Mark Essick talks about building transparency through community connections 

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick isn’t wasting any time to implement his people-first approach in his new role as the top county law enforcer.

Looking Forward

LOOKING FORWARD – Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick looks out over the city from his office in Santa Rosa, 2796 Ventura Ave. Less than a month into his new role, Essick is moving forward with his top priorities for 2019. 

“The first three weeks has been a whirlwind,” Essick said. “Basically right now, when people are asking me to come meet with their groups, I say yes.”

Building community connections has taken up most of the sheriff’s schedule since Jan. 5, when he was officially sworn into office. Essick, a Cloverdale resident and former captain for the sheriff’s department, has given 24 years of service to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

On Jan. 24 Essick spoke to Sonoma West Publishers about his new position and what the next steps are for the department in 2019. The following are questions and answers from that interview.


You’ve said one of your top priorities is improving connections and relationships with the community, what does that look like for you?

Essick: I would say it’s a multi-pronged approach. It’s a mixture of my availability and being out there and being involved with the different groups in our community. Whether it’s Los Cien, Sonoma County Alliance, the Farm Bureau … I’ve reached out to some groups that I think are traditionally underserved. I’ve reached out to all the tribal organizations in our county and asked for meetings with them and their leadership.

The other approach is community policing. It all kind of ties in together, and that is putting the same deputies on the same beat assignment or same zone assignment on a consistent basis. So that if you live in Geyserville, you can be assured that the deputy that works the day shift in Geyserville is the same deputy on a regular basis. You can get to know that deputy by name and by face. It builds accountability because that deputy is going to have to look you in the eye on a regular basis. It builds familiarity, builds trust, and I think those are all kind of foundational items. As you work your way up the pyramid, it builds transparency. It’s a culture I want to permeate throughout our organization, one of engagement and familiarity.

You mentioned reaching out to the tribal communities, what are some of the other underserved communities you’ve been reaching out to?

Essick: We have somewhere between 27 and 29 percent Latino population in this county, and that (outreach) is an effort that is already well underway. It’s something I want to continue to build on and strengthen.

The other community that is really big in our county and is really important to me is our LGBT community. I don’t think I would’ve been successful as a sheriff if I hadn’t gotten their support.

The way I plan on engaging in that community is making sure I am available, making sure that community knows that I take hate crimes and crimes against people because of their identity and their sexuality very seriously, and just reassuring them that I will be there to investigate those and advocate for them.


What are some of the other stand out priorities that you have for 2019?

Essick: We are working on a special project in the jail right now. We applied for a pilot program through the National Institute of Corrections (NIT) to do what’s called SIM or Strategic Inmate Management. It’s a cultural, philosophical change in the way you operate a jail.

When we built that jail across the street in 1989, it was cutting edge. It was one of the first direct-supervision jails in California. From the officer station you can see every single cell. We don’t have bars in our jail. The officer station is not isolated. It’s almost the idea of taking community policing and putting it into a detention setting.

Strategic Inmate Management takes the concept of direct supervision and just enhances it and reaffirms the principal and enforces kind of that interaction.

Here’s why it’s a challenge: our jail was drastically changed when AB 109 passed. (AB 109 is a state bill in response to overcrowded state prisons, which transfers responsibility for supervising repeat, nonviolent offenders from state prisons to county jails.) We went from being a county jail to having to house inmates that were previously housed in state prison. On an average daily basis, there are about 250 people in our jail who would normally be serving state prison sentences. They generally tend to be more sophisticated inmates, people who have been to prison before. They generally tend to be older, in poorer health and have higher incidence of mental health issues. AB 109 really threw a wrench into local jail management.

You take a building that was architecturally designed for short-term stays and you put people in with long-term stays and you run into problems. We’ve had to adapt and bring in programs and bring in professionals from the outside to try to keep the inmates engaged. We educate them. We offer GED classes. We bring in K-9 Companions (service dog training). We had to get creative on how to engage them.

What has changed since the $1.7 million settlement Sonoma County agreed to pay to former Sonoma County Jail inmates who said they endured physical assaults and verbal abuse by correctional deputies?

Essick: There was a lawsuit by several inmates about a policy that was known as “yard counseling.” After I had won the election but was still in a position of a captain, I consulted with Sheriff Rob Giordano who was the leader at that point, and I told him that it was my intention that as soon as I took office that I was going to abolish the yard counseling policy. He agreed with me, and so we abolished the yard counseling policy prior to me taking office.

