Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

In Alameda County, there’s rarely a new sheriff in town. Since 1986, there have been two sheriffs, and neither faced a challenger in any election. Some county residents, especially in the northwest cities of Berkeley and Oakland, want new leadership in the sheriff’s office. The current sheriff, Gregory Ahern, has been criticized for an array of problems with the county jail and is facing two class action lawsuits brought by detainees, and a federal civil rights investigation. Critics also say his cooperation with federal immigration agents and an incident in which he sent an armored vehicle to evict activists who occupied a West Oakland home last year, show that his views are out of step with many voters.

But state law makes it difficult to run for sheriff, so there are few qualified challengers looking to take on the most powerful law enforcement officer in the county. Currently, it’s nearly impossible for anyone who isn’t a sworn law enforcement officer to run for sheriff in California. And Alameda County’s last sheriff hand-picked his successor from within the ranks of his department, ensuring that there wasn’t a competitive election offering voters a choice of candidates with different policy platforms.

A group of Oakland activists is organizing to change state law in hopes of advancing candidates who would support more progressive policies.

“The system has become that the sheriff would retire or resign before the last term they wanted to serve was up and hand pick their heir apparent,” said Judith Stacey of the Oakland-based Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, a progressive political group. “That is how Ahern took office and he’s never run against anyone.”

In an interview, Ahern said he is opposed to the change. “I don’t think that it’s a very wise thing to do to have people try to do a job where they don’t have any experience or credentials,” he said. “How does somebody who has never been involved in law enforcement look at new technology or tactics when they don’t know current tactics?”

Regardless, Ahern is likely facing his first competitive election ever next year. JoAnn Walker, a San Francisco police officer, announced her intent to run for sheriff in January. Michael Carroll, a captain in the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, started a campaign and ended it within a month. And Alameda County Sheriff’s division commander Ysenia Sanchez has created a campaign website.

If Stacey and other progressive activists in Oakland get their way, there could be even more candidates running in November 2022.

A powerful elected position, a lack of competitive elections

Stacey said she first became aware of Alameda County’s lack of competitive elections for sheriff in 2017, while volunteering to visit an 18-year-old Oakland resident being held in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Richmond, she learned that he had been turned over to ICE by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. He was born in Mexico, but immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3-years-old. Police found a gun in his car during a traffic stop and took him to Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. When he posted bail, ICE was waiting and took him into custody. 

Stacey realized that there was a pattern of detainees being released from Ahern’s jail directly into the hands of ICE agents. Since then, Ahern’s office has explained that its policy is to make the information about when some undocumented people will be released from Santa Rita Jail available to ICE so that they can arrive at the jail and arrest the person on immigration charges. To Stacey and other immigration advocates, the practice runs counter to Alameda County’s status as a so-called “sanctuary” jurisdiction, where residents are supposed to be treated equally by law enforcement and other local government agencies, regardless of their immigration status.

“I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of my sheriff before that,” Stacey said. “I’m a retired academic. I have a lot of progressive academic friends who don’t know the name of their sheriff.”

Not only do many Alameda County residents not know who the sheriff is, many people also don’t understand the vast powers sheriffs have. In California, the sheriff typically operates the county jail, where people are either held before trial or serve short sentences for misdemeanor and other low-level crimes. Sheriffs also provide security in courthouses, conduct policing services in areas of the county where there is no city police department, and enforce court orders such as evictions. Sheriffs also coordinate regional “mutual aid” systems whereby law enforcement agencies share staff and resources during emergencies.

Unlike city police chiefs, who are hired by a city’s mayor or city council and can be removed, California’s sheriffs are elected, making them more powerful and independent. Removing a sheriff without an election is almost impossible.

And if there’s no opponent, the incumbent sheriff is guaranteed reelection year after year.

Gregory Ahern has been with the Alameda County Sheriff’s office since 1980. In 2006, Sheriff Charlie Plummer, who had held the position since 1986, announced he would retire at age 75. He endorsed Ahern, assistant sheriff at the time, to be his successor. No one filed papers to run against Ahern, making his ascension to the job assured.

At the time, Ahern voiced surprise, saying that he thought someone would run against him. But he acknowledged the influence of his predecessor. “People didn’t want to go against the political machine of Sheriff Plummer,” Ahern told Bay City News. 

