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County Sheriff

Who are they?

The County Sheriff is an elected official. The current Sheriff is Greg Ahern. He has held this position since 2007 and has run uncontested for three consecutive election cycles.

What do they do?

The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. They have many roles, some of which include… 

  • They operate and oversee the county jail, Santa Rita Jail. 

  • They patrol and provide investigative services to the unincorporated areas of Alameda County, such as Cherryland. 

  • They are the coroner, which means they sign off on death certificates and have the last say in labeling how someone died. 

  • They enforce court orders, like evictions. 

  • They are also the office of emergency services director, which gives them a lot of power under “emergency” situations. For example, during the 2020 George Floyd protests, all of Alameda County went under curfew under Ahern’s order. 

How do their actions impact the community?

The Sheriff has a bloated budget that is poured into expanding Santa Rita Jail and militarizing the Sheriff’s department, neither of which achieve public safety. In fact, they undermine and inhibit what true public safety means–resourcing our communities so we have the means to take care of ourselves and the support that meets our basic human needs. 

 

A portion of the Sheriff’s budget comes from AB 109 “Realignment” funds. This bill, signed into effect in 2011, rechannels people who are convicted of “non-violent” (a somewhat arbitrary and exclusionary term that is constantly changing in a volatile political climate) crimes from state prison into county jails. This had two main effects: 

  • It shrank the scope of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr), thus decarcerating the state’s carceral system.  

  • Since in Alameda County these funds were directed to the Sheriff’s office, this bill broadened the reach of the county’s carceral system, whether that be through jails, e-incarceration, or probation. 

However, community organizations and activists are fighting to redirect these Realignment funds from the Sheriff's office and into care-centered services provided for and by culturally competent and system-impacted people. The goal is to decarcerate, which is what actually makes our communities safer. 

 

Santa Rita Jail is Alameda County’s “largest mental health care provider,” despite the fact that jail is no place to help people with mental health needs. Even if you entered jail without any mental health needs, it is very likely you will leave needing support because of how traumatizing and inhumane it is to cage people. The 2020 Public Safety Realignment State Audit Report investigated Alameda County, the state Corrections Board, and their use of realignment funds. The audit discovered that Alameda County has mismanaged AB 109 Realignment funds, failing to document for what the money has been used. Additionally, the County has an excess surplus of $135 million; this means the county has money to invest in community-based care, but hasn’t done so. The report also called out Alameda County for its narrow view on what the funds should be used for. So far, Alameda County has invested Realignment money in carceral settings and expanding the scope of Santa Rita jail under the guise of “providing more mental health resources,” when the real mental health care happens in the community, and that is where the money should be going. Lastly, the report found that Santa Rita Jail lacks information on people’s mental health needs, further exemplifying how the jail is no place to provide care to people who need mental health support. 

 

The County Sheriff Ahern is responsible for more lawsuits than any other Bay Area law enforcement officers, clearly exemplifying that the Sheriff is not at all equipped to take care of anyone or keep people safe. Since 2014, there have been 50 deaths in Santa Rita Jail (David Vanguard). Dujuan Armstrong was murdered in 2018 while incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail. His mom is still fighting for his justice today, demanding that the officers be charged for murdering her son and that Santa Rita Jail be shut down. There have been more suicides in Santa Rita Jail than any other Bay Area County. It is blatantly clear how unsafe and inhumane Santa Rita Jail is.

 

The County Sheriff has a half a billion dollar budget. As the BOS discussed the 2022 budget, Sheriff Ahern asked for more money to pay for 96 additional positions at Santa Rita Jail. He asked for this money even though he cannot fill the 94 positions that are already funded. This is all happening as advocates from the community hospital St. Rose in Hayward, organizers from Decarcerate Alameda County, and families impacted by incarceration fight for a sliver of the Sheriff’s bloated budget to fund health care and mental health support. 

 

Additionally, the Sheriff’s office unnecessarily collaborates with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite California state sanctuary laws. The California Values Act (SB 54) passed in 2017 and according to the ACLU SoCal, it “ensures that no state and local resources are used to assist federal immigration enforcement and that our schools, our hospitals, and our courthouses are safe spaces for everyone in our community.” On the contrary, law enforcement agents at Santa Rita Jail collaborate with ICE by informing them of when and where someone who is vulnerable to deportation will be released from jail, sweeping people from one carceral setting to another.

Ahern has also been very involved with the California State Sheriff’s Association (CSSA), which opposes criminal justice reform and immigrant rights, and supports pro-Trump policicians and policy. For example, as Ahern served as president in 2013, CSSA fought the approval of the California Truth Act (AB 4), which prohibits local law enforcement from detaining undocumented immigrants on behalf of ICE. For years the community fought hard to get this bill passed, and in 2013, it finally passed. 

According to The Appeal, “In 2008, Ahern’s campaign donated $1,000 to support Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would have, among other things, prohibited releasing undocumented immigrants on bail or their own recognizance before trial if they were charged with a violent offense. Seventy-three percent of Alameda County voters rejected the failed measure,” showing just how out of touch Ahern is with the people and values of Alameda County. 

 

Even though they don’t oversee them, the Sheriff still has a lot of influence over local police departments. Alameda County sheriffs make ‘mutual aid’ agreements with local law enforcement, threatening to end funding if local law enforcement doesn’t militarize and do what the sheriff says. 

So, what can YOU do to hold the Sheriff accountable? 

  • Follow the DA elections and vote in the Primaries. Not sure if you’re registered? Check out your status/sign up at https://www.acvote.org/voting/register-to-vote

  • Follow JRC on our Social Media page and sign up for notifications.

