For decades, only those with law enforcement credentials have been allowed to run for sheriff in all California counties including San Francisco.
But a proposed state law would open the post to all registered voters in a move Sen. Scott Wiener calls an “important step forward in our efforts at police accountability and criminal justice reform.”
“Our sheriffs in California play a significant role in our criminal justice system patrolling, running jails, running prison health systems,” Wiener said at a press conference Tuesday. “We need to make sure that we have true democracy and accountability in selecting these very powerful individuals.”
Senate Bill 271, the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act, would remove the requirement that sheriff candidates are law enforcement officers with Peace Officer Standards and Training certificates.
Established in 1988, the requirement has led to many sheriffs running unopposed and stifled diversity by allowing only “a tiny percentage of the population to run,” Wiener said. Forty nine of California’s sheriffs are white men, while three are Latino men, two are Asian men and four are white women.
Wiener took aim at certain sheriffs “we have a challenge with” in the state. He called out those who cooperate with immigration authorities, fail to enforce COVID-19 public health orders or run jails that are “not exactly up to snuff in terms of protecting human rights, access to health care and helping people to actually stay alive while they are in jail.”
While Wiener blasted sheriffs in other counties, he praised San Francisco’s Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, who is one of the two Asian sheriffs in the state. Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner he endorsed Miyamoto in 2019, when the sheriff ran unopposed, and plans to again in the future.
“Sheriff Miyamoto is a strong and forward-looking sheriff,” Wiener said. “I supported him in 2019, and I anticipate supporting him if he seeks reelection in 2023.”
But the two do not see exactly eye-to-eye on SB 271, which has drawn the opposition of law enforcement groups like the California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriffs’ Association.
While Miyamoto said he could support expanding who is eligible to run for sheriff, he said the proposed legislation goes too far.
“I am open to broadening the eligibility criteria for sheriff to include relevant public safety experience,” Miyamoto said.
San Francisco has in the past had a sheriff who wasn’t a law enforcement officer. Former Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who served from 1980 until 2012, was first elected before California required sheriff candidates to be POST-certified and continued to be elected under an exception to the rule.
Hennessey was a prisoners rights attorney and legal counsel to a prior sheriff before being elected.
“As currently written, SB 271 overlooks the value of all public safety experience including former Sheriff Hennessey’s in operating a law enforcement agency,” Miyamoto said.
The California State Sheriffs’ Association pushed for the law enforcement requirement to be enacted in reaction to Hennessey, whose tenure in office was marked by the implementation of progressive programs including prisoner education.
Before then, California allowed any registered voter to run for sheriff — without being a peace officer — from 1850 on, according to Wiener’s office.
“It should be up to voters who they select and whether they prioritize someone who has law enforcement experience or whether they prioritize someone who is simply a good administrator or someone who has significant experience running a public health system,” Wiener said.
Wiener discussed his bill during a press conference with backers critical of sheriffs in Alameda, Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, said she is fighting to reform the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under Alex Villanueva.
“As we work to bring accountability to his office we need people other than law enforcement to run for sheriff,” Cullors said. “The next step towards transforming the system is to have leaders with radical decarceral platforms run for the sheriff’s seat.”
Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network, said Alameda County residents are “exhausted with the status quo.”
“Every election cycle our community yearns for the ability to hold our sheriff accountable,” Brooks said. “And every election cycle we are denied.”
She said they hope to “run a diverse pool of candidates” for sheriff.
Wiener’s bill is expected to undergo a hearing before the Senate Governance and Finance Committee in late April.
Former San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has long supported doing away with the law enforcement requirement and is supportive of SB 271.
“Meaningful reform of the jails will fall way short unless we modernize how we elect our sheriffs,” Mirkarimi told the Examiner. “Up and down the state, I see how the fundamentals of tackling high recidivism rates with accountable reentry programs are relegated as a fringe duty. We need to encourage more people to run for sheriff, elevate the discourse and challenge a law enforcement culture that only wants one of their own.”