Indeed, Plummer was a formidable power as sheriff. He expanded the role of the sheriff’s office to include providing security on AC Transit busses, at the Oakland International Airport, and on Peralta Community College District campuses, leaving a far more powerful institution in Ahern’s hands. Plummer also had the healthcare system in Santa Rita Jail taken over by a private, for-profit company. 

When he retired, Plummer bragged that he “could get Humpty Dumpty elected.”

Ahern officially became the 22nd sheriff of Alameda County on Jan. 8, 2007. Since then, he has been reelected three times, never facing an opponent. 

Ahern has raised considerable campaign funds, including from companies that provide services for jails. Corporations with contracts to provide phone services for detainees in jails donated $70,000 over four years to his campaign. Corizon, which contracted with Alameda County to provide medical care in the jail, gave $110,000 to Ahern’s campaign between 2006 and 2013. At times Ahern has used this money to support his political allies. In 2018, he spent $50,000 supporting District Attorney Nancy O’Malley as she faced a tough and unusual reelection fight against civil rights attorney Pamela Price.

A big part of the reason there have been few challengers running against incumbent sheriffs in Alameda County is that under state law candidates must have either an advanced certificate from the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or a certain amount of recent full-time law enforcement experience, requirements that significantly narrows the pool of potential leaders.

In January, state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco introduced Senate Bill 271, which would repeal eligibility requirements for sheriffs so that any registered voter could run.

While it may seem prudent to require law enforcement experience, reform proponents point out that law enforcement groups lobbied to enact the restrictions after an outsider won the job of sheriff in San Francisco decades ago and enacted reforms that were unpopular with conservative police and prosecutors’ groups.

Michael Hennessey, an attorney who worked in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and later provided legal aid services to detainees in San Francisco’s jails, was elected sheriff in 1979 even though he wasn’t a sheriff’s deputy or police officer. He introduced innovative education and rehabilitation programs in the city’s jails and was reelected seven times. But following his election, the California Deputy Sheriff’s Association lobbied and convinced the legislature and governor to prevent anyone like Hennessey from becoming sheriff again. The new restrictions took effect in 1989.

Deaths in the jail, expensive settlements, and other controversies

Outside the Santa Rita Alameda County Jail. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland-based advocacy group Secure Justice is another co-sponsor of the reform bill. Executive Director Brian Hofer said sheriffs are so powerful that any kind of attempt at reform is met with fierce resistance. 

“I consider the sheriff the toughest opponent in California,” Hofer said. “Even when they lose, it’s a watered-down loophole-filled legislation,” he said about recent criminal justice reforms.

Hofer said that the problems with Ahern run the gamut of why there needs to be reform in how sheriffs are elected in California.

“Look at his insane response to the Moms 4 Housing incident, showing up with military equipment to take on four nonthreatening moms and their children,” Hofer said, referring to when four mothers took over a vacant West Oakland home in protest and were later removed during an early morning eviction. 

“I think he is not in tune with Alameda County as a whole and certainly not California politics as they are today,” he said.

Ahern, however, said he is accountable to voters and the county’s elected Board of Supervisors. The supervisors control the sheriff’s budget and state law mandates that he disclose certain information to them, such as annual reports on his agency’s cooperation with federal immigration officials. Ahern sends a letter to the supervisors each time there is an in-custody death at the jail. And voters could mount a recall election if they’re unhappy with his policies, he said.

Throughout Ahern’s tenure as sheriff, he has faced accusations of inhumane conditions in Santa Rita Jail, a massive complex in Dublin that can house up to 4,000 people. In 2010, the death of Marvin Harrison, who was arrested for missing a court appearance, led to an $8.3 million settlement paid by the sheriff’s office and the company that provided medical services in the jail. At the time, it was the largest wrongful death settlement in state history. Harrison had been suffering from alcohol withdrawal but did not receive prompt medical care and was beaten by deputies.

In 2016, an inmate was tortured with the help of deputies, who would allegedly open his cell door and allow another inmate to spray him with urine and feces, a practice known as “gassing.” Four deputies were later charged with crimes in connection with the assaults. Deputies Stephen Sarcos and Sarah Krause were each sentenced to a day in jail and probation last year. Charges against Deputies Justin Linn and Erik McDermott are still pending

The following year, a woman gave birth in an isolation cell in the jail. In a lawsuit, she alleged that she gave birth alone, but the sheriff’s office has disputed that and said deputies discovered her and helped her deliver the baby. Her case was referenced in a class action lawsuit alleging systemically poor medical care for women in the jail. 

