June 7 Primary Election Endorsements: Part Three

Santa Barbara County Sheriff: No Endorsement

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

The Santa Barbara Independent presents its third and final endorsements for the Tuesday, June 7, primary elections. As always, the Independent does not endorse in every race but only in those that we have researched and can confidently suggest a candidate. You can read all of our endorsements here.

Thank you for considering our endorsements.

For Sheriff: No Endorsement

The candidates running for sheriff ​— ​incumbent Sheriff Bill Brown and Lt. Juan Camarena ​— ​are both serious, thoughtful, and dedicated public servants. Both have accomplishments of which they can rightfully boast. Both have much to recommend them. But both have given us cause for pause, and we can endorse neither.

Of the two, Brown clearly has the most abundant experience and the requisite political chops needed to do the job. Sixteen years ago, we endorsed Bill Brown when he first ran for sheriff. We are proud of that decision. For many years, Sheriff Brown was a forward-thinking and effective public servant who worked hard to achieve the promises he made to voters. But now we do not believe that after four terms in office, he offers the invigorated vision needed for how the largest law enforcement agency in the county should respond and adjust to the contemporary problems and realities of the whole community. 

For Juan Camarena, this is his first run at elected office. Though we have been impressed by his openness to greater community engagement, and by the knowledge his 23 years in the Sheriff’s Office has given him, including his outstanding leadership running the law enforcement operation in Isla Vista, and now as a lieutenant at the head of the criminal investigations department, we nevertheless believe he still needs more seasoning in the rough, political world the sheriff of Santa Barbara County must navigate. 

During the campaign, Sheriff Brown has stated that American law enforcement is now facing transformational challenges. We agree. But Brown ​— ​who occupies leadership positions within statewide and national law enforcement organizations ​— ​has not presented a response to this historic moment, which offers opportunities for change. Instead, his response has been both defensive and traditional. Brown ​— ​as both supporters and critics can attest ​— ​is a formidable counter-puncher. Given the urgency of the political moment, we wish Brown were more mindful of the pain underlying the anger that has been simmering within our community and is now being expressed more openly than in recent memory. We had hoped that Brown, with his political stature and gifts, would have not relied on a rebuttal to the demands but instead engaged the moment more constructively.

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For example, Brown was quick to reject out of hand the idea of a civilian oversight board. He called it a national solution in search of local problem that doesn’t exist here in Santa Barbara. It’s important to recognize that the County of Santa Barbara has paid out $9 million in the last 10 years to settle excessive-force or wrongful-death lawsuits involving deputies who answer to Bill Brown. Several of these involved an officer involved in multiple fatal shootings and several serious injuries.

In stark contrast to Brown, the City of Santa Barbara’s acting police chief, Bernard Melekian, has repeatedly embraced the concept of civilian oversight as a tool to build or repair community trust. Melekian regularly stood up on behalf of his cops while in the same breath constructively engaging in City Hall’s extensive deliberative process. In so doing, he made his objections to elements of the initial proposal well-understood, and changes were made accordingly. 

Brown is a genuine enigma. How is it that that someone so politically gifted and so accomplished could have such rocky relations with the county supervisors ​— ​who control the purse strings on which Brown relies ​— ​with the union that represents his own troops, with not one but all the fire chiefs in Santa Barbara County, and with the four cities that currently contract with his department for law enforcement services? Maybe it’s a function of time; 16 years, after all, is plenty long enough to step on a lot of toes. Maybe it’s a function of temperament. Some people always have to be right even when they’re not. 

For us, it’s a painful reckoning. We like Sheriff Brown personally and find much to admire about him. He has helped move the needle in significant ways in responding to the special challenges posed by people with serious mental illnesses caught in the criminal justice system. He initiated an innovative program to help restore the competency of those unable to assist in their own defense because of mental-health challenges. We are also struck by Brown’s powerful and abiding belief in the possibility of redemption for people who find themselves behind bars. And he has put that belief into programmatic action. However, we differ from Brown on some key concerns. Many people are more likely to find their path to redemption and recovery outside of jail, no matter how well-designed it may be. For many, time in jail inhibits that recovery and promotes recidivism. And lastly, the cost of providing such services in a jail setting is necessarily prohibitively expensive. 

Since we have these concerns, we make no recommendations.

California’s primary election is Tuesday, June 7. Click here for a list of current ballot drop box locations in Santa Barbara County, or look up your polling place here. To track your ballot status, use the Secretary of State’s My Voter Status tool online. Same Day Registration is available until Election Day on June 7, and voters can “conditionally” register and vote a provisional ballot during this time. Check your voter registration here. For more info on this year’s primary election, visit the County Elections website.

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