Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick outlines goals, accountability for agency in new plan

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Read the plan

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has adopted a mission statement to guide its new strategic plan. The mission statement reads:

“In partnership with our communities, we commit to provide professional, firm, fair and compassionate public safety services with integrity and respect.”

The strategic plan outlines service priorities for the Sheriff’s Office and lists goals, strategies and actions in four areas of focus: staffing, customer service, infrastructure and emergency response.

You can read the strategic plan for the Sheriff’s Office here.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has unveiled its first-ever strategic plan, a document crafted by Sheriff Mark Essick to set priorities for the county’s largest law enforcement agency and provide public accountability through his first four-year term.

The 24-page document, posted on the Sheriff’s Office website last month, is meant to be a road map for the future of the $177 million department and its 750 employees. It details plans to improve staffing levels, strengthen ties with community groups, address long-term infrastructure needs and boost the agency’s ability to respond to large-scale emergencies, a concern that became especially pressing following the catastrophic 2017 wildfires.

Essick pledged to publish an annual report at the end of each fiscal year to track the agency’s progress toward reaching the goals outlined in the plan and serve as a measure of accountability for the public at the end of his term.

Essick said he began gathering ideas for the plan during his 2018 campaign for sheriff, drawing on feedback from community members and ideas espoused by rival candidates. After winning the election in June 2018, he sought input from the Sheriff’s Office command staff, local elected officials and leaders of local Native American tribes for their feedback on the agency’s future.

“We’ve been as inclusive as we possibly can to develop these ideas and this — as our team with a new coach — this is our approach moving forward,” Essick said. “This will represent the direction we should be working toward.”

At the forefront of the strategic plan is an effort to bolster staffing and fill vacant jobs. As of July, there were more than 20 vacancies in the law enforcement division of the department, almost half coming from unfilled deputy positions, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Office. Eight correctional deputy posts were also empty in the jail.

Part of the difficulty in filling those vacancies has to do with the laborious process for hiring new deputies, which includes candidate testing, interviews and background checks, Essick said. The office also is working on increasing efforts to retain employees once they join, in part by creating career pathways for people who want to climb up the ranks or move into different positions. The pathways will spell out the necessary qualifications, and even pair staff with veteran employees who can answer questions and provide advice, Essick said.

“We put people first because the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t make a product. We don’t make widgets,” Essick said. “Our biggest single asset is our people.”

The plan also casts light on planned and future capital needs, including construction of a mental health wing on the north side of the main jail. The project was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2015 to help house inmates with mental illnesses — roughly 45% of the jail’s population. It was supposed to break ground near Russell Avenue earlier this year but was delayed during the permitting process, Essick said.

State funds will cover the majority of the planning and construction of the $49 million behavioral health facility, now set to break ground in February 2020. But Essick will need to secure funding from the Board of Supervisors for construction costs not covered by the state, as well as ongoing operation and labor costs.

Read the plan

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has adopted a mission statement to guide its new strategic plan. The mission statement reads:

“In partnership with our communities, we commit to provide professional, firm, fair and compassionate public safety services with integrity and respect.”

The strategic plan outlines service priorities for the Sheriff’s Office and lists goals, strategies and actions in four areas of focus: staffing, customer service, infrastructure and emergency response.

You can read the strategic plan for the Sheriff’s Office here.

The new facility will include roughly 70 beds and employ 28 to 34 people. It is expected to cost about $5 million a year, Essick said.

County leaders already have started saving for the project, setting aside at least $3 million in the budget as of last year, Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said.

“We all agree that we need this unit,” Rabbitt said. “It’s going to be a better outcome for many people, but they’re not cheap to staff.”

Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Association, commended Essick’s plan, saying he particularly supported his ambition to improve the agency’s emergency preparedness, another target outlined in the document. He recalled that deputies were met with unexpected challenges during the 2017 wildfires, such as non-functional radios.

The Sheriff’s Office plans to provide more staff with training in the county’s emergency alert system, and implement a plan that will outline how the office operates under different types of emergencies.

Vail was concerned, however, that the goals would be difficult to meet without additional funding from the Board of Supervisors.

Last year, the county allocated funding for 233 sworn patrol deputy positions and 211 correctional deputy positions, data provided by Vail showed. Ten years prior, at the start of the recession, those funded deputy posts stood at 261 and 246, respectively, Vail’s figures showed. The allocations don’t account for vacancies or deputies who go on medical or stress leave.

“There’s an awful lot of things we want to do in that plan, but the Board of Supervisors needs to send more money our way so we can hire more officers,” Vail said. “We’re being asked to do more and we’re given far less to do that and that stands on both detention and patrol.”

Santa Rosa Councilman Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant who ran against Essick for sheriff, said the plan would have been stronger if the Sheriff’s Office was able to better define its measure of success. He also wanted a better understanding of the intent of the plan — whether it was meant as a guiding document for staff or a publication intended to serve the community. If it’s the latter, he would have liked to see more information about which community groups helped shape the agency’s goals.

“It’s good to have them in the document, if it’s intended to be a community document,” said Olivares, who serves as executive director for a nonprofit that works with cities to develop violence prevention plans. “I think the community wants to know what the process was in coming to this actual plan.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets

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