Lieutenant Juan Camarena (left) and Sheriff Bill Brown | Credit: Courtesy

The Santa Barbara Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA) consists of 450 law enforcement personnel, most of whom work under the direction of four-term incumbent Sheriff Bill Brown. For the second election cycle in a row, they are endorsing his challenger, this time Lieutenant Juan Camarena. The election will take place in June 2022; if no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the highest share will proceed to a runoff in November. So far, only Brown and Camarena are officially running.

Camarena, Mexican-born and fluent in English and Spanish, currently oversees the Criminal Investigation Division. During his 23 years working in the Sheriff’s Office, he has also served on the Human Resources Bureau, Narcotics Bureau, and Isla Vista Foot Patrol as station commander. In the latter role, he led Isla Vista officers through the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and a high-profile investigation of a multiple-victim rapist.

Spencer Brandt, who heads Isla Vista’s Community Services District, praised Camarena as an engaged and thoughtful leader. “He did an excellent job in bringing different stakeholders together, setting up new initiatives like a restorative justice program for low-level offenses, and being transparent about what he was doing.”

Although Camarena announced his candidacy in August, he has been thinking about this election for a half-dozen years, he told the Independent. “My feeling was that the Sheriff’s Office was too reactive to challenges and not proactive enough in identifying and dealing with them before they became a problem,” he said. “I want to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the community through change and transparency.” To this end, Camarena affirmed that he would improve officer training in defensive tactics, better prepare officers for anticipated promotions, and establish a community engagement board. The board that Camarena is proposing would theoretically give stakeholders a platform to express their views, but it stops short of giving civilians formal oversight powers.

Members of the deputies’ union chose to endorse Camarena after interviewing him, Brown, and Lieutenant Brian Olmstead — who was considering running at the time — holding a general discussion by members, and going through three rounds of voting. During the first round, members voted on the question of whether to endorse any candidate or remain neutral. Only those members who voted to endorse were then allowed to choose between one of the three candidates. Finally, Brown and Camarena proceeded to a runoff, in which Camarena won a simple majority of votes cast. DSA Executive Director Cory Graves said the endorsement was made because “[Camarena] is committed to improving public safety and will bring much-needed leadership and reform to the Sheriff’s Office.”

According to Brown, the initial DSA vote went to Camarena by 18 votes; the exact results of the runoff votes, however, were not disclosed. “I’m not sure why there would or should be a difference in practice here,” he said. Brown speculated that the runoff margin could have been even closer, and/or that fewer people showed up for the vote once Olmstead was eliminated.

Brown, who has served as Santa Barbara Sheriff since 2007, expressed little concern over the DSA’s endorsement of Camarena. “It was not a surprising outcome,” he said. “[Lieutenant Camarena] was a former member of the DSA. The DSA advocates for its membership, while I look after the entire [Sheriff’s Office] and the safety of the people in this community.”

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For his part, Camarena viewed the endorsement as both an honor and a sign of his qualifications. “Santa Barbara County will benefit from a sheriff who has good relations with and the support of [DSA] members who work tirelessly to serve the community.”

Of the 530 employees at the Sheriff’s Office eligible for DSA membership (out of a total of 688), around 430 are part of the union. Most of the remaining employees are members of non-DSA unions such as the Service Employees International Union Local 620, which primarily consists of administrative employees, while others, mostly high-level managers, are not part of any union. The Sheriff’s Office also retains at least 150 volunteers.

Running for his fifth term, Brown has emphasized his experience and record as a top-level law enforcement executive. “[Camarena] is a lieutenant in the department, and to go all the way from lieutenant to sheriff would be a quantum leap in management experience,” he said, adding that the two ranks were separated by those of commander, chief deputy, and undersheriff. “Police departments everywhere are under enormous pressure. Do officers here need a junior pilot to fly them across stormy weather, or a senior pilot who has made the journey a hundred times?” Brown added that these journeys included several promises delivered, such as the formation of mental health co-response teams and the recent opening of a new North County Jail with improved conditions.

Brown rejected Camarena’s charge that the Sheriff’s Office was not as proactive and engaged as it should be. “Under my tenure, we have been collaborating with community stakeholders on many important issues like addressing mental illness and substance abuse. Our force is one of the most professional and well-trained in the country, and even then, we have been able to adapt.”

As for his challenger’s endorsement from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Brown acknowledged that his relationship with the union was sometimes adversarial in nature. “There have been disagreements with the DSA on some issues, particularly those involving disciplinary action.” Throughout his tenure as sheriff, Brown had terminated some officers for misconduct “unbecoming of our values”; the DSA generally supported its member officers, primarily through providing legal representation. Such instances of misconduct included excessive force, dishonesty, and driving under the influence, though Brown clarified that terminations as a whole were not common due to rigorous screening by his office. Other times, Brown ran afoul of the DSA on officer hiring practices. Brown also emphasized, however, that he and the DSA have many shared interests and recently worked together in opposing the separation of a new fire dispatch center from the Sheriff’s Office.

That hasn’t stopped the DSA from using their political muscle against him. But their punches have not been landing. In the 2018 Sheriff’s election, they endorsed, organized, and donated $45,000 to Olmstead’s campaign, only for Brown to drub him and Lieutenant Eddie Hsueh with more than 57 percent of the vote. Another recent high-profile electoral action by the DSA came in 2016, when the union deployed $40,000 for Bruce Porter in his failed bid to become 3rd District Supervisor. (He lost in both 2016 and 2020 to Joan Hartmann.) The DSA has endorsed other candidates who won their races, but the union’s investment in those campaigns were relatively meager and/or the races fairly straightforward. After Olmstead, the next-largest DSA beneficiary in the 2018 cycle was 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart, who received $5,000 and ran unopposed.

But with or without effective DSA support, Camarena may prove a more formidable opponent than Brown experienced in the last election as police departments have come under increased public scrutiny. “Many things have changed since 2018,” said Spencer Brandt. “I think Lieutenant Camarena’s message and record of collaboration and reform will resonate with voters in this election cycle.”

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