More recently, use of restraints in the jail have led to high profile deaths of inmates. In 2018, Dujuan Armstrong was killed when he was asphyxiated by a Wrap device, a full body restraint. Then in 2019, deputies killed Christian Madrigal, who had been arrested in Fremont when his parents called for mental health assistance, when Lt. Craig Cedergren ordered Madrigal chained to a cell door. Cedergren was fired for the incident and Madrigal’s family received a $5 million settlement.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheriff’s office took steps to reduce the jail population, but several large outbreaks swept through the jail. The full extent of outbreaks is unclear due to low testing rates in the jail. By December, the jail’s population was rising again and there were spikes of 109 active cases in late December and 76 in January. According to the sheriff’s office, no detainees have died of COVID-19.

Ahern also continues to allow federal immigration agents access to the jail to arrest undocumented immigrants for civil immigration violations. In recent years, ICE has made fewer arrests in the jail, but critics say Ahern’s policy of working with the agency is out of step in the Bay Area, where other sheriff’s, including in San Francisco and Santa Clara County, do not collaborate with immigration agents.

Sheriff Ahern has also faced controversy because of the tactics used by his deputies who patrol unincorporated parts of the county. As of last year, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office led the region in wrongful deaths and excessive force payouts, with $27.6 million over five years. It ranked third when analyzed per officer.

In 2018, a sergeant was charged for breaching attorney-client privilege by recording a juvenile suspect’s conversations with their attorney. Sgt. James Russell pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor eavesdropping counts last year and was sentenced to a day in jail and probation.

For years Ahern’s office also hosted Urban Shield, a controversial law enforcement training conference and equipment expo that drew protests from critics who said it encouraged militarization of law enforcement. In 2017, the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers had an information booth at the event, raising questions about ties between local law enforcement and right wing extremism. Urban Shield’s funding was cut in 2019

A fight ahead

Proponents of SB 271 see their campaign as an uphill battle. Other legislation inspired by Ahern’s office has failed in the past. After receiving strong support in the legislature, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill in 2019 that would have ended the practice of releasing detainees late at night when transit systems aren’t running. The reform was inspired by the death of Jessica St. Louis, a young woman who died of a drug overdose outside the closed Dublin-Pleasanton BART station after she was released from Santa Rita Jail at 1:30 a.m. in July 2018. Law enforcement groups argued the rule would be too expensive to implement.

Corey Salzillo, director of legislative affairs for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said at a hearing of the state Senate Public Safety Committee last month that removing the eligibility requirements for sheriff’s candidates would reduce accountability by not requiring a law enforcement background check and psychological exam. “In a time when more accountability and professionalism are being sought for law enforcement leaders it makes no sense to erase these standards,” Salzillo said. The committee voted 4-1 in favor of the bill. 

Asked why he wouldn’t just win an election against a less qualified candidate, Ahern said he was concerned about the election being influenced by an influx of donations from outside the Bay Area. “There’s people that throw in huge amounts of money into local elections to influence what they want to happen in the county and I think that’s wrong,” he said in an interview.

In 2018, a political action committee backed by the billionaire George Soros spent over half a million dollars opposing Nancy O’Malley’s reelection campaign for district attorney.

And while he called former San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey an “outstanding sheriff,” he said that the role has changed substantially since Hennessey was first elected in 1979. He pointed out that San Francisco is different from most counties because its sheriff’s department doesn’t have patrol duties.

“In some of those counties, the sheriff straps on a gun and a vest to respond to calls,” Ahern said. “There’s a lot of technical things that go on in my business that people who have never ridden in a patrol car or worked one shift in the jail would know about.”

He also pointed out that other county elected officials have basic criteria for the position, such as the county auditor, who must be an accountant, or the district attorney, who must have a law degree.

Hofer disagrees and said that the bill restores local control to voters to elect the candidate they want, and that California allowed anyone to be elected sheriff for nearly 140 years.

The sheriffs are “coming out super defensive, they understand we’ve got momentum,” Hofer said. “I’m not claiming the old days were the good old days. But at least it was legally possible for someone else to run and win like Michael Hennessey.”

Scott Morris is an independent journalist in Oakland covering policing, protest, and civil rights.