Editorial: Sheriff goes out in a blaze of controversy

‘This suspect is in this country illegally’, Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson

Investigators believe the man suspected of killing Newman Police Cpl. Ronil “Ron” Singh is still in Stanislaus County, Sheriff Adam Christianson said in a news conference Thursday morning.
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Investigators believe the man suspected of killing Newman Police Cpl. Ronil “Ron” Singh is still in Stanislaus County, Sheriff Adam Christianson said in a news conference Thursday morning.

Some 200 Stanislaus County employees will retire this year, many having done amazing things. Yet, few of their departures will be noticed.

Not so with Adam Christianson, whose 12-year tenure ends Tuesday.

Stanislaus County’s sheriff is going out in a blaze of controversy. Since Christmas, he has become the unofficial face of rage over the killing of Newman police officer Ronil Singh. Christianson erroneously insisted state sanctuary laws were to blame until several newspapers debunked those statements. President Trump tweeted it anyway, and the nation’s leading TV blowhard had Christianson on Fox News as he served up similar baloney.

To some, Christianson is exiting a hero. For others, he leaves only a bad taste.

Our view is more textured. It is as impossible to ignore Christianson’s accomplishments as it is to overlook the controversies, lawsuits and tragedies marking his tenure.

He led the Sheriff’s Office through the toughest economic period of this generation then oversaw the building of the state’s most modern jail. He pushed through a state-of-the-art coroner’s office, rose to prominence as president of the California State Sheriff’s Association and even visited the White House.

The sheriff always has spoken his mind – when he should and when he shouldn’t. Controversy often followed, as did lawsuits.

Tragically, his department has lost six staff members in the line of duty.

When we asked to talk over his tenure, Christianson demurred. So we asked again, pointing out our three endorsements – including in his first run, when he overcame the once-chosen successor of the outgoing sheriff. We explained that people care about how he shaped the office and how it shaped him. “Thank you again,” he replied by email, “but I must respectfully decline.”

Here is what we would have asked the sheriff.

What gives you a sense of accomplishment?

Our community should be proud of the $90 million jail completed in 2016 and the $40 million REACT center – with its classrooms and family reunification facilities. For a county of 515,000, somehow Christianson made these improvements a state priority. He also oversaw a new $4.6 million Coroner’s Office, set up a training academy and helped install a new radio system. The Sheriff’s Department suffered 27 layoffs during the Great Recession, but public safety didn’t. Morale has improved.

What do you wish you had done better?

It’s long list, starting with Christianson’s feet – which too often found their way into his mouth. Some of his remarks merely tarnished his image; others were costly. His “limp, lame and lazy” comment cost the county $1.4 million. Other lawsuits totaled $12 million in judgments.

His “over my dead body” insistence that deputies not wear body cameras did his department no favors, making it sound as if he was trying to protect bad deputies.

Christianson should have created better protocols and procedures and insisted all follow them. That might have avoided the “complacency problem” described in independent reviews (that he ordered) of circumstances surrounding the deaths of Deputy Bob Paris and locksmith Glendon Engert. Another report found similar failures in the death of crime scene technician Mary Donahou.

How do we know about these lapses? Because Christianson insisted – despite the wishes of county staff – that the reports be made public. He knew they would make him look bad, but he did the right thing. That took integrity.

You won re-election twice, with 66 percent of the vote in 2014. Yet, not everyone likes you.

The Bee endorsed Christianson in his first run in 2006, citing “competence, character and credibility.” The third time he ran, we lauded the new jail and “crisis stabilization center,” but criticized his charity “golf-ball drop” from a department helicopter. He insisted it was not “illegal, immoral or unethical,” but, as we said then, “it was unwise.” It wasn’t the last time we’d feel that way.

Christianson loves the trappings of his office, appearing in parades on horseback in full-dress uniform. But he also likes to dress in cowboy regalia – black hat, black pants and a brace of six-guns – as seen on the department website. Contradictory images, conflicting messages.

In 2006, you were skeptical of concealed-carry permit requests. That changed in 2010. Why?

For the first four years, Christianson said he personally reviewed all concealed carry permits, writing many of the rejection letters. But in his first re-election campaign, he went before a local gun-rights group and announced he would make concealed-carry permits far easier to get – a promise he kept when easily re-elected. In 2010, there were fewer than 600 such permits; now there are at least 2,500.

Nothing about being a cop trains you for the politics of protecting your budget, getting a new jail or rising to statewide prominence. How did you do all that?

Christianson won’t say, so we asked others. First, he’s honest about his priorities – and that counts for a lot here and in Sacramento. Second, he’s made connections.

“He was well-liked and well-respected among his peers,” said County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “I hear it all the time when I run into sheriffs from across the state. … And the Governor (Jerry Brown) likes him. Period.”

A public persona requires a spotlight. But spotlights illuminate flaws, too.

The sheriff has no regrets for acting as a prop for Donald Trump’s demonization of immigrants last year. Christianson’s point – that California’s laws restricting cooperation among law enforcement agencies is counterproductive – is shared by many. Even if his views are nuanced – Christianson told a Bee reporter he would notify federal authorities of felons being released, but not honor their requests to detain prisoners beyond completion of their sentences – he now is identified with anti-immigrant factions.

After Christianson was called out for erroneously blaming sanctuary laws for allowing Corporal Singh’s accused killer to remain in America, he wrote an op-ed in “The Hill.” In that piece, he called for a “legal path to citizenship.”

Six in your department have died in line of duty during your tenure. Aside from sorrow, what else will you carry away from these tragedies?

Several people have said the deaths of Mary Donohou, Rob Paris, Dennis Wallace, Jason Garner, Raschel Johnson and Tony Hinostroza have weighed heavily on Christianson, as did that of Singh. They said this emotional burden is the real reason he did not run for re-election.

Finally, we wanted to ask the outgoing sheriff about The Bee. Christianson often has been sharply critical of “The Moscow Bee,” accusing some reporters of personal attacks after stories on lawsuits and his other lapses. He was angered by our editorial insistence that body cams should be standard gear.

In person, that animosity never showed; he remained professional, friendly or, at worst, aloof.

Unfortunately, a few deputies took their cues from Christianson’s tirades, going out of their way to make our reporters’ work difficult. This is something Sheriff-elect Jeff Dirkse has vowed to curtail.

We’re still wondering how Christianson feels The Bee could improve.

In his farewell email, Christianson insisted any recognition “belongs entirely” to the “men and women who work at the Sheriff’s Office!” They have “worked tirelessly to protect and serve the people of Stanislaus County.” Then he said it was “time to quietly ride off into the sunset.”

The character, competence and credibility we saw at the beginning of Christian’s 12-year term are still there ... but so are the ill-considered words, contradictions and regrets.

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