Part of that response was applying for this pilot program with the NIT. Strategic Inmate Management really is a way to manage inmates through behavior. You manage an inmate based on their behavior while in custody, not based on their charges. It’s kind of one of the concepts of direct-supervision. It’s conceivable that you could be in a housing unit, and you could have someone in there for drunk driving, you could have someone in there for a violent crime, maybe a robbery, and maybe even someone in there for a homicide, depending on the circumstances. You classify those inmates and house them in areas with like-inmates, based on their behavior not on their charge.


How are deputies trained to respond to someone with mental health issues?

Essick: It really depends on the circumstances. We have two things at the sheriff’s office that were implemented years ago, and I was actually involved in the implementation of it and I continue to support it today.

The first one is called CIT, or Crisis Intervention Training. That is a mental health awareness and de-escalation training that we put every one of our deputies through. To date we have put over 500 people through this training in this county. It’s a four-day class taught by clinicians and professionals that teaches deputies the signs and symptoms of mental illness. It teaches them about some of the resources available in this county. It teaches real-life de-escalation techniques. At the very end of the class, we put all the trainees in the class through real, live-action scenarios. We bring in actors, who act out certain types of mental health issues, and the deputies have to resolve the issue without using force. It’s been a huge success.

The second part of that is what we call a mobile support team, or MST. It is a team of clinicians that is run by Sonoma County Mental Health, and they are available from 2 p.m. to midnight seven days a week. They are two clinicians in a car driving around. If a deputy goes to a call, establishes that a scene is safe, no weapons involved and determines that this is a mental health crisis, that deputy can radio for the mobile support team to be dispatched to the area. Initially it was just the 101 corridor that we had it on. Now we’ve expanded to Guerneville and Sonoma Valley.

What is the protocol for deputies responding to a scene where someone is armed?

Essick: We have to take public safety as the primary track. We have to address the weapon first. I think part of the CIT training is that even when someone is armed, really some of the basics of the training is to slow down everything. Let’s not rush in, of course unless someone is using that weapon to hurt people. If the person is contained, it’s to slow down and take your time. If it’s an active shooter or active violent situation then we have to go back to our most basic training, which is public safety, and we have to address that threat.


There is a projected shortfall for the sheriff’s department, how will you adjust the department to that?

Essick: I have received some budget guidance already from the county administrator. From what I understand, the county administrator is asking all county departments and offices to look at a 2.2 percent cut.

Our budget is about $180 million, but our general fund impact is about $90 million. The balance of that comes from special funds like Prop. 172 that provides sales tax revenue for public safety and some other revenue streams.

So 2.2 percent of $90 million works out to about a $2 million cut. It’s going to be a challenge. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. We have already cut the jail in the past recessions to the point where overtime is high. I don’t have any room to cut the jail and that’s half the operation. About half of our budget goes to the jail.

I would have to look primarily to the administrative division and the patrol division for that $2 million in cuts. It will have an impact in services, there’s no doubt about it.


How do you plan to address the growing homeless population?

Essick: Homelessness is a huge issue. This county has spent millions of dollars and years trying to tackle this problem. I think it’s partnerships. It’s not just law enforcement. It’s other government agencies. It’s community benefit organizations and nonprofits, and it’s a 360-degree, multi-pronged approach.

Where we’ve had some success, like in the summer in Cloverdale, is when we got case workers out in the field, which consisted of the HOST program (Homeless Outreach Service Team). The idea is to interact with people who are transient or homeless needing assistance. They offer services. They offer mental health (services). They offer alternatives.

We give time. We don’t just go in and scoop up a homeless camp and throw everything away. The sheriff’s office generally gives at least five days. We look at environmental impact, and we will post the camp and say, “Hey, we are coming back in five days to clean up the camp because of the environmental damage that is going on here.” Then in five days we come back, typically with general services, and we will pick up garbage. If we find valuables, we book those in for safe keeping, and the idea is try to remediate environmental problems.

It is a multi-pronged approach. If you just oust people, then they just go somewhere else. It’s getting those services available to them.


A new open-records bill, SB 1421, went into effect on Jan. 1 requiring that agencies must release officer records related to police use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury, sexual assault on the public while on duty or dishonesty-related misconduct. Are you willing to release records dated prior to Jan. 1, 2019, to the public when requested?

Essick: The advice that we’ve been given by county counsel is that SB 1421 is retroactive, which means it does cover existing records that were in existence prior to Jan. 1, 2019. We are qualifying records that are retroactive. There are a couple different law firms and attorney groups that are contesting it, and we may have to wait to get a direction from the courts. The bill’s author (Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley) clearly intended it to be retroactive. We are working right now on those records. We have a few public records act requests that we have received. We are going through those records. We have to redact some personal information, not just of the deputies, but of other parties involved. We are on track to release those records soon.


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