The campaign for Sonoma County Sheriff brims with issues that didn’t exist the last time the county saw a contested race for the office 28 years ago.
From navigating the waters of newly legalized cannabis to balancing state “sanctuary” policies in the face of federal immigration demands to building a more diverse and better-trained workforce, the next Sheriff’s challenges will be vastly different from those faced by the Sheriff’s office 10 years ago.
Oct. 22 will mark five years since Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa after mistaking his airsoft toy gun for an assault rifle. Community protests erupted and the Lopez case grew to symbolize the simmering belief that the Sheriff’s office is dogged by a lack of transparency, accountability and cultural sensitivity, especially in regard to the county’s sizable Hispanic community.
It’s under that lingering cloud that three candidates — Santa Rosa City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Essick and former Los Angeles Police Station Commander John Mutz — vie to replace Sheriff Rob Giordano, appointed by the Board of Supervisors in August, who decided not to seek election.
The last elected Sheriff was Steve Freitas, who resigned in 2017 after six years on the job, citing health concerns. The next Sheriff will inherit a workforce of about 650 employees, a $160 million budget, operation of two jails and a lingering public perception that the Sheriff’s office, at best, isn’t attuned to the community and, at worst, botched the Andy Lopez response in such a way as to affront the entire Latino community. It’s a perception that, as all three candidates attest, Freitas failed to wholeheartedly acknowledge.
Unless one of the candidates earns more than 50-percent of the vote, the top-two vote getters will advance and face off in the general election in November. Essick and Mutz are better qualified to earn the support of primary voters for several reasons.
Essick, 48, is currently a Captain in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s department and says his experience managing both the Administrative Services Division and the Field Services Division give him the necessary skills to step up and lead the department. He has the support of outgoing Sheriff Giordano, as well as the county’s Deputy Sheriff’s Association and its Law Enforcement Association.
Like the other candidates, Essick has been critical of the Sheriff’s Office community engagement and believes public outreach and improved transparency will be necessary to increase trust in the community. A Cloverdale resident, Essick served on the touted Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force that was formed in the wake of the Lopez tragedy.
Mutz, 68, has positioned himself in the race as the candidate who can truly change the culture of the Sheriff’s department. He was the Los Angeles Police Department station commander in 1992 during the infamous Rodney King beating and he says in the wake of that he led a group of progressive-minded LAPD officials who brought a “cultural overhaul” to the department.
Since retiring from law enforcement in 1999 and moving with his family to the outskirts of Sebastopol, Mutz has worked as a mediator and career coach with particular expertise in “transforming law enforcement cultures in order to improve community trust.”
Olivares, 60, a former lieutenant with the Santa Rosa police department and current member of its City Council, believes he can lead the Sheriff’s Office toward better community engagement and increased transparency through public outreach and more diverse hiring practices. He’d invite community members to be involved in recruitment, hiring and promotions at the Sheriff’s Office and hold regular community forums to promote engagement.