Sonoma County sheriff candidates square off in forum

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At the best attended candidate forum yet for the next Sonoma County Sheriff, the men campaigning to lead the county’s largest law enforcement agency spoke Monday about their visions for a Sheriff’s Office with greater transparency, a more diverse and supported workforce, and stronger ties to Latino and immigrant communities.

The differences among the candidates — current Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, former Los Angeles police Capt. John Mutz and Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a former police lieutenant — crystallized once the candidates were asked to question each other.

They ferreted out Olivares’ political alliances with an unpopular former sheriff, Steve Freitas, whose lack of public leadership in the aftermath of the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez still has implications today. They questioned public statements Essick made against legislation limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration agents, which has since become law and is widely popular. And the candidates highlighted Mutz’s role as a supervisor overseeing the officers involved in the 1991 Rodney King beating.

“It brought out issues you wouldn’t have gotten down to otherwise — we’re all too polite,” said Val Hinshaw, 67, of Santa Rosa.

About 250 people attended the two-and-a-half-hour forum at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building on Maple Avenue hosted by Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach and multiple other groups. It was the latest in nearly a dozen events to hear from candidates for sheriff hosted by groups ranging from cannabis industry associations to local Democratic and Republican party clubs.

Sonoma County voters have the first chance in 28 years to consider multiple candidates for sheriff of a department with 650 employees and an annual budget of almost $180 million.

The candidates defended their records in response to their opponents’ questions.

Olivares said he served as a campaign treasurer for Freitas, who retired last year, but was disappointed how ineffective Freitas was at fostering much needed relationships with the Latino community in the aftermath of Lopez’ death.

“That exemplifies to me why you have to have regular interactions with your communities,” Olivares said. “The Sheriff’s Office has been so focused internally, they don’t go outside.”

In 1991 when Los Angeles police officers beat King in an incident captured on video and viewed across the world, Mutz was a local station commander for the area. Mutz said he was transferred out of the station several weeks after the beating, and it was a defining moment for him. Since then, he said he’s built expertise in de-escalation skills and mediation.

“I was part of a system that had for decades abused and damaged people of color in our city, and I was sick of it,” Mutz said.

Essick said he spoke out against legislation limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration agents at a forum hosted by a local Republican club because at that time the bill needed fixes before becoming law to ensure it didn’t protect people in the country illegally who are convicted of violent crimes.

“I do support it as it was written today,” Essick said.

Essick pointed out Olivares and Mutz haven’t worked in law enforcement for about 10 and 20 years, respectively.

Mutz highlighted his post-retirement work helping other law enforcement agencies reshape department policies.

“There are too many decades of distrust and bias and racism,” Mutz said. “This is going to be a long journey and it has to start with the sheriff who identifies with the community, represents the community and continues to reach out to the community.”

Mutz and Olivares characterized Essick as an insider candidate who is too entrenched in the way things currently run to be effective at making the kind of sweeping cultural shifts they argued are needed in the department.

Essick said he believes his experience is an asset to the community and to the department where he has strong relationships that will help him start to make changes from Day One. He said that under his watch, the Sheriff’s Office has promoted diverse and talented staff — which he feels is the one of the best ways to attract a diverse pool of candidates seeking entry-level jobs. He noted four out of five lieutenants in the patrol division are Latino and African-American, and a Latina heads the personnel division.

“I put her in that position, not because she’s female or because of the color of her skin but because she’s damn talented,” Essick said. “I put my money where my mouth is and I put people into those positions who have earned those positions.”

Other sponsors of the forum were the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County, County of Sonoma Commission on Human Rights, County of Sonoma Commission on the Status of Women and Congregation Shomrei Torah.

The election is June 5.

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