Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies at a Black Lives Matter protest. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The measure may pave the way for more sheriff candidates who want to challenge mass incarceration, but are currently banned from running.

California lawmakers are proposing to overturn a requirement that sheriff candidates have a law enforcement background. If passed, Senate Bill 271 would open up new avenues for change by enabling anyone to run for sheriff, including people who are working to transform policing and criminal justice practices but who are barred from this office.

“Sheriff is one of the most powerful elected offices,” said state Senator Scott Wiener, who sponsored the bill, which was introduced Thursday. “For 139 years, from 1850 to 1989, anyone could run for sheriff and the people could select who they wanted to hold this very powerful and impactful position.”

But, Wiener noted, this changed after prisoner rights advocate Michael Hennessey was elected sheriff of San Francisco County in 1979. After that election, the California State Sheriffs’ Association lobbied for a law requiring all sheriff candidates to have certification from the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or recent salaried law enforcement experience. These requirements went into effect in 1989. 

“What that has done over the last 30 plus years is dramatically reduce accountability for sheriffs because so few people, only a tiny number of people, are eligible to run,” Wiener told The Appeal: Political Report.

The bill comes at a pivotal time, as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—the nation’s largest—is under state investigation for potential civil rights violations. The department has a history of corruption and in recent years has come under fire for brutality, sexual assault, and gang activity within the ranks. The problems aren’t limited to Los Angeles; other sheriff’s departments in California such as in Kern and Orange counties have also harbored rampant misconduct and deputies who kill with impunity

Even when sheriffs aren’t breaking rules, their decisions play a big role in the harms of the criminal legal system. Sheriffs have control over how jails are operated, whether law enforcement cooperates with ICE, and how neighborhoods are policed, among other issues that fall within their power.

The new bill “won’t guarantee that we get better sheriffs, but at least it creates the opportunity and opens the door for a broader set of candidates,” said Brian Hofer, executive director of Secure Justice, an Oakland nonprofit that supports the bill. “The sheriff is still king in California. They have a lot of power on both the criminal and civil side. They handle civil evictions. They’re generally the coroner in most counties. So we need a new type of thinking.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Association has not yet adopted a position on the bill. But the organization’s Legislative Director, Cory Salzillo, questions whether removing these requirements would ensure accountability. “It’s a specialized job and other specialized jobs have requirements in order to serve in them, so I am not sure this is terribly different than that,” Salzillo said. 

Sheriffs are one of the rare officials in the criminal legal system who are elected. Mayors and city governments typically appoint police chiefs, and governors usually choose who will lead state police and departments of corrections. 

But even though sheriffs are democratically elected, incumbents rarely face challengers.

“Sheriffs are frequently unopposed [in elections],” said Aaron Littman, an attorney and teaching fellow at UCLA School of Law whose work focuses on sheriffs. “They have an incumbency advantage … that far exceeds that of other local offices and even members of Congress. So they stay in office pretty securely.”

Removing the eligibility restrictions could help address glaring racial disparities in sheriff’s offices. According to a report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, California’s sheriffs are more than 90 percent white and nearly all are men, even though people of color make up more than 60 percent of the state’s overall population. This reflects the significant demographic skew of the law enforcement pipeline sheriffs currently must come from.

The change would also enable more people to run who are interested in improving accountability and fighting mass incarceration. And it would open the door to candidates trained outside of law enforcement agencies, who may have professional experiences that more readily challenge “tough on crime” policies.

That dynamic has already been shaping elections for prosecutor and judge across the country. Candidates have run for district attorney saying that their backgrounds as civil rights attorneys or public defenders can help them usher in reforms. In 2019, Chesa Boudin won San Francisco’s DA race, and his allies said his background as a public defender would help him break with DAs’ conventional mission of locking up more people.

“If California had an analogous requirement in the DA context … that would really box out a category of people who bring perspectives as criminal defense attorneys, as public defenders, as people who are working for very significant reform in the criminal legal system,” Littman said.

Right now, candidates with such backgrounds can not run for sheriff in California. These restrictions have hindered grassroots organizations looking to recruit sheriff candidates who are committed to bringing change. The Appeal reported in 2019 that Oakland groups point to this law as one major reason Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who oversees a jail known for deaths and ICE cooperation, has faced no opponent for four consecutive election cycles. JoAnn Walker, a San Francisco police officer, recently announced she will challenge him in 2022 as part of a “progressive ticket.”

Changing who leads sheriff’s departments could affect the state’s incarceration rate. More than 50,000 people are incarcerated in local jails in California. County jails not only hold individuals awaiting trial or sentencing, but also people who are serving  sentences for misdemeanors and lower-level felony charges

“Sheriffs have a really profound role to play in determining how much incarceration occurs, particularly at the level of more moderate or minor offenses,” Littman said. Sheriffs could reduce the jail population by not arresting people for low-level or victimless crimes, he added. They also could advocate against expanding jail facilities.

“One deeply pernicious thing that has been true about sheriffs across the country, and certainly in California, is that they’ve gotten away with claiming that they’re not policymakers,” Littman said. 

But in California, sheriffs often situate themselves at the center of key debates

Some sheriffs have chosen to continue to cooperate with ICE, undermining Senate Bill 54, California’s sanctuary law that limits state and local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with immigration authorities. There have also been statements from sheriffs in Southern California opposing enforcement of COVID-19 mask mandates and stay-at-home restrictions.

In the face of these and other controversies, some state activists have proposed eliminating the sheriff’s office rather than trying to change who occupies the position. The latest scandals involving Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva only made the spotlight more glaring.

Nationwide, there have been sheriff elections featuring candidates with reform agendas in recent years. In November, candidates who promised to cut ties with ICE won elections in Georgia and South Carolina, building on momentum from similar victories in North Carolina in 2018. Also last year, candidates in Hamilton County, Ohio; Clarke County, Georgia; Pinellas County, Florida; and Tarrant County, Texas, put forth broad visions for reform—including ending cooperation with ICE and reducing arrests overall—though some lost. However, all of these candidates had backgrounds in law enforcement.

“The examples we have [of reform-minded sheriffs] are just scratching the surface,” Littman said. “We’ve seen people terminate 287(g) agreements [with ICE]. We’ve seen people change policy around excessive force. We’ve seen people shift enforcement priorities in relatively small ways. But what could happen is much more dramatic.”