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Election preview: Alameda County Sheriff-Coroner | News

Voters have the rare opportunity to decide a competitive race for Alameda County sheriff-coroner as incumbent Greg Ahern is being challenged by two candidates, sheriff’s office Division Commander Yesenia Sanchez and San Francisco Police Department Officer JoAnn Walker.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office impacts many aspects of law enforcement and criminal justice in the Tri-Valley and across the rest of the county, including policing in the unincorporated communities as well as select cities via contract such as Dublin, custodial oversight of detained defendants at county facilities like Santa Rita Jail, bailiff duties at the courthouses, coroner responses and investigations after deaths in the county, and regional support in emergencies and other cases.

Although the candidates have a range of public endorsements, especially Ahern and Sanchez, with three names on the ballot and a 50%-plus-one majority required to win the four-year term outright in the June 7 election, it’s a possibility the sheriff’s seat could be decided in a November runoff in the end.

Experience — or whether a change of leadership perspective is needed — has emerged among the key themes of the campaign so far, along with public safety, racial justice reform, reducing recidivism and transparency.

“It’s very clear that I have the qualifications and experience needed to continue on as sheriff,” Ahern told the Weekly in a recent interview. “Compare that to the other candidates, and I think (voters) would see that I’d be the best choice to be sheriff for the next four years.”

Ahern, who rose through the ranks of the sheriff’s office since being hired as a deputy-sheriff in 1980, including a long stint with Dublin Police Services under the city-county contract, has been the county’s sheriff since January 2007 after winning election in 2006 .

The incumbent’s campaign website describes his mission as to “protect the public, build strong relationships with the community, and prevent people from turning to crime through prevention, enforcement, programs, and service. Greg knows this strategy reduces crime, provides opportunities, and ultimately keeps our communities safer.”

He lists out a range of programs and initiatives on both the criminal investigation and detention sides of the operation, including new investigative units to combat street crimes, gang activity and DUIs, a cold case division for homicides and sexual assaults, crisis response such as wildfires , the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ghost Ship fire, and starting a youth and family services bureau.

Ahern also points to his support of re-entry programs to reduce incarceration and recidivism, including expanding vocational training opportunities for inmates.

Public safety remains at the top of the list for Ahern, who last week received funding support from Gov. Gavin Newsom for cameras to aid in quick response and investigations into freeway shootings.

On the issue of accountability, Ahern said he is “firmly committed to transparency, de-escalation, and advanced training so that public interactions with law enforcement are always fair, safe, and professional.

He added, “There has never been a more critical time to have a proven and effective leadership.”

Looking to unseat the sheriff from within, Sanchez has worked for the sheriff’s office since 1997 and has elevated to become commander of the Detention and Corrections Division in 2020.

Among her key campaign visions, Sanchez lists out rehabilitation of and job training for the jail population, racial justice in law enforcement, community engagement and accountability.

“The reality is the sheriff’s approach to law enforcement needs to change. We need more community input and engagement, and transparency and accountability need to be priorities,” Sanchez, a Livermore resident, told the Weekly.

Re-entry support for county jail inmates is vital toward helping avert recidivism and reduce crime overall, according to Sanchez. She noted that before her leadership tenure, Santa Rita Jail had come “under federal oversight for its historic poor treatment of incarcerated people, inmate deaths, and low accountability.”

Sanchez said she would also look to engage the community to improve crime prevention and safety efforts by the sheriff’s office.

“This includes appropriate responses to mental health incidents, crisis intervention training and a focus on de-escalation,” Sanchez said. “I will work to repair and build trust with marginalized communities, including immigrant and undocumented communities, to ensure they are provided with equitable services regardless of citizenship status.

“I am committed to leading the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office with the utmost integrity, serving the community equitably and inclusively, and making sure the Agency ensures safety in the community by investing in it,” she added, on her campaign website.

The other challenger is Walker, a longtime county resident whose law enforcement experience has been across the Bay as an officer with the San Francisco Police Department.

“The fundamental basis of my platform is: Accountability. Reform. Community. With introspection, hard work and cooperation, we can make the needed changes at the Alameda County Sheriffs Department,” she states on her campaign website.

“Establishing a community-centered culture that aligns with 21st-century policing practices and values” will be key toward achieving those goals, according to Walker, who did not respond to the Weekly’s request for an interview.

She calls on her range of assignments while with the SFPD on topics such as terrorism, community relations, field training, peer support counseling, academy instruction, hate crimes, tactical communications, and crisis support and suicide prevention.

“A great deal of work needs to be done to reduce crime while also building public trust effectively,” Walker stated. “As a 26-year law enforcement veteran, my career has given me keen insight into strategies that work, versus strategies that look good on paper.”

“The Alameda County Sheriffs Department is charged with a complex balance of responsibility interwoven into the fabric of our communities’ daily lives,” she said, adding:

“It is not lost on me how momentous it is that I — a Black woman — have taken on the charge to fix and reform how law enforcement services are delivered in Alameda County. I am taking a big step of faith by entering this race that typically is uncontested. I have faith that voters in Alameda County are ready for a change in how our community is policed.”

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