Verbal Slugfest at the OK Corral

Sheriff Candidates Spar Over Jail, Immigration, and Leadership

by Nick Welsh

The gloves came off within the first few seconds of last Thursday evening’s candidates’ forum that pitted incumbent Sheriff Jim Anderson against his challenger, Lompoc Police Chief Bill Brown  —  and they stayed off all night. In his opening remarks, Sheriff Anderson questioned Brown’s integrity and honesty, charging that the challenger had spread misinformation by exaggerating the degree of discord within the Sheriff’s Department for political gain. “His accusation that the Sheriff’s Department is in shambles is unfounded,” charged an angry Anderson. “His rhetoric only alienates people and can’t possibly unite a department he claims is divided.”

Brown slammed back, accusing Anderson of “bad decisions and poor direction” in cutting the DARE anti-gang and drug intervention program for 42 public schools for two-and-a-half years, unilaterally refusing to jail 6,000 people charged with serious misdemeanors because of jail overcrowding, and unilaterally severing relations with the Sheriff’s Council  —  which provided the department between $1 million and $2 million  —  after the high rollers running that nonprofit fell to public feuding.

Anderson’s main pitch was that after 32 years in the Sheriff’s Department, he has the necessary experience and know-how to run a sprawling enterprise with 700 employees that provides basic public safety to four contract cities and unincorporated areas of the county, and operates a jail bursting with more than 1,000 prisoners. By contrast, Anderson said Brown runs a relatively tiny department with only 49 sworn deputies and a 23-bed jail. Brown responded by pointing to his experience as president of the California Police Chiefs Association last year, and noted that Anderson had been supported by just 63 percent of his deputies.

Anderson  —  who has been endorsed by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the county firefighters union  —  proclaimed, “I am the jail overcrowding expert,” explaining he had studied the issue for seven years. He has proposed a $153 million new North County jail capable of housing up to 1,500 prisoners. Brown derided the proposal as “a myopic repeat of a failed plan,” referring to an unsuccessful effort to pass a sales tax increase to fund a new jail in 2000.

Brown stressed the need to pursue alternative sentencing  —  like work furlough  —  far more aggressively. Anderson shot back that the department had expanded its alternative sentencing program by 300 percent in the past year, and insisted a new jail was essential, given projections that jail population would increase by 36 percent by 2020. Brown complained of the lack of county detox beds (there are only 24) and charged that Anderson’s decision to refuse misdemeanor bookings took away the limited leverage of court-affiliated rehab programs: to toss addicts in jail for a dirty test.

Brown attacked Anderson’s assertion early in the campaign that local law enforcement should be given authority to detain people solely because of their immigration status. He argued that the entire community will be less safe if immigrants can’t trust law enforcement to protect, not deport, them. Anderson said his interest was only in apprehending terrorists and that Brown was taking his words out of context to scare immigrants.

Anderson faulted Brown’s department by pointing out that in 2005, the Lompoc Police Department cleared only 37 percent of its serious cases, while the Sheriff’s Department cleared 75 percent. He concluded, “His [Brown’s] ship is rudderless, his ideas are bankrupt, and his experience is inadequate.” Brown retorted by saying of his opponent, “No amount of spin or political posturing or last-minute efforts to paper over these mistakes will remove the albatross of failed leadership that hangs around his neck.” Afterward Anderson declined to shake hands with Brown.

At this point, Anderson leads Brown in fundraising, having collected $274,454 as of September 30. Of that, $80,000 is a loan Anderson extended his campaign, and $75,000 comes from members of the Sheriff’s Council loyal to him. By contrast, Brown raised $142,500, $23,000 of which he or his father loaned the campaign; $23,500 came from a faction of Sheriff’s Council members angry at Anderson.

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