Bill Brown | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

By any reckoning, Sheriff Bill Brown, now running for his fifth term, is the single most accomplished and compelling elected figure now performing on the Santa Barbara political stage. He is, as the saying goes, the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room.

Bill Brown is a large man; he moves through a room like a battleship through the ocean, and he does so without being intimidating. He smiles easily. He likes facts. He loves history. And he really loves to talk ​— ​a lot. With a microphone in front of him, Brown is utterly at ease. Few people press the flesh better. He remembers names. He even remembers the family stories of the names he meets. 

Little wonder. Brown’s father worked as an advance man for pioneering evangelist superstar Billy Graham. His mother was a stage actress who in her youth briefly dated Bobby Kennedy. You might say Bill Brown came by his gift for politics and flair for theater the old-fashioned way; he inherited them.

But right now, in the current campaign, Brown is looking over his shoulder. He’s running in a one-on-one race against Juan Camarena, a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office with 23 years’ experience who is a former Marine, was raised in Santa Barbara, and is fluent in Spanish. Camarena talks of stagnation within the department and rebuilding trust with the community. 

Brown acknowledges that Camarena is a good guy, a rock-solid law enforcement professional, but he insists Camarena is wrong. The department hasn’t lost the trust of the community at large; there is no trust to restore. There is just a handful of loud activists looking to impose national solutions on problems that don’t exist locally. And though Brown promoted him twice, he believes Camarena lacks the executive chops necessary to run a department of 800 people and a budget of about $175 million. Seasoned leadership, Brown says, is what’s needed to weather what threatens to become one of the most turbulent chapters of American law enforcement history. And after 16 years at the helm, Bill Brown is plenty seasoned. 

The irony here is that Brown’s critics said the same thing about him back in 2006 when he first decided to run for sheriff against then-incumbent Jim Anderson. Back then, Brown was still chief of the Lompoc Police Department, then derided as a Podunk department in a Podunk town. It had only 49 employees.

In a race that was David and Goliath all over again, Bill Brown won that election.

But Bill Brown is running against time. If he were to be reelected for a fifth term, he would be sheriff for 20 years. A typical sheriff in the United States ​— ​even with the mojo of incumbency ​— ​will last only 11 years; Brown has almost completed 16 years on the job. A lot can happen in 16 years. 

In that time, however, Brown wowed even the most skeptical naysayers by accomplishing the seemingly impossible. He got a new jail built in northern Santa Barbara County. His predecessors ​— ​sheriffs Jim Anderson and Jim Thomas ​— ​both vowed to build a new jail in northern Santa Barbara County, but they failed. The county’s existing lockup had been the target of multiple cruel-and-inhumane lawsuits dating back to the early 1980s.

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Brown worked his political connections in Sacramento that he’d spent a professional lifetime cultivating to secure $86 million in state grants to build a modern, humane jail where prisoners could engage in rehabilitative therapies. The only hitch? The County of Santa Barbara would have to pitch in 10 percent in matching funds. And the annual operating costs hovered at about $20 million a year.

That new jail ​— ​truly Brown’s legacy and crowning achievement ​— ​finally opened just a few months ago. The final price tag was about $110 million; initial estimates projected it at $77 million. County administrators, however, tag the official cost overrun at $14.7 million. As with any new building, there are still bugs to be worked out. The new jail’s video chambers where inmates are supposed to communicate directly with the attorneys and the court have not worked properly. And about a month ago, all the inmate doors inexplicably opened at the same time, leaving the few deputies on duty in a potentially precarious position. Fortunately, nothing happened.

But Brown is quick to highlight how the new jail doesn’t have a single bar in it. It’s airy and spacious with great sightlines. Bill Brown believes that jails are places where people can hit bottom and then turn their lives around. He believes people who break the law must be held accountable. He also believes they must be given second chances. In Brown’s jail, he says, both of those will happen. 

When Brown was first elected, he stood with one foot planted squarely in law enforcement’s progressive camp. He talked passionately about anti-recidivism programs and implemented many of them. He’s been known to choke up when recounting the heroic lengths some people in his custody have gone to in order to reconnect with their families and reclaim their lives.

Little surprise that in his first race for sheriff, Brown ​— ​a lifelong Republican ​— ​won the endorsement of former Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Dianne Feinstein. He also won the hearts of former Lompoc mayor Joyce Howerton, not to mention former Santa Barbara mayor Helene Schneider, a feminist activist and progressive crusader in her own right. 

Times, however, have changed. As instances of law enforcement violence against people of color have come increasingly to the fore, a seemingly impervious nation has found itself repeatedly shocked. Public sentiment about police use of force, police practices, and the totality of the criminal justice system has shifted significantly in the past 10 years, especially after the murder of George Floyd. 

Santa Barbara County has not been untouched. Today, Bill Brown would be categorized as a moderate within law enforcement. Brown denounced the George Floyd murder ​— ​a death he describes as “a tragic incident” ​— ​but he is quick to say how statistically rare it is that force is used by members of law enforcement, and he is ready with the math to back up this claim. Brown rejects the idea that his department should be subjected to any oversight by a civilian review board, dismissing it as a solution is search of a problem. Santa Barbara is not Minneapolis, he says. And Minneapolis, he reminds us, had not one but two civilian oversight boards; neither one did George Floyd any good. 

