REGION — Two candidates vying for San Diego County’s top law enforcement position participated in an in-depth forum in the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election, where the topics of jail deaths, Sheriff’s Department staffing issues and concealed carry permits dominated the conversation.
Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, who has served 37 years in the department, describes herself as the experienced candidate capable of making things happen with the support of the department’s rank and file.
She is running against former San Diego Assistant City Attorney John Hemmerling, who is campaigning on making needed changes to the department that has seen the highest rates of jail inmate deaths in the state and suffers from chronic understaffing.
High death rates in the jail — 18 in 2021 and 19 so far in 2022 prompted an investigation by the state auditor resulting in a scathing report released in February identifying several areas for improvement. While the now-retired Sheriff Bill Gore was noticeably resistant to some of the recommendations, Martinez said she has embraced its findings and has worked to implement all of the suggestions in the audit.
Hemmerling said he would like to go above and beyond the audit’s recommendations to continue improving the jails and claimed that new leadership is needed to change the culture that has allowed deaths to proliferate.
“A new broom sweeps clean,” he said.
Injuries to unsupervised inmates have also made headlines in recent years. Most recently, the department paid a $4.3 million settlement to a woman who blinded herself in her jail cell while under the influence of drugs in 2019, with no intervention from those on staff.
The Union-Tribune also reported that the watch commander had rejected a deputy’s recommendation to restrain the woman after she made it apparent she could hurt herself. The same commander later had a report of the incident altered.
Martinez called the incident “tragic” and said she is developing a working group to look at best practices for correctional health care around the country and ensure the department is providing the right kind of support for inmates, including those who may try to harm themselves.
“Deputies … aren’t always equipped to handle some of those situations. We need more health professionals,” Martinez said.
Hemmerling said he wants the department to do better in identifying people in crisis before placing them in custody and equip more staff to perform life-saving measures.
The Sheriff’s Department continues to be in the midst of a mandatory overtime policy implemented this past summer due to a shortage of deputies in the county’s jails and courtrooms.
Martinez said she believes the department will be fully staffed again in 18 to 24 months and that the mandatory overtime will be slowly scaled back. She said the policy has already been lifted for the department’s nursing staff.
Hemmerling said if he is elected, the issue would be looked at “immediately” and phased out as soon as possible.
“You can’t continue an emergency method indefinitely. There is no end in sight. This can’t go on for a lengthy amount of time,” Hemmerling said.
Staffing issues also led the department to reject the county’s CLERB (Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board) recommendation to begin screening jail staff for drugs, to reduce the amount of substances entering the jails.
“We don’t have staff to man our normal operations most days, so to add (more] staff to scan our staff … we don’t have enough body scanners, frankly,” Martinez said, adding that department data has determined that those in custody bring the majority of drugs entering the jail.)
Hemmerling said one solution could be implementing a screening policy via a computer that randomly selects staff to be screened. He also questioned Martinez’s claim that jail staff is generally not responsible for bringing drugs into the jail.
Whichever candidate becomes sheriff will also be responsible for issuing concealed weapons permits under new laws resulting from a June U.S. Supreme Court decision that does away with California’s “good cause” requirement. This means applicants must only meet requirements, including a background check, completing a training course, and exhibiting good moral character to be approved for a permit.
Martinez said the Supreme Court ruling has led to a tidal wave of applications in San Diego County — around 4,100 are currently being processed — which has extended the typical approval time frame from a couple of months to over a year.
Hemmerling said this process should only take a matter of weeks at most and advocated for the process to be transparent and fair to respect people’s constitutional rights to bear arms.
Both candidates were also asked about respecting transgender individuals and other members of the county’s LGBTQIA+ community. Martinez was explicitly asked about a 2020 case where a transgender woman was beaten after being placed in a holding cell with male inmates.
Martinez said staff receives additional training materials related to interacting with LGBTQIA+ individuals, and the department works with their LGBTQ council to continue improving.
Hemmerling was asked specifically about transphobic comments he made at an event earlier this year, where he joked about transgender individuals using the bathroom that correlates with their gender identity. Hemmerling said he has since apologized and, with the help of former fellow candidate Dave Myers, participated in a listening session with national leaders in transgender advocacy.
“My reaction was, ‘How can I do better?’” Hemmerling said.
The new sheriff will serve a six-year term rather than the usual four years under a new state law that aligns law enforcement elections with the presidential election cycle.
A forum recording is available on the San Diego Union-Tribune’s YouTube page.