Youth, patrols in outlying areas among top concerns
The four candidates vying for Del Norte County sheriff may have their differences, but community involvement is one thing they can all agree on.
All four candidates in this year's election have stated their support for local neighborhood watch groups when sitting down with the Triplicate. Three say they want to reinstate the Citizens On Patrol volunteer programs and reach out to local youth, which includes increasing the sheriff's presence in Del Norte's public schools.
All of the candidates have law enforcement experience. Two of them, incumbent Dean Wilson and challenger Jim Maready, have experience as Del Norte County sheriff. Elwood "Butch" Lee's law enforcement career spans 35 years and includes his current job as a sergeant with the Yurok Tribal Police and previous experience as a Crescent City Police officer. Erik Apperson has been with the Crescent City Police Department for 13 years and was sworn in as a full-time sergeant in 2010.
Wilson, Maready and Lee will be at a candidate forum hosted by the Smith RiverNeighborhood Watch at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Community Hall on First Street in Smith River.
Del Norte County Superior Court candidate Dohn Henion will also be at the Wednesday forum, according to neighborhood watch coordinator Joni Forsht. Apperson will be at a second candidates forum for the judge and district attorney positions on May 7.
Even though he is the youngest candidate in the sheriff's race, Apperson said voters shouldn't be deterred by his youthful appearance.
A 35-year-old native of Del Norte County, Apperson started his law enforcement career in the sheriff's Explorers program when he was 15 years old. He said he knew he wanted to be a cop at age 13 and that Lee was one of the officers he remembers as a kid.
Apperson worked in the Del Norte County correctional system, both as a juvenile corrections officer and as an officer in the jail, during Maready's tenure as sheriff. When he became a Crescent City Police officer in 2001, Apperson said Wilson was his field training officer.
"I feel like I pay my respect to them by being the best community-oriented cop I could be," he said of the other three sheriff candidates. "They've all played important roles in my life and (helped) me develop not only as a person but as a cop."
As a father of four, Apperson said making the community a safer place for his children factored largely in his decision to run for sheriff. But, he said, law enforcement officers can't do their job without the community's help.
Apperson cited the city's crime-free multi-housing program, which seeks to reduce crime on rented properties, as an example of community involvement. He said he also likes the idea of an auxiliary volunteer program, like Citizens On Patrol, for the Sheriff's Office as well as a citizens advisory committee.
Apperson even suggested using volunteers to take care of some of the everyday tasks like answering the phone for non-emergency calls and cleaning weapons. Getting the community involved would not only result in more transparency in the Sheriff's Office, he says, but would build more community support.
"My goal is to develop and maintain a strong partnership between this community and the law enforcement that is sworn to protect this community," Apperson said. "Crime is a community problem. Cops are part of the community, but it's a community problem."
Apperson, who spent his career working with the CCPD Explorers program, said he would like to expand the sheriff's Explorers program. He said he'd also like to bring the school-based Gang Resistance Education and Training program, a school-based gang and violence prevention program, to Del Norte.
He added that he would also be flexible in scheduling and encouraging deputies to spend more time with the local youth.
"If they want to teach, if they want to mentor, I think it's my duty as an administrator in this county to support that," Apperson said. "It goes back to that community buy-in. Those kids are going to be adults."
Elwood "Butch" Lee
Lee, whose law enforcement career includes the concrete jungle of Orange County and the wilds of Skagway, Alaska, said he sees something of a disconnect between local law enforcement and the community.
A native of Tulsa, Okla., Lee's career includes six years with the Crescent City Police Department. He's spent the last four years as a sergeant with Yurok Tribal Police and said one of the things he'd like to do is build communication between the sheriff and its allied agencies.
"All of these agencies have things the Sheriff's Office can utilize and benefit from," Lee said. "Budgets being what they are, all of us know that the budget's shot. The guys and gals over there right now they are so short-staffed that I feel sorry for them. They're working their tails off."
Lee said there seems to be a bottleneck in getting tribal police officers cross-deputized with the Sheriff's Office so they can respond to law enforcement calls off the reservation. This hasn't been a problem with Humboldt County, which houses more than half of the Yurok reservation, he said.
Another concern Lee said he has heard has to do with the availability of the sheriff's deputies.
