Alameda County Sheriff's Commander Yesenia Sanchez (pictured at left) and San Francisco police Officer JoAnn Walker (pictured at right) are running against Sheriff Gregory Ahern in the June 7 primary election. Credit: Courtesy of Yesenia Sanchez, Gregory Ahern, and JoAnn Walker

For the first time in decades, there is a competitive race for the powerful position of Alameda sheriff, the county’s top cop. The sheriff oversees an office with far-reaching and wide-ranging responsibilities, while managing a massive budget and the East Bay’s largest law enforcement agency. Only two people have occupied the office since 1986, and neither ever faced a challenger in a single election. Until now. 

Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern, who has held the office since the previous sheriff retired and endorsed him in 2006, faces two challengers on the June 7 primary ballot: Alameda Sheriff’s Commander Yesenia Sanchez and San Francisco police Officer JoAnn Walker. 

The voter registration deadline is 15 days before the election, and early voting begins May 9. You can register here.

What does the sheriff do?

The sheriff sits atop a vast organizational chart. Besides needing a background in law enforcement or being certified as a deputy or police officer, the job comes with a number of administrative duties. The sheriff is in charge of the office’s budget, currently about $550 million, as well as 1,000 sworn deputies and 700 professional staff. 

When potential misconduct cases arise involving members of the sheriff’s office, the sheriff has the final say on discipline recommended during internal affairs investigations. 

Members of the office work throughout Alameda County in multiple offices and substations, serving about 150,000 residents in unincorporated areas in the Tri-Valley, San Leandro, Hayward, and Castro Valley. One of its primary tasks is operating Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, one of the largest county jails in the country. 

Sheriff commanders, who run search-and-rescue and dive teams, the crime lab, the gun range, and a regional training center, where current officers train, all work under the sheriff. 

Since most small police agencies do not have their own training academies, the sheriff’s office trains recruits who go on to work as police officers throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. Locally, only Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco run their own police academies. 

The duties of the office also go beyond traditional law enforcement work. It performs orders of the court, such as serving eviction notices. The sheriff has the authority to issue or deny concealed-carry permits that allow citizens to carry firearms.

Sheriff Ahern is also the director of emergency services—like in the event of a major earthquake—for a region that covers the Bay Area and a large swath of Northern California. In those times, the county’s top cop can make emergency declarations and seek disaster funding through the state. 

The Coroner’s Bureau, which is also under the sheriff, conducts autopsies of people who die in car wrecks, overdoses, COVID-19 cases, and deaths by shootings, stabbings, blunt force trauma, and other suspicious deaths. 

Those reports by pathologists determine the cause of death and can be crucial pieces of evidence and used in investigations, including people killed by the police. The sheriff also has the power to form a committee to determine the cause and manner of death in deaths caused by police officers or while in police custody. 

Why this race matters to Oaklanders

Oakland residents may be more familiar with the Oakland Police Department, but a significant share of the sheriff’s office’s work happens in Oakland, the largest city in Alameda County.

Under a system called “mutual aid,” deputies are often brought in to assist Oakland police during large demonstrations and protests. They can assist in police work, including using the office’s two planes and helicopter to conduct surveillance in Oakland. Investigations in unincorporated areas where the sheriff has jurisdiction can bring deputies into Oakland to serve search warrants and make arrests. 

There are also places in Oakland where the sheriff does have direct jurisdiction. Deputies patrol and protect the Oakland International Airport, county hospitals such as Highland, two county courthouses located in Oakland, and respond to 911 calls involving AC Transit buses. Until recently, the ACSO had a contract with the Peralta Community College District and its two Oakland campuses. 

Unlike the Oakland police chief, who is hired by the mayor and can be fired without cause by the mayor and a majority of the civilian police commission, the Alameda County sheriff is elected, giving them more independence and power and making it difficult to remove them from the office without an election. 

Who’s running

The first contested sheriff’s race in 36 years comes in the wake of a debate over law enforcement’s share of general fund dollars and the best ways to spend that money. Residents are also paying closer attention to police tactics, tools, and accountability for officer misconduct

In Alameda County, Ahern has had a strong support base in the Tri-Valley and southern parts of the county and within the sheriff’s administration. Supporters say he has the know-how to run both the law enforcement and administerial duties of sheriff, and that his years in the office set him apart. 

He has a fair share of critics in Oakland and Berkeley. The sheriff has faced backlash over his cooperation with federal immigration agents, the controversial Urban Shield training program, which critics said focused more on the militarization of police and tactics viewed as oppressive to communities of color instead of a focus on disaster preparedness, and problems at Santa Rita Jail, which were highlighted in a federal civil rights investigation over the treatment of detainees with mental health issues, and two class-action suits. In February, a judge placed the jail under federal court supervision for at least six years. 

Under current state law, candidates for the office of county sheriff 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. Building up to this year’s campaign, police reform activists had sought to widen the pool of candidates who could challenge Ahern by backing S.B. 271, a bill that aimed to dramatically lower the eligibility requirements so that any registered voter could run. The bill failed. 

Nevertheless, two candidates with long law enforcement careers have stepped up to challenge Ahern. Walker, a Hayward resident, has worked as a San Francisco police officer for 26 years in various capacities including as an academy instructor, terrorism liason officer, and community relations liaison. She has emphasized her experience in handling domestic violence cases, and in crisis support and suicide prevention support as a volunteer in Alameda County. 

Walker entered the race early as a progressive candidate and on the promises of addressing the high number of in-custody deaths at the county jail, increasing transparency around the sheriff’s budget, and cutting the backlog of untested rape kits. 

Sanchez joined the sheriff’s office as a technician in 1997 and rose up the ranks. She’s worked at the now-defunct North County Jail both as a technician and lieutenant, on patrol assignments, and as a captain in support services. She currently is a division commander overseeing and managing Santa Rita Jail. 

Her stated top priorities include rehabilitation and job training for incarcerated people, racial justice in law enforcement, holding the sheriff’s office accountable, and improving relationships with the community.

If none of the three candidates get 50% or more of the vote in June, there will be a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in November.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.