Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas won’t seek re-election, plans to retire in late 2018

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Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said Friday he will not run for re-election next year, revealing he plans to retire at the end of his second term in charge of the largest local law enforcement agency, where he was a politically tested leader who confronted both deep recession-era budget cuts and sharp public criticism in the aftermath of the 2013 Andy Lopez shooting.

Freitas, 54, a 26-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was unopposed both in 2010 when he stepped up as Windsor’s police chief to win his first term as sheriff and in 2014 when he was re-elected. His second term runs through December 2018. His retirement plans will set off succession talks among top brass at the department, which has not seen a contested election for sheriff since 1990.

“We knew the job was going to be hard and take a lot of time, and my family was supportive of that,” said Freitas, who with his wife, Michelle, has two sons. “They also knew I promised them I would serve two terms, then we would get the chance to spend more time together as the kids get into high school.”

Freitas’ tenure was marked by major budget cuts stemming from the historic 2008 recession and then by the death of Lopez, a Santa Rosa middle schooler shot by a veteran deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft gun for a real assault rifle. The deputy, Erick Gelhaus, was later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and was promoted to sergeant.

Public fallout from the incident and its handling — including an ongoing federal lawsuit brought by Lopez’s family against Freitas, Gelhaus and the county — continue to shadow the agency. Freitas drew wide criticism for failing to engage with the Latino community, especially in the aftermath of the shooting. Critics said his leadership was so low profile that he appeared inaccessible.

“The sheriff has had many opportunities to change policies that would have positively affected the Latino community but has failed to do so unless he was forced to by orders of the court or law,” said Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman, former chairwoman of the community advisory council working with the head of the county’s newly established civilian oversight office. As of this month, Roman is no longer a member of the group.

But his supporters say he has been a consistent advocate for his department, agreeing to work alongside the civilian oversight office, a level of scrutiny none of his predecessors faced.

He has earned praise from elected leaders and other county department heads as a skilled manager for how he shepherded the department through belt-tightening years that at one time threatened the popular and renowned helicopter team and led to the temporary loss of programs, including the community policing unit.

His leadership was tested mightily after Lopez was killed, a crisis many inside and outside of the department said called for a stronger public persona to address community outcry. His department also experienced an unprecedented exodus of deputies who left for jobs elsewhere to seek better pay and benefits and, for some, to escape the turmoil sparked by Lopez’ death.

Former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, a Sheriff’s Office supporter and veteran political observer, called the shooting and resulting crisis Freitas’ “greatest vulnerability.”

In an interview Friday, Freitas said the shooting was tragic for the Lopez family, his department and the community, a difficult time compounded by how quickly people jumped to conclusions about aspects of the case.

“People made their mind up quickly one way or the other before the investigation was over,” said Freitas, who has steadfastly defended his department’s internal investigation and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s investigation.

Freitas, who made about $198,000 in salary in 2015 — the county has yet to provide 2016 payroll records — declined to describe any succession plan underway for his office, adding that internal conversations have not yet begun to identify who is interested in running for the seat.

For now, Freitas, who is often called “a numbers guy,” has his mind on his 600-member’s department’s roughly $160 million budget, up for authorization in June by the Board of Supervisors. His next major goal will be to replace the aging Bell 407 helicopter, built in 1996, dubbed Henry 1, which will cost millions of dollars.

Koenigshofer, an Occidental attorney who served on the community task force that proposed the civilian oversight program after the Lopez shooting, called Freitas a “very capable sheriff and manager.”

In developing the oversight proposal, Koenigshofer said he heard from agencies across the country about the vocal opposition from law enforcement leaders who didn’t want civilian involvement in their departments. In contrast, Freitas from the outset pledged to work with a civilian review program and its task of auditing internal investigations.

“That’s a major, major accomplishment in this community,” Koenigshofer said.

Koenigshofer acknowledged that some felt Freitas did not go far enough in embracing a more robust oversight concept with greater investigative powers. But he said “the bottom line is the office is up and running. Without the cooperation of the sheriff, that simply would not occur.”

