A sheriff candidates’ forum last weekend in Sonoita, hosted by the Patagonia Regional Times, touched on longstanding issues at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, as well as more recent questions brought up by the current health crisis and protests for police reform.
As five of the six candidates – Democrats Keith Barth, Rafael Corrales, David Hathaway and David Ruiz, and Independent Andrew Ibarra – discussed the issues in person at the county fairgrounds, community members by the thousands used their own electronic devices to follow broadcasts on the PRT’s website and Facebook page.
Judge Thomas Fink, the forum moderator, kicked off the event by bringing up one of the bigger tasks that the next sheriff might have to confront upon taking office – making budget cuts necessitated by the economic downturn that the coronavirus outbreak continues to cause.
The candidates mostly sidestepped the trickiest part of the question – what specific areas they would look at to absorb cuts – and noted the importance of keeping programs and staff in place.
Barth suggested federal grants as a way to potentially subsidize employees, while Ibarra, who has emphasized his administrative and military service in lieu of law enforcement experience, said he would analyze all the expenses in years past to make a decision going forward. Hathaway and Ruiz offered ways to make the most of the manpower already available.
“One idea I would have is to get the command staff and the sergeants, if need be, to work patrol shifts,” Hathaway said, referring to positions such as lieutenants, captains and sergeants.
Ruiz, a retired Border Patrol agent, said he would create a task force and look for assistance from federal and state agencies, including U.S. Border Patrol.
“It would be my priority to deputize them (BP agents), and that way, they’re covered under the auspice of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office instead of the federal government,” he said.
As the candidates spoke, Facebook viewers took to the comments section to voice their support, questions or criticism. Some commenters noted the lack of face masks among the candidates – an issue brought up by Fink when he asked about the candidates’ approach to enforcing the county’s new proclamation mandating the use of face masks in public.
“I believe in the mask. It’s a sign of respect for everybody if you’re wearing it,” said Barth, the only candidate who consistently sported a face mask at the forum.
Barth, who recently served as a justice of the peace in Eastern Santa Cruz County, and Corrales, a 24-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, agreed that they would require deputies to wear masks while dealing with the public, as well as take a warnings-first approach to enforcing the order with the public.
“Like any other situation that I want to start enforcing in our community, is by educating,” Corrales said.
Hathaway, citing constitutional rights and freedoms, said he wouldn’t “create a mask gestapo… that goes around and harasses people.”
“As a matter of fact, there are a lot of legitimate concerns of the harm of masks – of carbon dioxide poisoning, hypoxia, low blood oxygen levels and, also, moisture retention in the lungs, which leads to pneumonia and exasperates viral infections,” he said, adding that he would leave it up to each individual to make their own personal health decisions.
The Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Surgeon General, as well as top infectious disease officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, all urge the use of cloth masks by the public as a method of reducing the risks of coronavirus transmission, especially by people with asymptomatic infections. And Hathaway’s comments at the forum caught the attention of local physician, Dr. Molly Anderson.
“I am a doctor. Masks are recommended for all people over 2 years unless you have a respiratory disorder that limits your ability to breathe,” she wrote in the comments section, adding later: “There is adequate ventilation with fabric masks; it is not a concern.”
In light of recent protests around the nation regarding police reform, Fink asked the candidates if they believed any level of “defunding” would be appropriate at the Sheriff’s Office, to reallocate that money to other social services in the community.
The candidates took firm stances against taking funds from the department, noting the economic downturn and the already small budget and department that the Sheriff’s Office has been operating with for years. And while most didn’t address the issue of whether some police functions might be better handled by social services, Barth said the Black Lives Matter and police reform movements served as an opportunity for police departments to step back and reevaluate their policies and procedures.
“The defunding, it shouldn’t happen, especially down here where we don’t have that type of problem,” Barth said, referring to police brutality. “I think we can just be motivated to work more on the mental health portion and maybe the alcohol abuse and the drug abuse situation.”
Problems with management
Directing their attention to old business and problems at the Sheriff’s Office, the candidates asserted that the problem with retention of deputies and corrections officers was due to failures in management that created a tense environment at the department.
Still, they were short on specifics, despite Fink’s urging to precisely identify the nature of the problems.
Fink also asked the candidates to elaborate on their plans in addressing the debt at the county jail, emphasizing new suggestions that haven’t been tried previously.
“I would say, in answering that question, we have to find new inmates. That’s the most logical answer to the question, finding new inmates,” Ibarra said, turning to a plan that has not worked out for the current administration.
Barth and Hathaway insisted that they had both been against the construction of the jail from the very beginning, with Hathaway calling it the “big, ugly monstrosity” that drew the county into a big debt.
Corrales, though without a concrete plan in mind, said he has already been seeking outside help to come up with a plan for the jail, if he were elected sheriff.
“One of my contacts is willing to send me one of his majors down to our department to stay down here, at no cost for Santa Cruz County, to evaluate the current jail and what new programs we could bring,” Corrales said.
All five candidates agreed that Eastern Santa Cruz County and Tubac were areas underserved by the Sheriff’s Office, noting that deputies rarely patrol the area and their response time can take as much as 45 minutes.
Hathaway, who recently retired from a leadership position with the DEA, said he would form a semi-autonomous volunteer program that could do the smaller tasks of the Sheriff’s Office, including welfare checks and securing crime scenes before a deputy can respond.
Corrales and Barth both said they needed more trained personnel and offered expanding the reserve program, as well as hiring range deputies that are local to the county’s more remote areas.
“I would deputize Border Patrol agents,” Ruiz reiterated as a temporary solution, in addition to his plan for starting a task force with other federal and state agencies. “As you can attest living here, who responds to 911 calls? It’s the U.S. Border Patrol, sometimes DPS.”
Ruiz’s regular references to the Border Patrol drew the attention of some in the comments section. And when his suggestion that Border Patrol agents help enforce state law in Santa Cruz County was called “dangerous” by one commenter, two others spoke up in support, noting that agents are already responding to local 911 calls in low-coverage areas, and that they have extensive law enforcement training.
But a person commenting as “Jon Jones” replied that “they are not trained in enforcing state laws and do not know the elements of traffic or criminal laws,” also expressing concern about racial profiling in a largely Latino community.
The candidates were asked about local fire districts’ concerns about the limitations of the Sheriff’s Office’s current emergency dispatch system, and whether a unified communication system, better training and new software could make a difference.
Corrales praised the efforts of the dispatchers at the sheriff’s 911 command center, but said part of the problem is that they handle both EMS and police calls rather than focusing on one or the other.
Hathaway said the problems are less technical in nature and could be addressed by having specially trained dispatchers to “triage” calls, while Ruiz touted software that dispatchers can employ during a medical call that tells them the instructions to give during a specific medical emergency.
“If we had a central dispatch, there’s no doubt my friend Chuy would be alive today,” Barth said, in reference to NPD Officer Jesus “Chuy” Cordova who was killed by an armed carjacker in April 2018. “If he had the correct information from dispatch, that the car that he was pulling over had an armed and shots-fired suspect in it, he wouldn’t have made that stop.”
Independent candidate Joe Agosttini did not participate in Saturday’s forum. In a Facebook comment responding to a viewer’s question about his absence, the PRT said, “We reached out to him numerous times with no response.”