citations that Santa Rosa police issued to nonprofit Crossing the Jordan over a nine-day period in May when the since-shuttered thrift store refused to close its doors. The city’s code enforcement team subsequently took over complaint and investigation duties in October.

Supervisor James Gore said the ongoing fines demonstrate that the county continues to take enforcement seriously, even though the focus continues to be on education to achieve compliance rather than strict warnings and financial penalties. The Board of Supervisors already removed the bulk of enforcement duties from the Sheriff’s Office, which now mostly backstops the permit department on weekends and after hours during the week — placing greater responsibility on the county’s other elected officials instead of on Essick.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat) 2017
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat) 2017

“There’s direct accountability. That’s what people want, and, in that sense, we made it accountable to us. That’s what we heard,” Gore said. “I understand from a practical standpoint the discussion with the sheriff about enforcement or not, but a lot of that stuff is civil enforcement. Good, bad or indifferent, (deputies) are going and coordinating with them, and the fines are coming out of Permit Sonoma, which takes the action.”

Similarly, Supervisor David Rabbitt said he had no reason to believe that Essick was no longer enforcing the order, while also questioning whether it was the best use of law enforcement’s time to be out policing possible violations of the public health order. The limited records showing action taken by the Sheriff’s Office was no reason to be alarmed, he said, because the unincorporated county is now overseen together by code enforcement and the Sheriff’s Office, he said — even in spite of the conflicting reports issued by the two agencies pertaining to Spring Hills Church last month.

“My point is, it’s code enforcement and the sheriff working in collaboration, and not competing over who’s going to issue more citations. To me, that’s all county,” said Rabbitt, the board’s longest serving member. “I just want the appropriate person to respond to the complaint filed, investigate it, substantiate it and if there’s action they can take, great.

“I take him at his word,” he said of Essick.

Supervisor Chris Coursey said he’s not as certain. The first-term supervisor wants to withhold judgment until seeing results of the internal affairs investigation, as well as additional findings of an investigation audit by the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review & Outreach. But Coursey said the discrepancies in the deputy’s report, which suggested the church had been in full compliance with public health guidelines “puts a dent in the confidence that I have” that the Sheriff’s Office is upholding its pledge to enforce the county’s order.

The Sheriff’s Office earlier this month refused a Press Democrat public records request for any video from the deputy’s body-worn camera shot during his visit to the church. The department cited a state exemption as well as privacy concerns, saying in a written statement that not releasing the recordings better serves the public’s interest than disclosure.

Supervisor Chris Coursey. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Supervisor Chris Coursey. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

“What I see is an incident that, as I said, raised concerns for me,” Coursey said. “I still don’t know whether it’s an isolated incident or a systemic problem. I am open to getting the information on that but just haven’t heard it.”

Wick said the permit department received multiple complaints over several months about the same bar in Guerneville, located across the street from a Sheriff’s Office substation, for operating day and night outside the limits of the public health order. He was uncertain if the Sheriff’s Office had been made aware of the complaints, however, and code enforcement failed in each instance to find the business open to issue a warning or fine.

Supervisor Susan Gorin served as chair last year and publicly squared off with Essick when he surprised many in the county and said he would no longer enforce the health order, criticizing his decision at the time as “tone deaf.” She also looked forward to the conclusion of the internal affairs investigation to discover if deeper issues exist within the department, and whether deputies have been ignoring their public health duties.

In the meantime, she reacted with surprise that Essick’s office did not present greater numbers for warnings and citations during the early days of the pandemic — and none at all since early July.

“We need consistency in the county on reporting and on instances where citations are warranted,” Gorin said. “So I’m disappointed in the statistics … that law enforcement personnel is not being more aggressive in addressing the public health concerns that we all share.”

Even so, she acknowledged that the Board of Supervisors has limited recourse beyond reaching out to Essick to hash out any sustained differences, namely about the health order. Because he holds his own, elected countywide position, board members have no jurisdiction control besides direction and approval of the sheriff’s department budget.

“The sheriff’s department and the sheriff may have philosophical differences with the shutdown order. It’s unfortunate, because we know our deputies are good folks, who live in the county, who want this county to be safe,” Gorin said. “But we don’t have the ability to change policies or direct enforcement actions. We have conversations with the sheriff, and can invite him to participate in a meeting. Outside of that, the accountability is the election box.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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