The race for sheriff is one of the more bizarre ones of 2018. Tom Lopez, who has been undersheriff for 11 years, is running ostensibly against 20-year incumbent Ed Prieto, even though Ed Prieto announced he would not actively seek office shortly after filing his paperwork to run for a sixth term.
The Vanguard sat down on Thursday to talk to the sheriff’s candidate.
Tom Lopez explained, “I’ve wanted to be sheriff for a long time. As an undersheriff, I’m basically a fixer and I put out fires. I do that very well.”
He said that, organizationally, “it is time for a change.” Tom Lopez has worked under eight different sheriffs during his time, while most of the employees now in Yolo County have worked only for one. In his time, he has had an opportunity to see different styles and different ways of communicating with staff.
He explained that this year he turned 56 and got sick for a week with the flu. This, he said, gave him an opportunity to think about things. He looked at where he was in his life and how much longer he had to make changes. Mr. Lopez stated, “That’s basically what stimulated me to look into running for sheriff.”
When Ed Prieto became sheriff in 1999, Tom Lopez was promoted to lieutenant and then captain in 2001. He went on to work in the jail, then patrol, and finally administration, where he became undersheriff in 2007.
He explained that he worked with the sheriff on a lot of policies and projects.
Tom Lopez explained the relationship between the two: “He’s the boss and my job is to carry out what the boss wants.” His role has been to be supportive of what the boss wants in terms of policies. He described: “My role’s been the fixer. My job is to try to make that happen. As far as being supportive of the sheriff and his policies, that was my job. I have been supportive and do support a lot of policies that we have.”
However, unlike Ed Prieto who sees that as complete agreement over the years, he points out, “I’m not Ed Prieto.” He continued, saying, “Our personalities are opposite. Our roles were able to balance things. We saw things a lot of times from a different view. I’ve been the conscience and historian of our office.”
When the Vanguard asked if he had criticism of the sheriff, he responded, “I don’t know if they’d be criticisms.” He said, “My job is the day to day operations of the office and keeping things running and keeping the organization moving forward. In that role, I can do almost anything with the sheriff’s approval. “
However, he said, “I can’t control what the sheriff says to people and can’t control who he touches. That’s something that I can’t have control over.”
He says he feels “very blessed and honored that all of the employee organizations have endorsed my run for sheriff. I can make positive changes in the way that employees feel coming from work.”
He believes there is a “disconnect between the sheriff and our employees.” He wants to take into consideration the employees’ thoughts and values, something he believes is not currently happening under Sheriff Prieto.
When asked about the harassment lawsuits against the sheriff, Tom Lopez takes a nuanced view. While the sheriff is quick to point out that most of the suits have been dismissed, Tom Lopez sees it differently. “To the person that’s probably making the complaint – their perception is reality. As an administrator you need to realize that you’re bound by different rules than folks in the organization.”
He added, “There are times when I’ve heard the sheriff say things to employees or touch or hug someone and I wince because I don’t know that I would’ve done that. It’s hard to say that it’s really (inappropriate) because it all depends on the person that is viewing or perceiving.”
Mr. Lopez, however, was clear that the sheriff is not engaging in overtly sexual misconduct. Instead, it seems more subtle.
He said that “society has changed” and “we change continually with society and the way things are acceptable and how we handle it.
“Standards change continually,” he said, and “it’s imperative that we change with those standards.”
He added, “You, as a progressive leader, need to adapt and stay up with that.”
The undersheriff then talked to the Vanguard about politics and policies.
Tom Lopez explained, “I’ve been pretty much apolitical in my career. Stepping into running for office has definitely thrown me.”
He said, “I’m a Democrat. I have been for a little bit over ten years.” When asked about why he changed, he explained, “It was in a time in my life, I was actually in conversation with the sheriff, things weren’t the best in politics at the time, even looking in the future, he was the one who told me if you ever want to be elected sheriff in this county, you ought to be a Democrat. Yolo County is primarily Democrats. “
He called it a “soul searching type of thing” and said, “I think in order to be a leader in the community, you have to accept the community’s values – where they not only want to see law enforcement but the government.”
He said he is a “firm believer in the voters and that you need to follow the will of the voters.”
Mr. Lopez added, “Being a non-partisan position, we are here to serve every person in the community.”
On the issue of immigration he takes a pragmatic approach. He grew up in Yolo County and recalls seeing farm workers in the fields and green trucks approaching them, and seeing them scatter. His mother explained to him that they were the Border Patrol and many of the laborers were in this country illegally.
He said his response was: who was going to pick the crops?
“I couldn’t understand it then, and it’s hard to understand today.” He said, “We depend so much on workers being in our fields and getting our products to market. Immigration is not our job and we’re not going to be doing that.”
He said, “I believe in our current policy.” He added, “Our role and our job is to follow the law. Whatever the law is at that time is what we have to do. I do not see our deputies going out and picking up people on immigration holds. That’s not our job. I don’t recall in my career ever asking someone if they were illegal or not. I don’t see that as our primary job, I don’t see that coming into play in terms of deputies’ day to day responsibilities in our community.”
On the issue of concealed weapons permits, he said, “I’m a firm believer in the second amendment. I have several guns. I’ve been a hunter, I feel people should be able to have fire arms if you’re a responsible person.”
He added, “I believe our policy has validity. Ii don’t feel everyone should have a concealed weapons permit. “
But he is willing to look at possible changes to the current rules. He said that “we should have community meetings. I want to hear from people in community, what they feel our policy should be. I don’t want to sit behind the desk disconnected from community we’re serving.”
He pointed out that people say the county doesn’t give out concealed weapons permits. He said, that’s not true. Three hundred have been issued by their office, including 28 new ones last year. He also pointed out that last year they had 74 gun permits that were not renewed, not due to the sheriff’s department rejecting the applications but because people didn’t come in to renew them.
“What we do not need is vigilante justice,” he said. “The process we have in place is a good process. But like any other, they need to be reviewed.”
When asked about police oversight, he said he had not thought about that too much. He believes, “Locally our issues have not reached to the issues of agencies that are much larger than us that have had issues. Oversight has its place.”
But he also sees a lot of processes put into place to that are meant to placate people rather than serve a real purpose.
“Our jail is kind of unique,” he explained, as the topic shifted to the Yolo County Jail. “We’re considered a medium size county, but we’re actually a small size sheriff’s office. Our COs, they deal with a lot of difficult issues on a daily basis. Our jails are being used as mental health wards.”
The nature of inmates is changing due to reforms like AB 109 which has meant that there are a lot more “criminals” in custody locally that were in state prison previously.
“Our system is changing with the type of inmate we house,” he said. It used to be that no one spent more than a year in jail, but now it can be up to 14 years.
He said he looks forward the jail expansion project that will get underway in June.
When Monroe Detention Center was built, it was a state of the art facility that many others have been modeled after. But now it is antiquated. He said that “we don’t have the programming space in our jail system to provide for the training, the counseling and the teaching of inmates to make them productive when they return to society.
“We have a lot of professional individuals that work there,” he said.
Mr. Lopez told the Vanguard he is a fifth generation Yolo County citizen. His great-great-grandparents were homesteaders in the Capay Valley. He has spent 38 years in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, where he has worked in every rank.
He said, “I am humbled that all the employee associations have endorsed me. “
Once again he said, “It is time for change. The employees see that.”
He said, “My goal is to keep it moving forward. I want to build upon the foundation that’s there. I want everyone to feel comfortable coming to work each day.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting