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Close to Home: Meaningful change comes from within

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

“Not all skinfolk are kinfolk.”

That’s what an older white man said about me last year in a public forum, paraphrasing Zora Neale Hurston’s commentary on the struggle to define what it means to be Black in America. It came from the former director of Sonoma County’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, a man I’d worked closely with when he was tasked with unbiased review of the Sheriff’s Office, the office I serve as assistant sheriff.

Keeping our county safe is by far the most important job of the sheriff, and I am the most qualified for that job — I’ve been an integral part of the office for 20 years; I’ve coordinated countywide response during the most devastating fires we’ve seen; and I’ve run the detention division with a $74 million annual budget and 280 staff members. But that’s not why people are critical of me.

Eddie Engram
Eddie Engram

It isn’t always easy to be a Black man in America.

I’m told by some I’m not Black enough; that I’m only running because the sheriff “hand-picked me” for a job we all know is the voters’ choice. I’m honestly not sure which accusation offends me more.

I’m living the same experience lived by most Black men in America today: no matter how hard I work, whatever I achieve, it can’t just be that I’ve earned it; from all sides it becomes about my race.

Growing up in East Palo Alto was tough. Dad was an addict, Mom worked two jobs, and there wasn’t a lot of hope for a better life. You did your best to survive. Seeing young men like me get involved in the system, Mom wanted better for us. We moved, first to Tampa with Great Aunt Susie, then Oklahoma with my grandfather while Mom battled cancer. I leaned on my closest influences: my mom’s sisters.

In those places I experienced the many forms law enforcement can take: the good, the bad and the indifferent. I was inspired by the positive and professional relationships between law enforcement and community, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a peace officer.

I shouldn’t have to tell that story, but as a Black man, unfortunately, some will only be satisfied if I explain my life in those details.

Here’s the story I really want to tell: I went to college, to the academy, and found my home at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. I’ve commanded the law enforcement division, led peace officers in a massive wildfire response and headed internal affairs. I’ve managed divisions unique to a Sheriff’s Office that don’t exist in a city police department. I’ve outlined a clear plan — building on what we’ve accomplished by maintaining a public safety-first approach, guided by transparency, community policing, accountability and training.

We’re not the Sheriff’s Office of 10 years past. When those with biased thinking realized they no longer had a future at the Sheriff’s Office, they left. Things changed, not just for me but for everyone like me. Opportunities opened, new policies were embraced, and a complete rethinking of policing started to gain a foothold. A focus on an office that looks more like the community we serve emerged. By the summer of 2020, when national groups demanded eight changes in law enforcement policies, we were already seven changes in, with more aggressive improvements ahead.

I was part of that culture change; I had good ideas, I was heard, and I worked hard.

Do we have hurdles to overcome? Of course we do. But we won’t get there in a divisive environment. At some point, our defenses need to come down and we need to have real conversations about controversial things. At this point in history, I’m exactly the leader to bridge that divide.

Although it helps me see both sides of policing in America, my skin color doesn’t define me. I’m a man and a father, a husband and son, a soccer coach and extreme sports enthusiast.

I’m running for sheriff because I have the experience running a complex organization that is directly accountable to the people we serve, not a city council. I’m qualified, capable and tested. I have the backing of the men and women of the organization, and I know how to lead.

This kid rose from the streets of East Palo Alto to be the assistant sheriff of Sonoma County — how about that. Things can improve and our world can heal. Mom is doing great. My aunts remain big influences, and my family has grown. And Dad? Dad writes children’s books now and makes me proud to be Eddie Engram III.

Eddie Engram is assistant sheriff of Sonoma County and a candidate for sheriff in the June election.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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