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Sonoma County sheriff's candidates vow to change the 'culture'

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The election to select a new Sonoma County sheriff isn't until next November and the primary isn't until June, but the overflow audience at an forum held at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building told a story of its own.

This is a closely watched campaign for a hot-seat office with unusually high interest among citizens. It is shaping up as the first contested sheriff's race in Sonoma County since 1992.

The event began with the crowd abuzz at the news that candidate Jay Foxworthy had departed the race, citing family health issues. Foxworthy, a gay sheriff's deputy in San Francisco who lives in Santa Rosa, had been held out by activists as one of two bona fide "progressives" in the race.

The other, John Mutz, is a former high-ranking officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who left the force not long after the 1991 Rodney King beating to focus on officer training. As gauged by audience reactions, he was the most popular candidate.

The progressive Mutz was joined by Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, who distinguished himself in the forum as the candidate with the most electoral experience—he's a former mayor of Santa Rosa and, before that, was a lieutenant with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

As such, the genial Olivares stood out for his frequent invocation of cross-agency cooperation and coordination on thorny county issues such as homelessness and mental-health services.

Mark Essick, a captain in the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO), came across as the technocrat insider with a particularized skill set—executive experience and an MBA—that he said gave him a leg up on the other candidates.

Carlos Basurto, an SCSO lieutenant and the appointed police chief of Windsor, could be fairly described, based on the content of Thursday's forum, as the hard-headed "sheriff's-sheriff" pragmatist of the lot, especially given an especially tough-love comment he offered on homelessness and the sheriff department's proper response to the issue.

Basurto asserted during the event that SCSO-led sweeps of homeless camps would continue unless and until social-service agencies ramped up their game. He was the only one of the four candidates to defend the round-ups (Essick provided some context to homeless raids when he noted that SCSO officers had swept homeless encampments along the Russian River last winter to keep people from drowning).

But Basurto's comment hit a nerve. "Fuck you," a voice from the back of the room responded to his comment about the sweeps, and resonated throughout the hall. The exchange highlighted the tension around law enforcement in the county and the extent to which the well of police trust has been poisoned by the SCSO "culture" that all candidates vowed to change.

The forum was hosted by a consortium of Sonoma County organizations from the North Bay Labor Council to North Bay Jobs with Justice to the Wine Country Young Voters association.

The crowd featured a cross-section of Sonoma County, from Ms. Sonoma County in a tiara locked in conversation with a man in an "Occupy Santa Rosa" T-shirt, to a man in the hallway who mumbled about how immigrants were under the gun, sure, but the white man can't catch a break either these days.

There were screaming children and documentary filmmakers on hand, along with a smattering of elected officials from around the county who showed up (though no members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors were spotted, at least by this reporter).

Looming large over the forum, and frequently invoked by the sheriff's candidates, was the issue of how to "reform" the "culture" of the SCSO. None of the candidates directly identified what the culture was, except to say that the force of 650 sworn officers is mostly white and mostly male and that they would work to change the culture.

And the thousand-pound elephant in the room—the 2013 death of Andy Lopez, who was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy—uneasily interacted with this notion of the "culture" and how to change it, given that local activists' argument about the officer-involved shooting was that it resulted from an SCSO "warrior" culture that takes its cues from a military mindset and not a public-safety one. Lopez was shot by Iraq War veteran Erick Gelhaus while carrying an Airsoft replica AK-47 whose safety tip had been removed.

As the candidates were debating issues from immigration raids to cannabis policy, Sonoma County is proceeding in its defense of Gelhaus as it moved to appeal a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that pushed a federal civil lawsuit against the county and Gelhaus back to a district trial court, where that whole issue of "police culture" may be put to a jury trial.

The county is under increasing pressure by activists to settle a federal civil lawsuit brought by the Lopez family while it has requested an "en banc" hearing from the Ninth Circuit last week following its latest court setback ("en banc" means that a panel of 11 federal judges will rule on the appeal after a three-judge panel shot it down, voting 2–1 to remand the case back to federal district court).

Essick was the first to give an opening statement and highlighted his executive experience and college bona fides. Fresh off a series of town-halls around the county, Essick spoke generally of accountability, of "getting back to basics" and of community engagement as he sought to distinguish himself as the only candidate with relevant law-enforcement executive experience, and a master's in business administration to boot.

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