Back in the Day to Now
Sheriffs in California are elected, not appointed, and as such, they are rarely accountable to local governments. They preside over a large and expensive bureaucracy with almost no citizen oversight.
However for almost 140 years, the office of sheriff was open to almost any voter who chose to run. But then something happened when prisoners’ rights attorney, Michael Hennessey, ran for, won, and then successfully held the office of sheriff from 1980 to 2012.
The backlash from law enforcement was expected. The California State Sheriff Association was able to get a law passed under a Republican administration that requires a quirky combination of law enforcement certifications and employment experience that severely limits who may run. So for instance, our former California Attorney General Kamala Harris or current AG Becerra, could not have run for sheriff in our state because they did not meet those requirements.
As a result, anyone who wishes to change the priorities of this office to promote public safety, rehabilitation and good management, rather than the deport’em, abuse’em and keep’em locked up crowd-including people awaiting trial-all with full military weaponry whenever possible, (see the #Moms4Housing eviction) have to risk losing their law enforcement careers in order to challenge well-heeled candidates like Alameda County’s Trump-loving Sheriff Ahern. Add to that the difficulty of finding individuals with law enforcement experience who see the job from a social justice perspective. Largely as a result of this electoral “gerrymandering”, 49 of California’s 58 sheriffs are white men.
Sanctuary State during the Trump Years
Until Trump, most Californians had not really noticed the workings of the powerful sheriffs’ bureaucracy until #45 declared war on so many of us: immigrants, Black people, women, LGBTQ, and disabled folks that we began to study more about why these men have so much power and money at their disposal.
As a result, Oaklanders joined with other individuals and organizations to call for sanctuary cities and ultimately a sanctuary state that could protect us from this president’s vicious inclinations. As a result, Oakland and many other cities passed and attempted to enforce strong protections against 45’s authoritarian edicts and cruel dictates.
The California Sanctuary Campaign developed as a loose coalition of many groups, most of them oriented toward protecting vulnerable immigrants at risk of detention and immediate deportation with no due process. The impetus of this coalition came from a few members of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, the largest and most progressive club in the East Bay and the Block by Block Organizing Network that arose out of the Jean Quan for Mayor progressive campaign-namely, Judith Stacey, Sharon Rose, and yours truly.
We joined with labor and community organizations to advocate for state protections and also to limit law enforcement’s ability to collaborate with Trump’s illegal and immoral actions against vulnerable Californians. We followed the lead of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, the Alameda County Legal and Immigration Partnership, and then joined forces with the Audit the Sheriff Coalition, led by the Ella Baker Center to advocate for legislative and activist solutions.
One of the results was Senator Kevin De Leon’s Sanctuary State bill that went into effect in 2018. Officially known as the California Values Act, SB54 “ensures that no state and local resources are used to assist federal immigration enforcement and that our schools, our hospitals, and our courthouses are safe spaces for everyone in our community.” The fact that sheriffs routinely ignore this law spurred us to pursue electoral solutions with the New Sheriff in Town coalition as we searched for an appropriate candidate.
Judith Stacey, a Wellstone member and volunteer with Freedom for Immigrants found out while assisting immigrants in detention who were facing deportation, how viciously county sheriffs treated immigrants and other detainees, most of them our Black and Brown neighbors who had only been accused of crimes and were awaiting trial in county jails. “I discovered that our sheriff notified ICE when Santa Rita inmates like Diego, an 18-year-old Oakland resident who came here from Mexico at the age of three, posted bail. That led me to form Wellstone’s Sheriff Reform Project. ” See Wellstoneclub.org.
Sharon Rose, cochair of the Bock by Block Organizing Network, BBBON, and a Wellstone member who also works closely with members of the TPS Coalition, [Temporary Protected Status, immigrant groups who have been granted legal stays based on “a temporary immigration status provided to nationals of specifically designated countries that are confronting an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary and temporary conditions. It provides a work permit and stay of deportation to foreign nationals from those countries who are in the United States at the time the U.S. government makes the designation. There were approximately 411,000 TPS recipients residing in the United States as of October 2020,”] is a working member of this coalition and a leading member in this legislative battle.
Yours truly, your humble local blogger, is another activist who joined the push for legislative solutions. In addtion to being a longtime member of BBBON, I’m also the Wellstone Local Politics Chair.
TPS Refugees Fight Back
Almost all of these countries’ refugees-El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, Nicaragua, to name a few- were threatened with loss of protections during the Trump regime but their united efforts as peoples from many beleaguered countries, successfully postponed mass deportations. One action we assisted with was promoting Journey for Justice, a specially outfitted bus in which long term resident refugees traveled the country requesting recognition of their plight from local authorities. In Oakland it was Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan who welcomed them. Mayor Libby Schaaf did not respond to their requests for an audience.
New Sheriff in Town
Our little trio, Judith Stacey, Sharon Rose, and I joined the group of folks called the New Sheriff In Town to begin the search for candidates in the most recent sheriff election, 2018, for Alameda County. We had learned how badly detainees were treated in Ahern’s jails, the many ways he avoided abiding by state law on protecting immigrants, and the many in custody deaths he was responsible for, not to mention his leadership in Republican law enforcement circles.
But after months of searches and false starts, we were not able to produce a candidate with the requisite qualifications willing to potentially sacrifice a law enforcement career to challenge the current sheriff. It got so bad that we ran a write-in “Mx. N.O. Confidence for Sheriff” campaign as a way to bring attention to the problem. It was sad but reduced Ahern’s percentage by a point of so.
We decided that the best way to change how the sheriff’s office is run was to revert to original requirements that allow anyone, including those with law enforcement experience to run. We see the position as a management job dealing with a large, expensive bureaucracy in which people’s lives can easily be ruined or destroyed with little recourse. We hope opening it up will allow a full discourse on what a sheriff should be doing to promote a healthier community rather than protecting a toxic institution.
Thankfully State Senator Scott Wiener has enthusiastically taken up the cause as have progressive organizations, our four co-sponsors, the California Immigrant Policy Center, Next Gen California, Secure Justice, and the California Faculty Association. It is now on the state docket as Senate Bill 271. We have additional authors like Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, and new organizations are joining us everyday. Please ask your organization to sign on and we will send you a model support letter and explain how to submit it to the Legislature.
Although the Wellstone Club is very active in state, local and even national politics, this is the first time that we have officially co-sponsored, rather than simply endorsed proposed legislation. It has a chance to pass and be a game changer in this area of law enforcement that most officials and communities have been almost powerless to affect.
When I think about the power of the sheriff, there are many Alameda County neighbors whose pointless suffering I recall. I’ll leave you with the one you might have forgotten, not as cruel as the in custody murder of Dujaun Armstrong was but as an example of the mindless cruelty involved in how these sheriffs do our business. https://www.whathappenedfilm.com/
26-Year-Old Woman Dies After Being Released from Jail in the Middle of the Night
More Info on SB271
Update on the Sheriff’s Race
Despite all the problems enumerated above, someone has stepped forward to run against Sheriff Ahern in 2022. JoAnn Walker, a 25 year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, Alameda County resident, and proponent of Community Policing has declared herself a candidate.
Walker will speak as part of a panel on SB271 and the history of sheriffs at the Wellstone Democratic Club’s Thursday, March 25th, general meeting via Zoom. See wellstoneclub.org for more info and to join the Zoom.