Body cams, new uniforms and deputies at schools? Stanislaus County has a new sheriff

New Stanislaus County Sheriff is poised to bring about some tangible changes in his first year in office

Sheriff Jeff Dirkse speaks with Bee reporter Ken Carlson
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Sheriff Jeff Dirkse speaks with Bee reporter Ken Carlson

Boosted by an endorsement from the incumbent sheriff, Jeff Dirkse was elected last June to succeed Adam Christianson as the top cop for Stanislaus County.

Dirkse, 46, was the hand-picked successor who promised to place his own stamp on the Sheriff’s Department. With support from the Board of Supervisors and a healthy economy, Dirkse is poised to bring about some tangible changes in his first year in office.

The highlights could include:

Body cameras: Deputies are tentatively set to start wearing them in April, starting with patrol staff and followed later in the year by deputies in cities that contract for sheriff’s service. The cameras worn by deputies record their interactions with suspects and the public.

Frontline staffing: With pay raises approved by county supervisors in December, the department will work on hiring and keeping sworn deputies, and even rehiring some who left for bigger paychecks at other agencies. According to Dirkse, more deputies will mean stronger enforcement and more time for patrol staff to engage with the public.

Community deputies: Dirkse is shooting for August to restore this program, which assigns an individual deputy to work in unincorporated towns. School resource officers will return to selected schools by year’s end. Those programs were cut in the economic downturn.

Dirkse, who took over as sheriff last week, also said in an interview Thursday he’s bringing back the traditional tan and green uniforms of the Sheriff’s Department. He said the color scheme will make it easy to identify deputy sheriffs in public. It should also make them more approachable if you believe the research on psychological influence of uniforms.

Studies have shown that black uniforms, which were implemented by former sheriff Les Weidman, serve to project authority, but it’s the worst color for inviting contact from civilians. Tan and green uniforms are high on the approachability scale, Dirkse explained.

A West Point graduate, Dirkse commanded an infantry company in Iraq in 2005 and joined the sheriff’s department 11 years ago, working as a patrol deputy, detective, sergeant and internal affairs investigator. He was chief of the sheriff service in Patterson before defeating Sgt. Juan Alanis in the June election by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

Dirkse’s first term as sheriff invites a comparison with Christianson, who was outspoken in 12 years as sheriff and was criticized for lawsuits that incurred millions of dollars in costs for the county. In a county divided over immigration issues, Christianson was both vilified and praised for joining a group in May that discussed the sanctuary laws with President Donald Trump at the White House.

Last month, Christianson suggested that California’s sanctuary law, designed to thwart federal efforts to deport illegal immigrants, was to blame for the shooting death of Newman officer Ronil Singh. The alleged killer, Paulo Virgen Mendoza, an undocumented immigrant, remained in the country after two previous drunken-driving arrests, but Mendoza’s court cases predated the state’s sanctuary law passed in 2017.

Dirkse refrained from comment on any perceived link between Singh’s tragic death and the sanctuary law. The sheriff does not appreciate the limits on local law enforcement in Senate Bill 54.

“Any law that stifles my ability to cooperate with another law enforcement partner is counterproductive,” Dirkse said.

The sheriff’s office has an open-door policy for agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, who can place a hold on county jail inmates who are undocumented and charged with a serious crime. That is not going to change.

“We will cooperate with (ICE) to the full extent under the law,” Dirkse said. “They are one of our partners in protecting our community.”

Management style

Dirkse said his executive style is to delegate responsibility — set the vision, goals and expectations — and then let the managers run the operations.

His sense of teamwork comes from playing linebacker for Turlock High School football teams in the 1980s. “I love sports, especially football,” Dirkse said. “Football is all about teamwork. You have 11 people on the field and all 11 people have an assignment. If everybody does their assignment, the team is successful.”

He is also big on collaboration with other police agencies including Modesto police. “The interaction we have had has been good,” Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said. “I think Jeff is going to be more low key.”

A month after the June primary, Dirkse talked with county Chief Executive Officer Jody Hayes about staffing shortages that have plagued the sheriff’s office for years. They agreed a durable solution was needed. And “durable” meant money or pay incentives to keep deputies from taking jobs with higher-paying agencies within commute distance of the Modesto area.

The plan to create a journey-level classification for sworn deputies, with 10 percent higher salaries, was leaked internally to staff in October. “We have not lost a deputy since then,” Dirkse said, noting that a few of those who left have applied to come back.

He hopes the solution will enable the sheriff’s office to rebuild investigative units and bring back community deputies and school resource officers, or SROs, as Dirkse calls them. The journey-level salaries from $70,300 to $85,650 a year are not the highest in a competitive market for law officers in California but it’s hoped that cost-of-living and other factors will stabilize the turnover rate.

Litigation costs

Christianson enjoyed a broad base of support and is known statewide for a stint as president of the California State Sheriff’s Association. But his three terms as sheriff were nagged by legal problems. In particular, comments by Christianson and other managers, that certain sick and injured employees were “limp, lame and lazy”, led to court-ordered county payments of $1.4 million in legal fees to a plaintiff’s attorney. Judgments in other lawsuits ensnaring the sheriff’s office totaled $12 million.

Dirkse had little to say about avoiding such legal costs. “Ask me about that at second term,” he suggested.

The new sheriff inherits a department with a $143 million budget this year and more than 700 authorized positions, including a large expansion of the Public Safety Center on East Hackett Road. He’s expected to work out a plan for staffing a third phase of the jail expansion with a sergeant, 32 custodial deputies and a civilian employee.

The third phase would house 240 inmates in addition to the 1,135 men and women in county jails.

The sheriff’s department has 26 different programs for the jail population, including inmates in a 288-bed REACT center completed a year ago to help with transition back into the community. The programs range from substance abuse and mental health services to anger management, vocational training and family counseling.

Dirkse and other officials have discussed a possible work experience program for inmates, who are unable to apply for jobs while incarcerated. Potentially, inmates who were trained in landscaping, welding and other work skills could be hired by the county upon release to maintain grounds at the Hackett Road center.

The six months of work experience could translate into permanent jobs if employers in the community are willing to hire the former inmates.

Construction of facilities like the $40 million REACT center, with 90 percent of costs funded by state dollars, reflect a change in public attitudes toward incarceration. “You see it statewide,” Dirkse said. “The state of California does not want to lock people up any more. After we release them from jail, we would just as soon not see them come back.”