  • Do you have a loved one impacted by incarceration and want to join our community meetings with the DA? Reach out to _____ to join our meetings.

Looking for more educational resources? Here are some to get you started!

  • Inside Santa Rita Jail during COVID-19

  • What’s Going on in Santa Rita Jail: 
    Part 1 and Part 2

    • These are great short videos to send to your friends, family, and peers to educate them about what’s going on in Santa Rita Jail, and how deadly it is to cage people, whether it’s during a pandemic or not.
      (2-4 min watch each)

  • DAC Teach-In: Who is in Santa Rita Jail?

    • Watch DAC's public teach-in on the jail population in Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail. We cover jail demographics, trends over time and in comparison to other locations, length of stay, and other key statistics. Accompanying slides are available here. ​Recorded, February 10, 2021. Led by John Lindsay-Poland, Tash Nguyen, & E.J. Pavia. (1 hour watch)

  • Occupied Territory: Hooks National Book Award Presentation by Simon Balto

    • This is a conversation with author and scholar Simon Balto who wrote the Book Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Even though his book focuses on Chicago, Balto brings insight into policing in our country at large during this video from 11:00–33:00. Watch to learn more about how the police were created to uphold hierarchies of race and protect private property, rather than keep the general public safe. (21 min watch)

  • Misdemeanor Film: Racially Charged

    • Racially Charged, by Brave New Films, explores the history of misdemeanors (and more broadly, policing) and how these supposedly “minor” crimes have devastating effects on someone’s and their family’s lives. Misdemeanors were never about safety; they are weaponized by police and those in power to control and profit off Black and Brown livelihoods. (35 min watch) 

    • TW: This film has graphic and challenging material, including graphic videos/photos of police brutality, physical violence against Black and Brown people, and other emotional trauma. There is a “Say Their Names” portion of the film that is visually and verbally explicit, so if you want to skip that part, it’s from 28:35-30:48. If/when you decide to watch it, please take time and space to care for yourself before and after watching this film. Call up a friend, make yourself a comforting meal, or set aside some time to lay down. Do whatever you need to take care of your body’s and spirit’s needs.

    • If you are not in a physical, emotional, and/or spiritual place to watch this film because of past experiences or simply because you don’t have the emotional energy for it (and if this is the case, we send extra love to you), here is a PDF with a lot of information covered in the film. Please still remember to take care of yourself before, during, and after reading this report.

Past Wins include... 

  • Abolishing Urban Shield from Oakland

    • Urban Shield is “a regional, national and global weapons expo and SWAT training that takes place in the Bay Area. It brings together law enforcement agencies and first responders from across the country and world – including from the apartheid state of Israel – in order for them to learn how to better repress, criminalize, and militarize our communities. Urban Shield was created by Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern in 2007, and has been held in Alameda County every year since” (stopurbanshield.org). The community fought really hard to get Urban Shield out of Oakland, and in 2018, the Board of Supervisors voted to stop hosting this expo in Alameda County. However, the organizing hasn’t stopped–we have yet to see this weapons expo and militarized SWAT training abolished entirely.

  • Moms for Housing 

    • In Because the Sheriff oversees evictions, Ahern is a fucking ass.  

  • Jobs not Jails Campaign

    • The 2014 Jobs not Jails campaign successfully redirected half of realignment funds to community based programs (instead of the Sheriff’s office) in the fiscal 2015-2016 budget. These funds were used to provide re-entry services to people returning home after prison/jail. Examples of these life-saving services include: housing, job support, health care and mental health care, among other services.

When is the election cycle?

The County Sheriff is elected by the citizens of Alameda County every four years, with the next election happening in 2022. Currently, only law enforcement officers are eligible to run for Sheriff, but this law excludes a lot of diverse candidates and leaves Alameda County voters with very little say over who represents them as Sheriff. 

 

Some critics say that the Sheriff needs previous experience in law enforcement, but many times law enforcement and the Sheriff are disconnected from the communities they serve. It’s important to know this requirement hasn’t always been in place. Up until 1989, any registered California voter could run for Sheriff. This changed after law enforcement groups lobbied to restrict who could run for sheriff. They were retaliating against the success of Michael Hennessey, who was elected Sheriff by the citizens of San Francisco County in 1979 and then re-elected several times because voters supported his progressive reforms, such as creating rehabilitative programs in the city’s jails. Although no jail should be used to cage anyone nor are they healing places, Hennessey’s more care-based approach appealed to voters. 

 

Today, many activists and community groups are fighting to pass SB 271, a piece of legislation that would “restore California’s long-standing eligibility criteria for candidates seeking the office of Sheriff.” One of the Justice Reinvestment Coalition’s member organizations, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, has sponsored this bill and is helping to push it through the legislature.

 

Even though the County Sheriff is an elected position, the elections are often not very fair or democratic. Ahern’s position as County Sheriff has never been challenged because of his political power. Ahern gained his position as Sheriff not by being elected by the people of Alameda County, but rather appointed by the Sheriff at the time, Charles Plummer, who was retiring. Because of Plummer’s political assets and seniority in law enforcement, Ahern already had a head start. Plummer even admitted, “Quite frankly, I don’t care who would run against Greg Ahern, because they’d lose,” (The Appeal), clearly explaining how unfair the Sheriff’s election truly is. At the end of the day, however, it is up to the people of Alameda County to elect the County Sheriff. We have to make our voices heard and get out to vote in 2022, especially because Ahern’s seat will be challenged for the first time in almost 15 years!