Freitas is a deeply religious man who found his Christian faith while working as a violent crimes sergeant investigating the 2004 slaying of two Christian missionaries as they were sleeping on a beach near Jenner. The case remains unsolved.

His department has come under fire with a series of civil rights lawsuits involving the treatment of inmates at the county jail. One resulted in a $1.25 million payout last year to settle claims put forward by a Forestville man who was shocked 23 times with a Taser while being booked into the jail. One pending case involves a group of inmates who allege correctional deputies systematically beat them.

In an unprecedented move, Freitas in October announced he had asked Santa Rosa police to investigate one of his deputies, who has since left county employment and been charged with felony assault for beating a man during a domestic violence call. District Attorney officials have not prosecuted a law enforcement officer for on-duty actions in recent history.

Freitas said he believes he has shown he’s willing to admit mistakes and correct them. He also defended his employees during Friday’s interview, pointing out the vast majority of about 200,000 contacts with the public each year go well.

“I’m proud of the men and women in the Sheriff’s Office every day,” he said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, was highly critical of Freitas’ decision to promote Gelhaus, calling it a “slap in the face” for the community in an August 2014 op-ed in The Press Democrat.

Zane also felt at the time of the Lopez shooting that Freitas could have done a better job of communicating with the public and his own department. But Zane on Friday said Freitas made strides in that regard.

“I feel that he really learned from that and really stepped up to do a better job of communicating after that incident,” she said.

Zane and Supervisor David Rabbitt said Freitas deserves credit for setting department priorities consistent with local views on immigration policy, such as deputies not impounding vehicles of unlicensed drivers and accepting Mexican consular cards as valid identification.

“I do think he moved the needle in many ways, and I think he should get credit for that,” Rabbitt said. “For some, it’s not enough, and for others, it may be too much. But I think he did a good job.”

Friday’s announcement coincided with the launch of a fledgling effort by a little-known group of activists to recall Freitas. The Community Action Coalition of Sonoma County delivered a notice to the Sheriff’s Office on Friday morning stating it believes the sheriff’s management has led to “a deterioration of community trust and an upsurge in community fear” because of the way he handled the Lopez shooting, plus his policies directing jail staff to cooperate with federal immigration agents seeking information about inmates slated for deportation.

Freitas said the recall notice had “nothing to do with my decision; it was my plan.” Only his family knew and he had planned to make a formal announcement in June, he said. The recall notice did prompt public questions about whether he would run for office again next year, to which he said he felt he must answer honestly about his plan to retire.

“If there’s some positive byproduct that the taxpayers don’t have to pay for an additional election, that’s a win-win for everybody,” he said.

Coalition member Nikki Pyle, 25, of Santa Rosa said they will press on regardless of Freitas’ plan to retire. The all-volunteer group would have to gather about 35,000 verified signatures within a 160-day period to put a recall vote on the ballot. The move could possibly trigger a special election.

“That is our constitutional right to let this sheriff know we don’t want him in office here,” said coalition member Kathleen Finigan, 74, of Santa Rosa, who proposed the recall plan. “He doesn’t represent our values. He doesn’t represent Sonoma County values, and it’s high time a statement be made.”

Former Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo noted that early on in Freitas’ tenure, the sheriff convened an advisory group of Latino business and community leaders to foster goodwill.

“I attended one of the early meetings, and the feedback was very direct,” Carrillo said. “It wasn’t a committee to give the impression that Steve cared. He was interested in the issues.”

Carrillo said Freitas also willingly met with him and a representative of the Mexican consulate to hammer out revisions to the policy of impounding vehicles of unlicensed drivers.

Lopez’s shooting strained those relations. But Carrillo, whose district included the Moorland Avenue lot where the teen was killed, said Freitas remained engaged and responsive. That carried over into the establishment of the task force, Carrillo said.

“His office was collaborative with the county in finding ways to avoid that tragic incident from ever happening again,” said Carrillo. “Fundamentally, what we have today is at least an opportunity to have a better dialogue between law enforcement and all members of our community, not just the Latino community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to note that Santa Rosa attorney Alicia Roman is no longer a member of the advisory committee working alongside the county's civilian oversight office. A misspelling of Sgt. Erick Gelhaus' first name has also been corrected.

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