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PD Editorial: In Sonoma County sheriff’s election, Eddie Engram is top pick

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Sheriff Mark Essick is stepping down after one tumultuous term, giving voters a chance to chart a new course for Sonoma County’s largest law enforcement agency.

All three candidates in the June 7 election promise to change the culture of the Sheriffs’ Office, mend relations with other county elected officials, embrace civilian oversight and earn the public’s trust.

That’s a tall order, but after a string of costly lawsuits and Essick’s profane refusal to enforce coronavirus health orders, the Sheriff’s Office is ripe for new leadership.

The pivotal question for voters is whether to choose an insider, an outsider or a quasi-outsider for the job.

Assistant Sheriff Eddie Engram, retired San Francisco police Sgt. Carl Tennenbaum and retired sheriff’s Capt. Dave Edmonds are running. If no one gets more than half the vote on June 7, the top two will meet in a November runoff.

Sonoma County sheriff candidates Eddie Engram, Carl Tennenbaum and Dave Edmonds
Sonoma County sheriff candidates Eddie Engram, Carl Tennenbaum and Dave Edmonds

All three candidates are career cops, and all three speak knowledgeably about policing and enthusiastically about community engagement and recruiting deputies who better reflect Sonoma County’s demographics. They say training and high standards are antidotes to excessive force claims that have saddled taxpayers with big settlements and rising liability insurance premiums.

The office of sheriff still can evoke images of a posse racing after rustlers or gunslingers. But unlike their Old West counterparts, modern sheriffs must be capable administrators and crisis managers as well as crime fighters.

In Sonoma County, the Sheriff’s Office employs 625 people, has a budget of $211 million and is responsible for medical and mental health care as well as safety for jail inmates, ranging from defendants awaiting trial to felons serving long sentences. The sheriff also is coroner, and provides court security and police service for Windsor and Sonoma. And, since the 2017 fires, the sheriff directs evacuations and has broad responsibility for emergency operations.

Of the three candidates, only Engram has experience at the executive level. Engram also is the only candidate who has run a jail, managing 280 employees and an $81 million budget as assistant sheriff in charge of the detention division.

Engram is the insider candidate, but he has a 360-degree perspective after growing up in crime-plagued East Palo Alto. He is candid about family members who struggled with addiction and had run-ins with the law. Engram started his law enforcement career in San Mateo County before joining the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office about 20 years ago.

Tennenbaum is the outsider. He grew up in San Francisco where he was street cop and administrative assistant for the police chief before retiring to Sonoma County about nine years ago. He promises more transparency, smarter policies and cooperation with civilian oversight. Tennenbaum is smart and engaging, but he never rose above the rank of sergeant, and we aren’t confident that he has the administrative experience to transform such a large organization.

Edmonds is the quasi-outsider, having retired in 2013 after 28 years at the Sheriff’s Office. Since then, he has written extensively about law enforcement. He paints a dystopian picture of a bully culture in the upper ranks and sloth on the front lines of his old department, and promises stepped up training and greater accountability. Like Tennenbaum, Edmonds pledges full cooperation with civilian oversight. His credentials are impressive, and his proposals are detailed, but we’re uneasy about his I-alone-can-fix-it tone.

These are all serious candidates for an important job, but voters can only choose one. The Press Democrat recommends Eddie Engram for Sonoma County sheriff.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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