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For the first time since taking office 18 years ago, Sheriff Gregory Ahern is facing challenges in his re-election bid. One opponent is Yesenia Sanchez, a commander in the sheriff’s office. The other is JoAnn Walker, a 26-year officer with the San Francisco police.
The three candidates are running to lead an office that has far-reaching and wide-ranging responsibilities, a $550 million budget, and 1,000 sworn deputies and professional staff. The county sheriff also is the county’s coroner, the official who oversees medical examinations of all suspicious deaths and homicides, and manages Santa Rita Jail, one of the largest jails in the nation.
Since 2014, at least 58 people have died at Santa Rita Jail, which is located in Dublin, and the facility is now subject to external oversight and a series of mandatory reforms following the settlement of a class-action lawsuit that alleged the sheriff wasn’t providing adequate mental health services. The lawsuit settlement followed a highly critical report by the U.S. Justice Department which found that Alameda County’s mental health care system is unconstitutional and that Santa Rita Jail is overcrowded, understaffed, and endangers detainees.
The way the June 7 primary election works: if none of the candidates receives 50% or more of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held during the November general election.
Below is a look at the three candidates, their priorities, and where they stand on key issues. We have listed them in alphabetical order.
Ahern, a 42-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, was first hired in 1980 and promoted to sergeant in 1986. He eventually rose to the position of assistant sheriff, working several assignments at the jail, on patrol, and overseeing the Eden Township substation. When then-Sheriff Charles Plummer announced his plans to retire in 2006 he picked Ahern as his successor. Ahern ran that year unopposed and was elected.
Ahern told The Oaklandside he is running for his fifth term because of “recent challenges,” in particular the class-action lawsuit that resulted in a consent decree at Santa Rita Jail. The Dublin facility will be under court monitoring for three years.
“I think I’m the only person that can put our sheriff’s office in an advantageous position to help the community and maintain public safety,” Ahern said. “I want to be the example for Alameda County, the region, and the state on how we are addressing crime, the driving factors of crime, and what our solutions are so we can be the example for reform.”
He said he has been a fiscally responsible sheriff and creative revenue generator given the constraints on the sheriff’s office budget. In 2009, his budget was slashed $21.7 million, which has had a lasting effect on services provided at Santa Rita Jail and elsewhere.
Ahern has touted the department’s use of technology, especially becoming one of the first, if not the first county, to require that jail deputies wear body-worn cameras. Despite pushback from activists and privacy experts, the sheriff said drones have helped in search and rescue efforts locally and at wildfires, where deputies and coroner staff have been deployed.
He is an opponent of establishing civilian oversight of his office, an idea that is currently being explored by the Board of Supervisors and community groups. Ahern said his office already undergoes accreditation and reviews by the federal and state Department of Justice, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, the California Board of State and Community Corrections, and is subject to reviews by the state Attorney General.
“There’s already oversight,” he said. “The advocates who want to have this oversight are the same people who previously said don’t spend any money on the sheriff’s office, it should be used for social causes.” Civilian oversight, he said, would cost $1 million a year. “I don’t think the county should utilize that money for oversight of something that already has oversight.”
Ahern blamed local activists for “slowing our progress in dealing with mental health.” He said a $54 million grant, which was protested as an expansion of the county jail, was money the sheriff’s office could have used to “help facilitate mental health issues inside the jail.”
Due to budget constraints, Ahern said he’s looked elsewhere to ensure the office avoids layoffs—staffing accounts for about 70% of the budget. Ahern said he’s brought in $160 million in revenue through contracts to provide deputies for law enforcement services in the city of Dublin, at the Oakland airport, and on AC Transit buses and property, and by charging the U.S. Marshals for housing people the federal agency has arrested at the county jail.
If re-elected, Ahern said he will continue to focus on providing resources to combat what he says are the five drivers of crime: unemployment, poverty, lack of education, health, and environment. The sheriff said he’s proud of the work his office has done to help people overcome drug addiction, expand vocational programs within Santa Rita Jail to help incarcerated people find work once released, and youth sports programs the office has funded.
He also placed importance on his current role as the director of emergency services—coordinating responses to wildfires and other disasters—for a region that covers the Bay Area and a large swath of Northern California.
Ahern’s critics view him as having views more conservative than Alameda County’s more liberal voters. In campaign literature, Ahern was pictured wearing a thin blue line flag on his polo shirt and he used the symbol on his campaign logo. While many in law enforcement see it as a symbol of solidarity among first responders, the phrase “thin blue line” was also popularized by William Parker, Los Angeles’ police chief in the 1950s who was openly racist.
Ahern defended his use of the controversial flag and wrote in an email that the thin blue line can be found on the pant leg of sheriff deputy uniforms and represents “brave men and women who protect and serve.”
“I have been told that our uniform is offensive, our gear that we wear is offensive, the vehicles we drive are offensive. Many of these comments are from those that do not respect law enforcement,” Ahern said. “I respect law enforcement, I respect our uniform, and I wear my uniform with a tie to show respect to our profession. The flag with the thin blue line also has a black color for a background behind the stars which represents those that have fallen in the line of duty. I am showing my respect for their sacrifice, and a reminder to their family, friends and other law enforcement that those are not forgotten.”
