Three contenders competing to become Alameda County's next sheriff faced off in a virtual forum earlier this month hosted by community group Livermore Indivisible.
Incumbent Gregory Ahern -- who has held his seat at the helm of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office (ACSO) since 2007 -- and his challengers ACSO Division Commander Yesenia Sanchez and veteran San Francisco Police Department Officer JoAnn Walker participated in the two-hour discussion, each answering questions about their plans for the position should they be elected.
Livermore Indivisible member Helen Machuga moderated the Jan. 9 forum, asking 12 questions that had been compiled beforehand followed by a Q&A period with viewers facilitated by Karen Jefferson. The virtual event was co-sponsored by Livermore Vine, Pleasanton Weekly and The Independent.
Following their opening statements, one of the leading questions the candidates were asked was about their plans to make communities in the county safer from gun violence.
Ahern said that the sheriff's office is already working toward addressing the issue and that units have already seized hundreds of weapons in the past year and apprehended a number violators who have been prohibited from possessing handguns.
"The gun violence in Alameda County is very tragic. Within the city of Oakland there were 139 people that have died by gun violence this year," he said, adding that the ACSO has assigned units to Oakland to try to reduce that number as well as established a gang suppression unit to address gang violence. He said that Oakland saw a record number of homicides as well as a record number of shooting victims, with 531 victims of gun violence brought into Highland Hospital this past year alone.
Walker said that while enforcement of laws is already occurring, the department should be assigning more investigators to work through the process to figure out what is needed to reduce violence from guns altogether.
"The community is afraid of a lot of things that they feel are out of their control," she said. "Arresting is one way to handle the problem temporarily, but what happens in the future when the person is afraid again?" she added.
Walker said that connecting with the community more, particularly youth, to establish better relationships with law enforcement is one way to address the problem. She used the example of School Resource Officers on campuses as a means of building connections between youth and law enforcement.
"Arrest is only one way, but you still have to educate and give them opportunities to do better," she said.
Sanchez also addressed youth, noting that guns are making their way into young peoples' hands too easily. However, she stressed the importance of enforcement to ensure public safety.
"We have to ensure residents as well as those who come into our areas to patronize our local businesses and our small businesses feel safe. In order to do that, we do have to go after those who are using firearms to commit crimes and harming people with those weapons," she said.
Sanchez also said that beyond enforcement, she believes the focus should be on better understanding why people find it necessary to carry guns in the first place in an effort to identify the underlying issues the community is facing and tackle the problem at the root. She said that when she worked in the field and would seize guns from youth, the most common response for why they had them was to protect themselves.
"We as a community really need to focus on why there is that mindset," she said.
The candidates were also asked what action they would take if the ACSO was directed by the federal or state government to enforce a mandate, order or law that they believed to be unconstitutional.
Sanchez responded to the question first, acknowledging that it was difficult to answer without knowing what such a mandate would consist of.
"If we are mandated to enforce something, we have to follow what that direction is," she said. However, she said that she believes there should be conversations had between those who enforce mandates and those affected by them in any capacity.
"The bottom line is, I dislike when there is any type of mandate where the conversation doesn't include input from all sides that are impacted by it," she said.
Ahern answered by breaking down the steps that are currently in place for the sheriff's office to question or challenge a government order.
"If we thought there was an unconstitutional mandate that we're talking about, the first thing that we would do is go to the superior court and ask for an injunction to delay that order," he said.
"We have access to the county counsel, who has been our attorney for the sheriff's office and has been able to answer questions in regards to mandates that have been enforced in the past. We also have the California State Sheriffs' Association that has legal counsel that provides us with guidance as well, regarding these very controversial issues," he added.
Walker agreed with Ahern regarding the existing procedures and resources available to the ACSO for handling disagreements that may arise related to mandates before sharing her own perspective.
"What is important here is why these mandates are coming up, why they're important, who they're going to impact and what can we do to improve public safety?" she said.
