By Michael Wheeler
SACRAMENTO, CA – Change could soon be coming for who can run for sheriff in California.
At a Tuesday press conference at the State Capitol, State Senator Scott Wiener touted Senate Bill 271, the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act, that would remove a restrictive requirement for candidacy in elections for county sheriffs.
SB 271 removes the requirement that candidates for sheriff be law enforcement officers, returning California to state law that existed from 1850 to 1988 and allowed any citizen to stand for electionùit would bring California into conformity with the 35 states that do not limit sheriff candidates by profession.
“We know that sheriffs in California can be the most powerful elected official in a given county,” the bill’s author said.
“We have a challenge with a number of sheriffs in the state of California, who cooperate with ICE, at times in violation of state law, sheriffs who refuse to enforce public health, putting public health at risk (and) sheriffs who run jails that, to be charitable, are not exactly up to snuff.
“Why is it that sheriffs in California overwhelmingly not just win reelection, but are often unopposed? Why is it that 49 out of 58 sheriffs in California are white men, and why is it that we have zero black sheriffs in the state of California?
“The answer is that we allow only a tiny percentage of the population to run, and not a representative cross-section, only people who have a law enforcement (background) and who have served as a law enforcement officer at some point in the last five years. It doesn’t need to be this way,” said
Patrisse Cullors, a prominent leader of the Black Lives Matter global network, expressed her strong support for SB 271.
“We need people other than law enforcement to run for sheriff. The next step towards transforming the system is to have leaders with radical decarceral platforms run for the sheriff’s seat. I wholeheartedly support SB 271 because it will pave the way for us to do the work,” Cullors said.
“We need to bring movement to the halls of power. We need leaders who are bold enough to reimagine what real public safety could look like. We need leaders who support people over punishment,” added Cullors.
Black Lives Matter organizer and former Oakland mayoral candidate Cat Brooks also voiced support for the bill while giving her perspective as a resident of Oakland. Discussing a spate of suicides in police custody, she stated, “There’s a community saying: ‘If it happened inside, it wasn’t suicide.’”
“Every election cycle, our community yearns for the ability to hold our sheriff accountable, and every election we are denied,” Brooks said. “SB 271 returns our state to pre-1988 standards while also bringing us into the 21st century for a population that is exhausted with the status quo.”
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell emphasized the opportunities that could be opened up to women and people of color by the bill, while also emphasizing having no requirement for an elected position is not a radical prospect.
“So this is not… anything new. It’s been in the state for 139 years. I want people to think about this: for city councils, for board of supervisors, for city auditor, all kinds of public offices, there are no requirements. Meaning, all you have to be is over 18 and a registered voter.
“Think about it: city councils deal with land use issues, all kinds of things regarding infrastructure, and yet we have no requirement saying people who want to serve in those positions have to have some minimal requirements to do it in a particular area,” Cordell noted.
SB 271 passed the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 4-1 vote on March 16, with only Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R) voting against it. Its next stop is in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, where it will be up for a vote in mid-April before proceeding to a full vote on the Senate floor.
Michael Wheeler is a junior at UC Davis, where he studies History and Economics. He is from Walnut Creek, California.
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