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Sonoma County sheriff candidates agree on policy at forum

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The common refrain at the first Sonoma County sheriff candidates forum before the June primary was public trust must be built through greater community engagement by the department.

The four candidates often looked to their experience and qualifications trying to set themselves apart.

Even with the first contested election in more than 25 years for a Sonoma County Sheriff nine months away, nearly 350 people gathered at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium for the more than two-hour event organized by progressive and labor groups.

For a quarter-century, candidates for sheriff came out of the department and ran unopposed. But the combination of Steve Freitas’ early retirement in July for health reasons and successor Sheriff Rob Giordano’s decision not to run for the office has left the field wide open.

Two candidates who have worked at the department for decades, Sonoma County Sheriff Capt. Mark Essick and Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto claimed someone with proven trust of the nearly 650-person agency is best suited to implement change.

The other two candidates, retired Los Angeles Police Capt. John Mutz and retired Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ernesto Olivares, contended someone from the outside is needed to change the culture within the agency that at times has been derided as out-of-touch.

The impacts of the deputy-involved shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez in 2013 are still being felt in both department policy and community engagement.

“(The Lopez shooting) has definitely built the process, the scrutiny and the forthright questions,” said Chris Grabill, a forum organizer. “Early interest also has to do with national context and the fear created by the Trump administration.”

The first question posed was how the contenders would build upon Senate Bill 54, known as the “sanctuary state” bill, that’s currently awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. It would further limit cooperation between the Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration agents.

All candidates echoed each other in supporting a limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

“For many decades we have been asking the federal government for immigration reform,” Olivares said.

“The inability to do that has forced issues down to the community level.”

But Mutz, who identifies as a progressive “activist,” said the legislation does not go far enough.

“We’re here to serve the people and not the federal government,” Mutz said.

The forum, moderated by Michael Allen, a former state assemblyman, and Mary Watts, a community activist, allowed each candidate two minutes to answer questions.

Unlike a debate format, contestants were unable to directly respond to others after they answered the question.

The sheriff hopefuls each made two-minute opening statements. They were asked preselected questions on immigration, the culture of the Sheriff’s Office, the department’s independent watchdog agency, mental health in the county jail and cannabis policy.

When candidates were asked if the culture within the Sheriff’s Office needed to be changed, their answers largely addressed hiring and diversity. Basurto said he would actively recruit for diversity with a focus on women and people of color.

Olivares and Essick said they support community panels for hiring and promotion within the department, opening up the process and allowing community engagement in determining the makeup of the Sheriff’s Office.

There was also support for the independent law enforcement oversight and outreach agency, known as IOLERO, formed in 2016 to review policy and audit investigations into improper conduct of deputies.

“IOLERO is one of the best things that has come to the county in a long time,” Basurto said.

When the candidates were asked about the onset of recreational cannabis use beginning in 2018, all said they would follow policy set by the Sonoma County supervisors.

Essick and Basurto expressed concern about violent crime related to the marijuana industry.

“We need to encourage people to come out of the shadows,” Essick said, “but danger is still there.”

Further questions submitted by audience members included the militarization of local law enforcement, free speech and protest policy, and campaign finance disclosure. Each candidate also gave two-minute closing statements.

For Grabill, the fact that candidates agreed on more than they disagreed on was a reflection of Sonoma County voters’ priorities.

“I think that’s that a really good thing,” Grabill said. “It show the demands of our community are being heard.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or nick.rahaim@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nrahaim.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the title of Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto.

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