True leaders, like Churchill, deal with a crisis with calm resolve and dignity. They bring others together in a time of need. The pandemic is such a time for Sonoma County. Instead of offering leadership, Sheriff Mark Essick said, “I am not following this f-king health order,” referring to the county’s stay-at-home order.
In effect, he has decided to become the Sonoma County Public Health Officer. He is saying, “I know best how to handle the pandemic for the citizens of Sonoma County.” He has also invaded the province of the District Attorney’s Office, by imposing on the county, his personal opinion of the validity of the stay-at-home order.
He did not consult with either the board of supervisors, the district attorney, or the public health officer, about the consequences of his decision. Neither did he consult with any medical experts, including epidemiologists. And certainly he did not consult with his fellow law enforcement leaders. He has undermined the police chief of every city in the county. In fact he has not cited even one medical expert to support what he has done.
He claims he needs some justification for the stay-at-home order. I assume he reads newspapers, watches the news on TV and has access to any number of resources on the internet that explain the value of stay-at-home orders. He has absolutely no experience and training in determining how best the county should deal with the deadliest virus since the 1918 Spanish Flu.
One can only conclude that Essick is making some kind of political statement. When he says he was elected as sheriff “to defend the people of this county,” he aligns himself with a small group of sheriffs in other counties and states who have called themselves “Constitutionalists,” and who have decided not to enforce certain state gun laws and covid-19 orders. Essentially they have taken the law into their own hands. He has adopted the thinking of these individuals who are not motivated by public health considerations. I voted for Essick, but to do what a sheriff is supposed to do: to follow the law and keep the peace for residents living outside city limits, not become a self-appointed public health expert.
Maybe he figures since he only has jurisdiction outside city limits and that most of the restaurants, churches and other locales that would encourage gatherings where the virus might spread are going to be the worry of city police chiefs. Maybe he thinks that he is not really hurting himself politically because city dwellers are not affected by his actions.
Unfortunately, as many experts have said, the coronavirus does not recognize state, county or city boundaries. By not enforcing health orders he ignores the simple fact that people move all over the county constantly, possibly spreading the virus. Contrary to what he says — that “he is defending the people of this county”— he is really endangering all of the people in the county.
My biggest frustration during the pandemic is the fact that this country’s leaders do not get us all to pull together. Sheriff Essick should have discussed any issues he had with the county stay-at-home order with the board of supervisors, county counsel, public health officer, and the district attorney, Jill Ravitch. That would have been the courteous and sensible thing to do. That would have been the team approach. Instead, he broke his word with them on Friday, after agreeing to enforce the order. And, he should have also spoken with all of the citizens of Sonoma County, whose health is in question here. We need our leaders and experts to stick together to lead us with facts and reason and not “go rogue,” as other politicians have done.
I was a prosecutor in Sonoma County for 35 years, and never did a county sheriff or police chief do what Essick has done. It was always my job to explain to law enforcement what the law was and how to apply it. Not the other way around. Regrettably, the sheriff has undermined the huge efforts by our public health officer to keep everyone in this county safe.
Greg Jacobs is the retired assistant district attorney for Sonoma County.