Interview with Sheriff Bill Brown

What Has He Been Doing Lately?

Sheriff Bill Brown
Courtesy Photo

Riddle 1: Who is the most powerful local government official in Santa Barbara County? Answer: Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. He is armed and has at his command 700 full-time employees, many of whom are also armed, plus another 200 part-timers and volunteers. He administers a $90 million budget, and as an elected official, is not an employee of the five county supervisors nor any police commission. The policies he issues, concerning such things as his department’s use of force and car chases, can spell the difference between life and death.

Riddle 2: Who is the least powerful local government official in Santa Barbara County? Answer, again: Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. Working without a contract, he has 400,000 “bosses,” the Santa Barbara County residents, whose majority vote he needs every four years to keep his job. His responsibilities, policies, and actions are defined, constrained, and circumscribed by the U.S. and California constitutions, state and federal law, court decisions, and judges. And to carry out his duties, he must depend on the good graces of five budget-stressed county supervisors who decide how much of the hard-pressed county budget to allocate to him.

I recently interviewed Sheriff Brown, who was candid and enthusiastic about his department. He has an extensive law enforcement background, first as a police officer of the cities of Pacifica and Inglewood, California, then as police chief in Moscow, Idaho, and finally as the chief for 11 years in Lompoc, California. He’s a graduate of the FBI National Academy and has served as the president of the Santa Barbara County Law Enforcement Chiefs and the California Police Chiefs Association.

Responding to what he considered his biggest successes, Sheriff Brown indicated the five goals he identified when he ran for office, and his progress on each one. One of his chief goals was to reunite the department, which he characterized as “very fractured and divided before the election.” Brown was elected county sheriff in 2006 in a runoff against incumbent Sheriff Anderson and two other candidates, all three of whom were connected to the department.

Sheriff Brown said, “I have to give a lot of credit to the men and women of this organization who were welcoming me here. I made it very clear from the beginning that I didn’t care who anybody supported in the past, that we were going to move forward, not look backward, we’re a team now. One of the best things I did, in retrospect, was to keep the Undersheriff, Ken Shemwell, not bring in someone else. Ken had supported my opponent. Ken is very talented and has done a tremendous job, and I’m very pleased that he stayed on with me.” Brown continued, “I have also rewritten the department’s promotion process to be more transparent and objective.”

Another priority has been working on the two “intertwined” problems of gangs and drugs by bringing back a full-time gang enforcement team, and reinstituting the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) that provides youths with education to avoid drugs and violence. “I’m a firm believer in prevention. We can do a much better service to the community if we prevent crime from occurring and prevent people from being victimized,” said Brown.

A goal Sheriff Brown says he has made progress on, though he admits there is more to be done, is relieving jail overcrowding. He was able to convert an existing North County booking facility and add 19 beds, and he contracted to use some of Lompoc’s detention facilities. He also is remodeling existing jail facilities to add 50 beds, and he added another 24 beds in the form of bunks.

The sheriff was also able to obtain a site for a new, 300-bed North County jail as well as a $56.3 million grant to build it. However, the county is still about $22 million short of what’s needed for construction and, when it’s built, approximately $15 million will be required annually to run the jail.

“We’re still hamstrung in terms of who we can accept into jail and who we can keep in jail because of the limited amount of space we have,” Brown said. “We’re virtually always full. At any given time we have about 1,000 in physical custody and about 200 people in some kind of alternative program : either electronic monitoring or Sheriff’s Alternative Work Program.”

While he’s trying to find funding for the new jail, he was firm in saying that increasing jail capacity alone is not the answer. He wants to reduce crime itself, especially by repeat offenders, through programs such as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. He said that the county has designed, and is in the process of implementing, “a tremendous re-entry project that has become the model for the state.”

Another goal has been re-forming the Sheriff’s Council, which he characterized as “a tremendous organization that did a lot of good. It certainly raised a tremendous amount of money for the Sheriff’s Department.” He added, “[W]e’ve never needed it more than we need it now,” and said further details are imminent.

He has also worked on improving the recruitment and retention of personnel. “We have a tremendous Human Resources department,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to find top quality people : and it’s really happened. We have no recruiting problems whatsoever and we really don’t have any retention problems.”

Sheriff Brown said that the most surprising facts about the department may be its size and diversity. It covers 2,500 square miles at 25 sites with a budget of approximately $96 million dollars. His domain includes not only the deputies on patrol and detectives conducting investigations in Santa Barbara’s unincorporated areas, but also the law enforcement officers serving as police forces for Goleta and Carpinteria, plus the coroner’s office, the Civil Bureau, dispatchers, the County Jail-more than 900 people including 700 full-time employees, 100 part-timers, and 100 volunteers.

Accustomed previously to knowing everyone under his command on a first-name basis, Brown is finding that impossible due to the department’s size and its decentralized nature, as well as his workload. He is now trying to be open and available department-wide working through the command staff. “They are a first-class group of people,” he said of them. “Time after time they have proved that they are not only incredibly competent but incredibly caring. They don’t get the credit that they really should have.”

When asked about the job’s biggest challenges, the sheriff indicated it’s all about the budget. “Rising expectations and diminished resources as a result of the economic downturn,” he responded. “We’ve learned how to work smarter, how to strategically look at problems. The challenge will be to see that we receive the adequate tools to let the Sheriff’s Department do its work and make the community safer.”

He indicated that public safety has not been affected by cutting $4 million dollars and 30 full-time positions in the past two years, including management reductions of 17 percent. But he added that “further cuts would impact our frontline service delivery.” For instance, it would probably increase average response times, something he is “loathe” to do.

“My core belief is in the philosophy of community policing,” Brown said. “Particularly in these tough times, it is so important for law enforcement and the community to come together. I work in a partnership to identify and solve problems that relate to crime, fear of crime, neighborhood decay, and quality-of-life issues.”

Opportunities exist for the public to participate in numerous programs: the Citizens Law Enforcement Sheriff’s Academy course, ride-alongs, neighborhood watch programs, and Project Lifesaver for people with Alzheimer’s, to name a few. More information is available at the Sheriff’s Web site, or by calling the main information number, 681-4100.

The magnitude of the sheriff’s responsibilities and challenges made me wonder whether Sheriff Brown plans to seek re-election in 2010 so I asked him. Without hesitation, he confirmed he is planning to run again. Only time and circumstances will tell if others will step up to challenge him and whether Sheriff Brown will win another four-year term.


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