At least two good reasons we shouldn’t elect county sheriffs

Sheriff Adam Christianson talks with California Governor Jerry Brown before the dedication ceremony of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Detention Center in 2017.
Sheriff Adam Christianson talks with California Governor Jerry Brown before the dedication ceremony of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Detention Center in 2017. aalfaro@modbee.com

The county sheriff is the problem child among California elected officials. No office is less accountable, or more reliable in producing scandal.

Once elected, sheriffs in all 58 counties have power over jails and policing, and act pretty much as they please. Under our state’s structure, a sheriff in California can’t really be fired. Those most liable to complain about a sheriff – inmates and those accused of crimes – have trouble gaining the public’s ear, let alone sympathy. And in the Trump era, some sheriffs, especially in conservative precincts, have flirted with defying state laws that protect immigrant families.

“The power of sheriffs,” wrote historian Andrew Isenberg, “is inextricably tied up in the concept of a popular justice that is not bound by anything so mundane as the law.”

In theory, sheriffs should be accountable precisely because they are elected. California’s constitution requires every county to have an elected sheriff for that very reason. But in practice, sheriffs’ elections are seldom healthy contests. They draw little attention, so voters know little about the contenders or issues.

And when sheriffs draw challengers, they typically come from among the sheriff’s own staff. This turns elections into departmental civil wars, forcing deputies to choose sides. Last year’s nasty fight in Santa Clara County between Sheriff Laurie Smith and her former undersheriff, John Hirokawa, focused on which of these was more responsible for excessive force, racist texts, and sexual solicitations among their shared underlings.

Last year, Governing magazine criticized the American sheriff as highly susceptible to corruption.

Two of the most prominent sheriffs of this century – Lee Baca of L.A. County and Mike Carona of Orange County – both are now convicted felons. In each case, federal investigations were required to push them out of office.

That the feds are often the only people who can stop such abuses is an unspoken reason why so many California sheriffs prioritize the immigration-related whims of federal authorities over fealty to state law.

In Stanislaus County, Sheriff Adam Christianson falsely claimed state law was responsible for the shooting death of a local police officer by an unauthorized immigrant. In fact, ICE had never sought the immigrant’s deportation, and sanctuary laws were not in effect when the migrant was previously arrested on DUI charges. The president quickly parroted the sheriff’s claim, ignoring the millions paid out to settle lawsuits brought against the department during Christianson’s tenure and the problems that led to deputy deaths. Christianson retired in January.

Another Trump sycophant, Sacramento’s Scott Jones, also has refused to submit to civilian oversight – literally locking out an inspector general investigating excessive force.

It’s not just conservative sheriffs. In the November elections, incumbent Jim McDonnell, who became sheriff after his predecessor’s conviction, lost to sheriff lieutenant Alex Villanueva.

Democrats and liberal groups backed Villanueva to punish McDonnell, who tried to soften the sanctuary law. While Villanueva promised to kick ICE out of the county jail, he won by promising fellow deputies to reverse McDonnell’s efforts to fight corruption within the sheriff’s department.

In his first few weeks in office, Villanueva, who has no experience running an organization of the size, sowed chaos by removing 18 high-ranking officials from their posts and reevaluating the ranks of 500 other commanders. Some deputies say they don’t know who’s in charge.

When the media questioned these moves, Villanueva’s response was classic California sheriff: “The state constitution lays out that the oversight of the sheriff is the voters.” In other words, I don’t answer to you and you can’t touch me for four years.

Voters should change the state constitution – protecting ourselves by writing the elected sheriff out of it.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.