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Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas announces early retirement

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas announced Thursday he will retire by next month, saying health concerns are forcing him to step down earlier than planned from his post leading the county’s largest law enforcement agency.

The announcement comes about four months after Freitas, 54, said he would not seek a third term next year as sheriff, opening up a race for the office that has grown to include at least six candidates, a stark contrast with the past two decades of uncontested elections for sheriff in Sonoma County.

Freitas, a 32-year law enforcement veteran, said he recommended Assistant Sheriff Rob Giordano take his post on an interim basis after he retires Aug. 1. The Board of Supervisors, which indicated it supported Giordano’s interim role, will name a formal replacement to serve out the remainder of Freitas’ term, which ends in early January 2019.

“The timing is beyond my control, and I’m doing what’s best for my family and my health,” Freitas said Thursday in an interview. He declined to elaborate on the issues affecting his health but said they were not work related. In March, he said he planned to serve out his second term, but he said Thursday that his health problems worsened in May and caused him to reconsider the timing of his retirement. An agency spokesman said Freitas does not intend to file for disability benefits.

His departure comes at a time of fiscal pressures and staffing shortages at the Sheriff’s Office, with a workforce of about 650 employees and a $180 million budget. Vacancies in jail posts have saddled correctional deputies with significant mandatory overtime, currently about 44 hours a month. Additionally, the agency’s latest spending plan resulted in the elimination of full-time narcotics and gang detective units, as well as the popular community policing unit that focused on special neighborhood issues.

The office also is embroiled in a number of civil rights and excessive force cases, including a lawsuit brought by the family of Santa Rosa teen Andy Lopez, who was shot and killed by a deputy, and a criminal investigation of a former deputy accused of beating a man during a domestic violence call.

Freitas said his commanders play a strong role in leading the agency and would continue to do so.

“I have every confidence in my staff,” he said.

Since he took office in 2011, Freitas has navigated the department through recession-era budget cuts, a massive shift of some state prisoners to local jails and public criticism following the 2013 Lopez shooting. He was Windsor’s police chief when he ran unopposed for sheriff in 2010 and drew no challengers in his bid for re-election in 2014.

“I’m so sorry to see him go,” said Giordano, a 28-year law enforcement veteran who has served as assistant sheriff since 2014. “Having worked with him for several years now, I can say I truly got to know him, and I don’t think people understand how much he cares for his community and this department and how hard he worked to do the right thing.”

Giordano, who will lead the agency until a formal appointment is made by the Board of Supervisors, is not among six candidates campaigning for sheriff.

That field includes two current department employees, Capt. Mark Essick and Lt. Carlos Basurto, who currently serves as Windsor’s police chief.

Other candidates include Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, retired sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds, retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz, and San Francisco Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Foxworthy. The primary will be held in June 2018, with a runoff in November. The Sheriff’s Office has not seen a contested race for the head office in more than 25 years.

Freitas revealed Thursday that he is endorsing Basurto, whom he appointed to serve as Windsor’s police chief in September. He cited Basurto’s work in both the detention and field divisions and his personality as factors influencing his support.

“He’s the most qualified and has a great temperament,” Freitas said. “He’s very even keeled. He’s calm and I think those are important qualities.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, commended the “true grit” she saw Freitas bring to the job in an era of deep budget cuts and tense police-community relations. In Santa Rosa, that rift was exposed nearly four years ago after the shooting of Lopez, a Santa Rosa middle schooler who was killed by a veteran deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft BB gun for an assault rifle.

Zane was an outspoken critic of Freitas’ decision last year to promote Erick Gelhaus, the deputy involved in the Lopez shooting. He was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.

“I haven’t always seen eye to eye with him about things, but at the end of the day I know that he has a strong moral compass, that he is a kind human being, and that he is honest to the core and loves law enforcement and the calling he’s had to do this work his whole life,” Zane said.

Solidifying community trust, particularly among the county’s Latino residents, will be paramount for those seeking to succeed Freitas, Zane said.

Freitas’ announcement puts an end to an effort to recall him launched in March by a group of activists called the Community Action Coalition of Sonoma. Group member Kathleen Finigan said they will halt volunteer efforts to gather enough signatures to put a recall vote on the ballot. The coalition is hosting a series of forums with the candidates, starting with two Finigan described as the most progressive of the group: Mutz and Foxworthy.

“A contested election is long overdue, so now we have a variety of candidates to choose from, including two progressives who are looking very good,” Finigan said. “I think it’s very good of (Freitas) to take a graceful exit and I wish him good health in his retirement.”

Freitas was paid $198,172 in 2016, according to county payroll records. When he retires, his annual pension will be roughly $188,000, according to estimates from the county’s pension system.

Freitas said he is most proud of the renewed relationship his deputies have with rural residents and the farm community in the county and a reinvigorated focus on addressing crimes impacting those residents. About 90 percent of the county’s 1,768 square miles is in the unincorporated area, and about 40 percent of the county’s 500,000 or so residents live outside its nine cities.

“We are the rural community’s law enforcement, and to have that connection and reaffirm those relationships, and to have a good positive relationship, I’m happy and pleased,” Freitas said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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