Santa Barbara County sheriff candidate Juan Camarena has been in the Sheriff’s Office for more than 23 years and is passionate about his work. His campaign takes on four-term Sheriff Bill Brown — first elected in November 2006 — who Camarena says may not be the right option in a new era in which the country’s eyes are laser-focused on law enforcement.
“About eight years ago, I noticed that our department was being stagnant and reactive. We were not moving forward; we were not evolving with the times or trying to be at the forefront of change,” Camarena said. “Time to bring a new leadership to evolve in these challenging times.”
Camarena would be the county’s first Latino sheriff — or at least its first in the modern age. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office is one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the state, and since it was founded in 1850 after becoming part of American territory, there have been 17 sheriffs oversee the department, with only one — Sheriff Nicolas A. Covarrubias, who served two terms in the 1860s-70s — of Hispanic descent.
Camarena’s story is like many of the Latino-American population in the county today. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, he moved with his family to Santa Barbara County at the age of 5, settling in Santa Maria. As a kid, he remembers working the fields with his parents on weekends and summers, picking strawberries, squash, and broccoli. It was in those fields, he said, that he learned some of his core values: “My parents … taught me the value of hard work. They taught me the value of being respectful and listening.”
After graduating from Santa Maria High School, Camarena enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving two deployments overseas, and then reenlisted after 9/11. Serving in the military taught him “the value of commitment, honor, and courage,” he said. “Not courage like being brave; courage to do the right thing, courage to stand up for what has to get done or when you think something has to change.”
After the military, he returned to Santa Barbara County, taking a job as a sheriff’s custody deputy at the jail. In his 23 years with the Sheriff’s Office, Camarena has worked in nearly every corner of the county: Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito, Goleta, Isla Vista, Santa Ynez, Solvang, Buellton, and the outskirts of Santa Maria and North County. Patrolling all these different areas showed him that “what might work in Santa Barbara might not work in Santa Maria.”
He was promoted to detective, first working in narcotics before moving to major crimes, eventually becoming lieutenant. When he became Isla Vista Foot Patrol Station Commander in 2018, he merged all his experience and values into a new plan to rebuild community trust in Isla Vista. By getting both sheriff’s deputies and university police officers to work together under the same roof, he was able to begin new programs that could address the college town’s unique needs.
There’s the “party registration,” where hosts are encouraged to register their get-togethers so services can be directed as needed, and the “restorative justice program,” which allows first-time offenders to perform community service and attend mandatory classes in lieu of having a black mark on their record for the rest of their lives. “I think it’s very important because at a young age, being away from home for the first time, you’re gonna make mistakes,” he said.
As he saw the perception of law enforcement change, he focused on building a relationship with the people. “The community knows what happens in their neighborhoods, but when they don’t report to law enforcement, that means they don’t trust law enforcement, so we want to rebuild that,” he said.
His campaign pledges reflect this; his website and social media posts preach a “three-pillar plan” of community, vision, and accountability, which he says is necessary to bring the department into the present.
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If elected, Camarena promises to hold monthly “community engagement” sessions, in which county residents can talk face-to-face with law enforcement to prevent any issues from boiling over. This will include being transparent about everything, offering a “data dashboard” with recent stats and a detailed “strategic plan” so people will know what the department is doing with the taxpayers’ money.
He alluded to the department’s lack of body cameras, something Santa Barbara police have recently transitioned to wearing full-time. Only the Isla Vista deputies wear the cameras, because many do not drive in patrol cars with dash cams. He hopes to bring the department to the “forefront” with technology and said that law enforcement will build trust when the people feel like the department is not hiding anything.
On whether he’d be open to the Sheriff’s Office having a civilian oversight board, Camarena said he hopes issues wouldn’t reach the point of citizen outrage. But if the people called for it, he would work with the community to find out what type of oversight was needed, though he said it’s important that law enforcement be included in the conversation. “You wouldn’t have a committee overseeing the District Attorney without any attorneys on the board,” he said.
It’s not just the political climate surrounding law enforcement that has changed, Camarena said. When he started, deputies had an average of 18-20 years of experience, while today, he estimates the average is about 5-6 years. This offers an opportunity for more training, especially for stressful situations that require de-escalation. Camarena has been part of the department’s SWAT team for 19 years, now as the team manager. These high-tension incidents leave no room for error, he said, and deputies must “take a step back” to resolve the situation peacefully and safely.
There also must be a “succession plan,” he said, for deputies to move up the ranks. “We don’t have a succession plan; we don’t have a way, or a career path, to develop our young people. I want to make sure that everybody has the same opportunities that I had.”
With better training and community engagement, Camarena hopes use of force would be eliminated before reaching the point of monetary settlements, which have cost county taxpayers millions over the last decade. “Any use of force always has to be looked at,” he said, “to see what we can do better and to see the tactics that we are using. You want to understand why the use of force happens.”
He faces an uphill battle, especially with the political power and campaign funding that Brown has accrued over 16 years as Sheriff. At the end of 2021, Camarena’s campaign reported a balance of $11,000 compared to Brown’s $186,000. Since then, however, Camarena has been in a fundraising flurry, reporting more than $26,000 of contributions between April 20-25.
He’s also earned some impressive endorsements, including the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Firefighters Association, the Tri-Counties Chapter of the Peace Officer Research Association of California (PORAC), International Union Local 220, Santa Barbara Police Officers Association, retired sheriff Jim Thomas, Solvang City Councilmember Mark Infanti, Carpinteria City Councilmember Natalia Alarcon, and Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Oscar Gutierrez and Alejandra Gutierrez (though it must be said that Camarena and Alejandra Gutierrez are related).
With just six weeks until the primary, it is expected that both candidates will campaign full-force, and voters will decide on June 7 whether Brown deserves a fifth term or Camarena deserves a chance at a first.