When asked about the $9 million in legal settlements the department has paid over use-of-force lawsuits over the past 10 years, Brown termed all cases ending in death “tragic” but said all such incidents were extensively investigated by the District Attorney’s Office and deemed justified. The District Attorney and the Attorney General already have oversight, Brown said. So too do the voters. If they don’t like the job he’s doing, 

he said, they can vote him out of a job.

It’s not just Brown’s department that has come under criticism. It’s the entire criminal justice system: the District Attorney, the Probation Department, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Sheriff’s Office. Combined, they cost roughly $400 million annually. That’s roughly one quarter of the county’s entire budget of $1.2 billion. It’s often described as “the elephant in the room.”

Regardless of where individual supervisors stand on law and order, they all agree the “elephant” is too big. Brown has been pressed to cut costs, do more with less, get more efficient, and keep as many low-level offenders as possible out of his jail. 

When Brown started as sheriff, the jail population hovered between 1,200 and 1,300, closets were converted to bed space, inmates slept on mattresses on the floors, and bunks were triple-decked. Brown and his jail staff managed to whittle that number down to about 900 inmates prior to the onslaught of COVID, during which time the population historically dipped below 600. 

Liberal supervisors demanded that Brown keep that number down ​— ​citing recent research that suggests that the longer a person stays behind bars, the greater their chances are of becoming repeat offenders. But Brown has pushed back. With fewer people behind bars, Brown retorted, crime rates were increasing. But even the more conservative crime-conscious supervisors from North County have grown impatient too, demanding greater efficiencies out of Brown.

As an elected official, Bill Brown does not answer to the Board of Supervisors for departmental policy. But the supervisors control his purse strings. Over his 16 years, Brown’s budget has increased from $86 million to $170 million. Still, he complains about a structural staffing deficit of 80 positions that he says have been lost since the Great Recession of 2008. Forced overtime has added millions to departmental costs.

Supervisors dismiss his complaints as statistical double talk. Brown, they say, should embrace new data analysis technologies that would better match his existing staffing levels with actual calls for service. Until this year, Brown had only one full-time crime data analyst on staff, and he has complained that supervisors refused to fund data analysts. But this year, he got the funding and now has a team of high-tech number crunchers. But with inflation and economic instability, the department will be facing a prolonged wrestling match over budget.

Brown has no aspirations for higher office other than the top spot of the Major County Sheriffs of America, an organization of the 113 largest sheriff’s departments in the country where Brown is currently the Number Two. If he wins in Santa Barbara, he’ll become Number One. Earlier in his career, Brown served as president of the California Police Chiefs’ Association and later as president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. No one else has held both posts. If he wins reelection, Brown will become the only person to have held all three. 

Some critics within law enforcement call Brown a “trophy collector,” complaining he spends too much time on these boards and too little at departmental leadership meetings or with front-line troops. Brown has never been endorsed by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) in any of his five elections. Brown shrugs this off. The DSA, he said is a union that has disagreed with him on discipline he’s meted out to deputies and custody officers for misconduct. 

Brown says his leadership positions on these state and national law enforcement boards have allowed him to influence the policy debates at the state and national level ​— ​at the White House and in Congress ​— ​regarding the nature of police reform. This provides Santa Barbara a voice well beyond its boundaries, he argues, without which Santa Barbara would never have secured the funds to build the North County Jail. 

Most recently, Brown, shocked that 133 people had died from drug overdoses, launched Operation Opioid. Of those deaths, 67 percent involved fentanyl, which is used to lace cocaine, methamphetamine, and even counterfeit prescription drugs. He cites the death of a 22-year-old suffering from a bad headache who took what he thought was a Xanax. “It’s a misnomer to call these deaths an accident or an overdose,” Brown stated. “They’re poisonings.” Even his critics have remarked how energetically Brown has thrown himself into it. He’s calling leaders from the medical, faith, education, enforcement, and business worlds to all come together to craft a campaign to attack the problem both from a supply and demand stand point.

Beyond that, there are Brown’s mental health initiatives, most specifically, the much-praised co-response teams where sheriff’s deputies are teamed up with mental health outreach workers to respond to crisis calls. While garnering many accolades, the program has yet to secure stable funding. 

In his 16 years on the job, Brown has crossed swords with many in county government. His relations with the county board, while personally cordial, remain strained over expenses and transparency. Brown has had protracted battles with all the fire departments in the county over helicopters, airplanes, and dispatch centers. Currently, Brown is in an intense billing dispute with the four cities to which his department provides police services. At issue is $2.5 million in bitterly disputed costs, which the county may be forced to make up. 

Bill Brown has been a law enforcement professional for 45 years. After all that time, why not just declare victory and retire? “It’s a difficult job,” Brown acknowledged. “But if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. And I really love my job…. I don’t want to do anything else.” 

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