"If following a mandate is something that is lawful and constitutional and I disagree with it, I can deal with my disagreement later. What I'm looking at is the larger picture; how is this going to serve the community? What is going to happen when we go forward with this particular mandate? Will it save lives? Is it something that's important because it is going to help the people in Alameda County to remain alive and to go on with their daily lives with their families without any kind of intrusion from law enforcement?" she continued.
"I think that if it is a law, we need to go ahead and we need to abide by that law until we can bring all of the parties to the table and figure out how we're going to make the change that the law enforcement community may feel is important," she added.
The candidates also discussed how they would improve conditions at Santa Rita Jail, particularly as it relates to a 2019 audit that found Santa Rita Jail had the highest death rate of any jail in Northern California and that there is a direct correlation between those who die by suicide and those housed in isolation or administrative segregation.
"We've been directing our attention specifically to that audit to make corrections and so the number of hours of people being kept in their cells has been decreased greatly," Ahern said. "We've also worked on a manner to take the number of AdSeg people and reclassify them so they could be out in a group setting under an agreement between the members that are going to be out at the same time," he added.
He said that they've made "great strides" in reducing the amount of deaths that occur in the jail, noting that many of the deaths have been due to overdoses and they've brought in K-9 units to help with narcotic detection as well as other steps to reduce drug-related deaths.
"We were one of the first agencies in the state of California to bring Narcan into a jail setting where our deputies can apply that quickly to save lives," he said.
He also said they've expanded their medical-assisted treatment program and worked with the behavioral health unit to reduce deaths at Santa Rita.
"We're very proud of the treatment that they provided to our inmate population," Ahern said of the medical staff and behavioral health unit. "We're working on specific reviews of each and every one of those deaths that have occurred within our facility and it has a great benefit to reducing the number. However, our society and Santa Rita Jail is just a microcosm of what goes on within the cities and county itself. So, as we see our population suffering from depression, our inmates are suffering from that same problem and we're trying to address it with them individually," he added.
While Ahern expressed pride and optimism for the corrections the facility is making, Walker criticized Ahern in her response, noting that there have been at least 50 deaths at Santa Rita Jail since 2014 and that 19 of them were deaths by suicide.
"We know that it is unconstitutional for people to be held in isolation and according to the website, in Santa Rita Jail, people are only allowed to come out one hour per week," Walker said. "How can they not become suicidal in a situation where they have no control, they don't see their family members, they're locked down and they are dependent upon somebody else for their livelihood? How can they come out and be normal?" she added.
Sanchez -- who is the highest ranking Latina in the ACSO and has been in command of Santa Rita Jail since early 2020 -- clarified later in her own response that inmates are offered one hour of recreation per day, not per week.
Walker also criticized Ahern for not cooperating with the DOJ in previous years to lower the number of deaths at the jail.
"Why did it take so long? Why did it take so many people dying? So many families who are suffering because they didn't find out what really happened to their loved one," she said.
Sanchez acknowledged in her response that many people come into the facility with pre-existing medical conditions, substance abuse issues and mental health conditions that have gone long untreated. "We experience death in the jail just as we see out in the community," she said.
However, where Sanchez said the facility can improve is by having better communication with families and with the public following the death of someone in custody.
"Right now, there's no communication with families who lose someone while they're in custody and that is simply not humane. There has to be some information that's shared with the family. We should not leave them in the dark," Sanchez said.
She said that there are certain services they can offer such as chaplaincy and providing connections to grief counselors, which she said should be set in motion as soon as next of kin is identified.
The lack of communication as it relates to deaths at Santa Rita Jail also surfaced during the topic of transparency and trust, with Walker and Sanchez echoing similar sentiments about the importance of providing families information about their loved ones who have died in custody as well as getting information out to the public as soon as possible.
Other topics of discussion during the forum included how the candidates will protect the incarcerated population from jail personnel and visitors who may have been exposed to COVID-19 outside of the jail environment, how the candidates would counteract racist behavior within the department, whether or not the candidates see a conflict of interest with the sheriff operating the Coroner's Bureau and their perspectives on the possible addition of a sheriff oversight structure to improve public transparency and accountability.
The primary election is set for June 7, after which the top two contenders will be placed on the November ballot.
A complete recording of the candidate forum is available here.