Ahern’s endorsements include former Gov. Jerry Brown, Congressman Eric Swalwell, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Supervisors Nate Miley and David Haubert, more than two dozen California county sheriffs, and former Oakland police chiefs Wayne Tucker, Sean Whent, and Anne Kirkpatrick.
Sanchez, a Hayward native, has risen through the sheriff’s office ranks since becoming a deputy in 1997 at age 19. She first worked as a technician in North County Jail in Oakland, then spent eight years as a deputy on patrol, at the jail, and as an investigator before becoming a sergeant.
In 2013, she became a lieutenant at North County Jail, a captain in 2015, and a division commander in 2020. Her current role is overseeing and managing Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. As commander of the jail, she oversees the largest sector of the sheriff’s office. Santa Rita Jail has more than 600 employees and accounts for roughly $300 million of the budget.
Sanchez said the jail should be the primary focus of the sheriff’s office. Too much emphasis has been placed on staffing contract services—like at the airport and AC Transit patrol—at the expense of staffing Santa Rita Jail. If a deputy working one of those assignments goes out on injury or another type of leave, deputies from the jail are used to backfill those positions.
This practice has added pressure on jail deputies and caused problems in the personal lives of some, she said. As sheriff, Sanchez wants to review the office’s contracts to build in language so that deputies are not pulled away from the jail to fill positions elsewhere. She disagrees with Ahern on whether the outside contracts, which include providing police services for Dublin, actually bring in revenue.
“I’m going to call bullshit on that. We do not make any money on contracts, we lose money because the jail budget is funding the people who are not reporting to work,” Sanchez told us. “There is a loss in revenue if you ask me.
“I understand trying to help people out when they are asking the sheriff’s office to do so but we also have to be mindful of the essential services we are providing.”
Sanchez supports the idea of having civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office and said it would help keep the office accountable. When there’s a death at Santa Rita Jail, for instance, she said the information is not released to the public quickly enough. “That information is withheld for as long as possible,” she said. “That is not something we should be doing.”
The current sheriff, she said, has too much influence over the disciplinary process. When an allegation is brought against a deputy, she said top-level staff decide whether internal affairs should investigate. The internal affairs unit should be autonomous.
“The fact that investigations are influenced by top leadership is not the right way to do things and that is something I will change,” Sanchez said.
She also wants to prioritize hiring more women by expanding how and where the sheriff’s office holds recruiting events.
And she wants to ensure that the sheriff’s office isn’t participating in the enforcement of immigration law, including deportations, except in very limited circumstances. The sheriff’s cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would only happen if there were a criminal warrant for someone signed by a judge, she said.
Her list of endorsements includes Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, local, regional, and state Democratic party organizations, labor unions, Oakland councilmembers Noel Gallo, Dan Kalb, Treva Reid, and Loren Taylor, and the majority of the Berkeley and Hayward city councils.
Running against her boss was not an easy decision, she said, and one she came to after talking it over with her family and hearing from younger deputies “who are waiting for a change.”
“We need to remove this ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” Sanchez said. “The only way to do that is to remove who is driving that culture.”
Walker, a Hayward resident, is a 26-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department. As a police officer, she has worked in various capacities including as an academy instructor, terrorism liaison officer, and community relations liaison.
She was the first to enter the race in early 2020. Walker is running as a progressive alternative to Sheriff Ahern and promises to address the high number of in-custody death at the county jail, increase transparency around the sheriff’s budget, and cut the backlog of untested rape kits.
“Change must be voted in. It is not easy. It is uncomfortable. It requires the change agent to have a different vision,” Walker said at a League of Women Voters forum last month. “I represent the change Alameda County needs. I think it is time for a new person to come in.”
The Oaklandside reached out multiple times to Walker’s campaign for an interview. Despite emails sent over the past week to her campaign account, her campaign treasurer listed on campaign disclosure forms, and a message sent through Twitter, the Walker campaign did not respond. This candidate profile is based on statements Walker has made at candidate forums and on her campaign website.
Walker acknowledges she lacks the administrative experience of her opponents but said as a longtime law enforcement officer in San Francisco she knows what it takes to build trust with residents and change the culture within an office.
In Alameda County, she has volunteered as a suicide prevention crisis counselor in Alameda County and works as an adjunct professor in the kinesiology department at Cal State East Bay. As sheriff, Walker said she would have an open-door policy.
“Public safety is everyone’s responsibility,” she said at a candidate forum on April 25. “What I tell people in my inner circle is the same information I am going to give to people who are not in my inner circle. The same information is going to be given to the community.”
Accountability, reform, and community—ARC—is the basis of her platform, she has said. During her campaign, she’s promised to demilitarize the sheriff’s approach to policing, limit cooperation with federal immigration agents, and conduct a review of all department policies, training practices, and internal procedures.
If elected, she would request independent investigations of in-custody deaths at Santa Rita Jail. She also wants to review the screening and background process for hiring new deputies and make changes to the questions asked during oral boards, with an emphasis on a community policing model and focus on implicit and explicit bias.
“It is not lost on me how momentous it is that I—a Black woman—have taken on the charge to fix and reform how law enforcement services are delivered in Alameda County,” she said on her website. “I am taking a big step of faith by entering this race that typically is uncontested.”
Walker’s endorsements include San Leandro Vice Mayor Victor Aguilar Jr., former Fremont Councilmember Vinnie Bacon, Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, Fremont Councilmember Jenny Kassan, and the Wellstone Democratic Club.