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The Road Ahead

Sheriff-elect Mark Essick charts course

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TOP COP  Mark Essick says effective community policing would require 10,000 new deputies. - PHOTO COURTESY MARK ESSICK
  • Photo courtesy Mark Essick
  • TOP COP Mark Essick says effective community policing would require 10,000 new deputies.

It's a sunny Friday morning on Railroad Square in downtown Santa Rosa, and sheriff-elect Mark Essick is about to spend the day removing his large and numerously deployed campaign signs from around the county.

The newly elected sheriff of Sonoma County surprised everyone at the polls earlier in the week when he gained 57 percent of the vote in a three-way race against former L.A. police captain John Mutz and Santa Rosa councilman Ernesto Olivares. As he eclipsed 50 percent of the vote on primary day, Essick was elected to his new post outright without a runoff in November.

Today Essick is dressed casually in a San Francisco Giants T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap as he sits before a big mug of coffee at the Flying Goat cafe and fields questions. Essick, 48, won't take office until January, and next week he's going on vacation. It's been a long campaign season, but now it's over. His pickup truck is in the parking lot, awaiting the piles of signage that were seemingly everywhere this spring as Sonoma County had its first contested sheriff's race in a quarter century.

Essick has been on the force of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) for about that long, and as a manager, he's been the point person on mental-health training for officers. He says the two biggest budget issues he'll likely face when he takes office are both related to dealing with a shifting demographic at the Main Adult Detention Facility and the preponderance of mentally ill inmates at the jail. Today, some 40 percent of inmates suffer from one form of mental illness or another, "which is crazy," Essick says.

The state's "realignment" approach to dealing with its overcrowded prisons by moving them into county lockups now means that the SCSO is dealing with an older and sicker demographic at the jail, whose traditional demographic, Essick says, was typically a young person doing a short bid at the jail on a misdemeanor charge.

The state provided funds for localities to deal with fallout from realignment, and Sonoma County decided to put its $40 million in state realignment money into a new Behavior Health Unit (BHU), scheduled to break ground in late summer and be completed in about a year. The county is kicking in an additional $8 million, but it's also been shedding mental-health workers in a climate of post-fire belt-tightening, and Essick has taken notice.

"I have spent the last 10 years of my career training officers on this, creating these partnerships between our agency and Behavioral Health, and to have those people evaporate is going to be a huge impact on us."

And Essick says he'll need to staff up the BHU when it's completed.

"We have calculated that we'll need 24 additional correctional deputies to staff the BHU, so we are going to have to go back to the [board of supervisors] and ask for some additional allocations to staff that," he says. "I could see myself going before the board of supervisors in the next year or so as sheriff and saying, 'This was a great idea, we spent all of this money on it, and don't forget—now we have to staff it.'"

Essick will also be charged to continue to implement state-mandated training required annually by the state of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

"Any police organization today runs so thin on staffing that every time we take someone off the line to train them, at least 80 percent of the time we have to backfill it with overtime."

During the campaign, Essick was pegged by opponents and detractors as an SCSO insider who couldn't deliver on necessary reforms at the agency and who would continue an SCSO "culture" that's been under fire for years. Critics argue that those "cultural" issues—a generally white and male force—came to a tragic head when a sheriff's officer shot and killed a 13-year-old Latino boy in 2013. Any past progress in building community relations went out the window following the shooting.

But the Andy Lopez shooting did prompt a series of reforms at SCSO, some of which Essick opposed at the time they were implemented, such as the creation of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach. There's also a direct line that can be drawn between the Lopez shooting and the creation of a new community engagement post at SCSO occupied by Misti Harris.

During the campaign, all the candidates highlighted the need for better recruitment of women and minorities into the force. You can't just stick an ad in the Latino community newspaper anymore, Essick says. "You have to do more," and he pledges to do so in conjunction with the county's Human Resources Department.

Essick is well aware of the challenges ahead in rebuilding trust in Latino and police accountability circles in Sonoma County. If it's a truism that all policing is community policing, those challenges are as much a matter of practicality as they are a sort of moral imperative to, as Essick puts it, keep extending the healing hand.

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