By Dalia Bautista Rodriguez
STATE CAPITOL – State Senator Scott Wiener has authored the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act, SB 271, which would grant access to registered voters to run for sheriff without any law enforcement experience.
Currently, and since pro-law enforcement had pushed to make it law in 1989, sheriffs only run against another law enforcement officer to replace them.
But from 1850 to 1989 anyone could run for sheriff. Today’s CA sheriffs assist ICE, neglect to report COVID incidents or follow health orders, and have additionally neglected their communities, Wiener said.
“At present, most Sheriffs in California are white males, which does not reflect the diverse population of our state,” said Brian Hofer, Executive Director of Secure Justice. Forty-nine of 58 sheriffs are white males in the state.
“Today, Sheriffs are essentially managers of a large bureaucracy, overseeing civilian, unarmed employees that carry out most of the duties of the office of Sheriff. Candidates should not be restricted solely to those with law enforcement experience, as other skill sets are needed as we move some functions away from armed officers. (This bill) will allow for a broader pool of candidates to seek one of the most important offices in our state, the role of county Sheriff.”
During the 19th and 20th centuries, registered voters were allowed to run for sheriff, but after a non-enforcement officer was chosen in 1989, there were restrictions set due to pro-police efforts.
Because of recent police brutality and use of excessive force by officers on individuals like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there has been a wide public response to achieving change in the policing and the criminal justice system, said Wiener’s press statement.
Due to the small assortment of those qualified to run for sheriff, accomplishing change has become a problem, the lawmaker noted.
Most sheriffs do not act in agreement with the well-being of their community, he said, adding “…some cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), despite California’s sanctuary state status; some have refused to enforce health orders while California’s COVID-19 death and hospitalization numbers rose; and some Sheriffs’ departments treated protestors with unnecessary force this summer during the uprising.”
Because sheriffs have the power to detain people, they often play a role in immigration enforcement, said the bill’s proponents. In 2017, an ex-sheriff had been profiling and detaining those of Hispanic descent during situations such as traffic stops.
The court officially determined that detaining individuals without proof was violating the Fourth Amendment. “In December 2018, Sheriff Scott Jones disclosed information required by state law on the number of people detained and interviewed at Sacramento jails; over 80 percent were Hispanic.”
The power sheriffs hold has likewise prompted excessive force on people of color.
Sheriff Louis Ackal, from Louisiana’s Iberia Parish, was tied to “the death of a handcuffed man in a police car and another regarding an incident in which deputies threw a pregnant woman to the ground and pepper sprayed her,” according to one report.
In the event that change needs to be made to the criminal justice system, policing, and immigrant justice, then the laws of who can run for sheriff need to become diverse and be democratized.
“Those registered to vote ought to have the last say regarding who they believe best represents them, who has the preferred training and requirements to better serve their community and … prioritize mental health training and de-escalation rather than force,” according to a statement released by the senator’s office last week.
SB 271 will restore long-standing eligibility requirements that will make California sheriff elections more democratic and diverse, emphasized Wiener. The legislation is sponsored by the California Immigrant Policy Center (CPIC), NextGen California, Secure Justice and Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.
“It’s time we prioritize democracy and diversity in our Sheriff elections,” said Senator Wiener.
“Anyone who wants to run for Sheriff and is qualified should run, and voters can democratically elect whomever they believe is the best candidate. We need Sheriffs who actually represent the beliefs and values of their constituents. California must reimagine its criminal justice system, and to do that, we will need a more diverse pool of Sheriff candidates who are committed to this project,” he added.
“For far too long county Sheriff’s departments have failed to faithfully implement meaningful reforms that center the very communities they are meant to protect and serve,” said Ken Spence, Senior Policy Advisor at NextGen California.
“Expanding the pool of candidates to include community leaders and qualified experts will broaden the range of perspectives and skills Sheriffs bring to the office, such as invaluable backgrounds in mental health care and trauma-informed approaches.
“This reform has the potential to fundamentally change the way the public experiences policing in our state. Therefore, NextGen California is proud to support The Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act and thanks Senator Wiener for championing this key legislation,” Spence added.
“The California Immigrant Policy Center is proud to partner with Senator Wiener to co-sponsor The Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act, an initiative to remove the exclusionary law enforcement requirement for county sheriffs,” said Orville Thomas, CIPC’s Director of Government Affairs.
“We continue to see how sheriffs impact California, ignoring concerned efforts at oversight and transparency because they traditionally don’t see viable challengers at the ballot box. The result is local law enforcement offices sidestep California law while continuing to remain entrenched in the racist criminal legal system and the federal deportation machine,” he added.
“In Alameda County, our Sheriff cooperates with ICE and oversees a jail notorious for in-custody deaths and inhumane conditions,” said Judith Stacey, chair of the Sheriff Reform Project at the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.
“Yet under the law enforcement criteria enacted in 1988, we could find no eligible candidates sensitive to the needs of our Black, Brown, poor and immigrant neighbors. After the racial justice uprisings last summer, local activists realized that the time is right for real public safety reform. We need the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act to expand the pool and reimagine the mission of county Sheriffs in California,” Stacey added.
Dalia Bautista Rodriguez is a third year transfer at UC Davis and majoring in Community & Regional Development. She is originally from Guadalupe, CA.
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