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.
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.