Our View: Straighten up and fly right

Sheriff's office, county should agree on usage of equipment

July 6, 2013 

BA Ceres Shooting 9

(BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com) - A Ceres police officer was shot at twice this morning at a Ceres AM/PM store at Mittchell and Service roads Authorities are conducting a search for the suspect. The Stanislaus County Sheriff's helicopter seaches and offers support. February 2, 2011

BART AH YOU — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

One picture doesn't tell the whole picture. A video of the clearly marked Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department helicopter dropping golf balls on a Calaveras County course looks like a questionable use of government property.

The fact that the charity event raised money to help sixth graders from needy families go to outdoor education camp is an ameliorating factor, but still, the flight on May 15 appears to violate a county policy that prohibits the use of any county vehicle "for any purpose other than county business."

The bigger picture here is that Sheriff Adam Christianson regularly has offered flights aboard the department's helicopter as an auction item at nonprofit fund-raisers. The offer of a ride with air support — aka on the helicopter — specifies that the experience must be done as part of regularly scheduled patrol flight operations and is limited to adults, with safety and weight restrictions.

Christianson said he also has offered two other kinds of experiences as benefit auction items: 1. A ridealong with a deputy on patrol and 2. Lunch and a tour of jail facilities with the sheriff. Christianson said he pays for the meals out of his own pocket.

No doubt these offers have helped raise thousands of dollars for nonprofits like Rotary Clubs, Fatima Fest, Community Hospice and Make Dreams Real, a foundation dedicated to stimulating the minds of young people. It was the sponsor of the May golf tourney at Saddle Creek Resort in Copperopolis.

What we seem to have is a situation where the practices of the independently elected sheriff don't align with the policy made by the separately elected county supervisors.

We urge them to sit down and work out a policy that reflects reality or practices that follow the policy. Otherwise, it could put the county at financial risk — namely from the liability in case of a crash — and it opens the door to accusations, such as one that surfaced recently, that the sheriff only does these as favors for political contributors or those with clout.

We agree with the sheriff that there's a definite benefit to educating residents about the workings of law enforcement. It is one of the most interesting parts of local government — and most expensive, visible and widely misunderstood. Hence, ridealongs and jail tours are inherently worthwhile.

We don't agree with Christianson that the questions raised about the golf-ball drop were purely political, surfacing only because he already has two challengers in his 2014 re-election bid.

These days, taxpayers are skeptical of government spending and watching like hawks for any perceived waste of their money. And for many local residents, the last they heard about the Sheriff's Department helicopter was when it was grounded for all but the most serious emergencies because of the budget crisis several years ago. Christianson said the helicopter has been back in regular use for a couple of years. It is used several days each week, including for rescues in remote areas, crowded situations and for mapping marijuana grows.

The Board of Supervisors wrote the Sheriff's Department aircraft — it also has a Cessna — into the county vehicle policy in 2005, in the wake of two separate uproars.

First was the discovery that in 2000, under then-Sheriff Les Weidman, the helicopter had been used to ferry wine and glasses from a hilltop winery at Diablo Grande to the country club, where there was a meeting of the California State Sheriff's Association. Christianson was not involved in that incident.

Then there was a flap after learning that local officers were posing for catalog photographs for 5.11 Tactical. Christianson, then a lieutenant who oversaw the Air Support Unit, was criticized for an email telling deputies to show up for the photo shoot.

Christianson said he thinks the tightened vehicle policy "was born from petty politics." He doesn't think he's flagrantly thumbing his nose at it, but says he respectfully disagrees with it and believes it should be abolished.

We think there's some middle ground here that would serve everyone well. The sheriff and county supervisors should establish a vehicle policy that:

• Recognizes the educational value of ridealongs, whether on the road or in the air.

• Provides an annual recap of the ridealongs that the Sheriff's Department provides. Since everyone has to sign a waiver, this would not be a bookkeeping burden.

• Assures consistency and fairness in what types of nonprofits are eligible for ridealongs offered as benefit auction items. Also, specify that they are available free, without any expectation of a donation to any groups associated with the Sheriff's Department.

• Errs on the side of transparency in the expenses associated with the Sheriff's Department's helicopter and airplane, which are two useful tools that generally improve public safety.

The policy should address the big picture.

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