"It's almost a common thread of everyone I've talked to," he said. "We never see a deputy. We call and ask for a deputy, no deputy shows up. Or when he does, he basically just takes our name and our phone number and tells us there's not much we can do about it. That decreases the amount of criminal statistics that are gathered because that never gets reported."
Lee said if he is elected sheriff, he'd insist on his deputies taking reports for the calls they respond to.
Another concern Lee mentioned is the proliferation of narcotics in the area.
"That to me is the core of the major crimes throughout the county," he said. "Most of the thefts, most of the assaults, they stem from drug use, narcotics use, addiction. They've got to get the money. They've got to get the substance they're using."
He said building a working relationship with the allied agencies would help alleviate some of those challenges. Lee said he would build a relationship with Pelican Bay State Prison so his officers could be trained locally.
As for the sheriff's budget, Lee said he'd like to pursue more grant funding and develop the Sheriff's Office as a training ground for new cops.
"What the Sheriff's Office is going to have to do is just bite the bullet and say, 'OK we're going to be a training ground, but we're going to make it as pleasant and as nice a place to work as we can,'" he said, adding that he wants to give officers an incentive to stay in Del Norte. "It's kind of like when you throw the bowl on the wall. Something may stick. That's what you're looking for - you want people to stay."
Even though he's not the incumbent, Maready has entered the race with nearly eight years as sheriff under his belt.
Maready, who was sheriff from 1995 to 2002, said he has walked more than 80 miles talking with Del Norte County voters, who say they're concerned about the lack of a sheriff's presence in outlying areas and about increases in property crimes.
"I came out of retirement because of complaints from citizens regarding a lack of patrol, too much politics within the Sheriff's Office and the severe lack of communication between the sheriff and those who call him personally," he said, adding that he feels there is too much politics in the Sheriff's Office. "I've spent most of my adult life being involved in the community, and my wife and I, along with numerous people, felt it was time to give the citizens a county sheriff's department that was responsive to their needs."
In addition to serving as sheriff, Maready was a resident deputy during the 1970s and '80s in Hiouchi, Gasquet and Klamath. After he retired as sheriff in 2002, Maready was appointed to the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees and was later elected and served one term. He also served on the citizen's oversight committee for the school district's $25 million general obligation bond.
If elected again, Maready said he would use a $560,000 grant that small rural county sheriffs receive to hire three more deputies and increase patrols in Del Norte's outlying areas. He cautioned that those areas wouldn't receive 24-7 coverage, but deputies would serve their shifts there.
"It'll give the outlying areas more protection and patrol, and it will backfill the town area. That way you're not sending people out from town to the outlying areas," Maready said. "This is not going to be an overnight fix. It will be an ongoing work in progress."
Maready also talked about reaching out to the sheriff's allied agencies, including using Pelican Bay State Prison's expertise in training the county's jail staff. He noted that with AB 109 prison realignment, the jail will be handling a different set of inmates and not only need the proper training but also need to build a good relationship with the district attorney and probation departments.
AB 109, which was signed into law in 2011, sought to reduce California's prison population by shifting low-level offenders from the state prison system to county jails and probation departments.
Maready also noted that most of the extra funding counties receive as a result of jail realignment goes to the probation department while the rest goes to housing inmates.
"We need to think about our correctional officers in the jail to get better training for their knowledge and for their safety," he said.
Like Apperson, Maready said he would also like to expand the Explorers program. During his career as a law enforcement officer, Maready said he coached youth and high school football. He said he'd like to see an increase in the number of visits deputies make to local public schools.
"I wanted them to see that law enforcement is concerned about them and that's what we tried to establish," Maready said. "We need to be involved in as many community outreaches to our youth as possible. We need to get back into the schools. The sheriff and commanders and deputies. Any kind of group that's oriented toward youth, we need to be involved."
As the incumbent, Wilson said he initially decided against running for a fourth term as sheriff. But he said he has several things that he is currently working on that likely won't be accomplished by the time the election is held.
"It's important that I stay on and try and continue to push those issues forward for Del Norte County because they're critical to public safety," Wilson said, adding that several people also asked him to run for a fourth term.
Wilson was a sergeant with the Crescent City Police Department when he succeeded Maready as Del Norte County sheriff in 2002. Over his tenure as sheriff, the department has weathered tough economic times that resulted in fewer deputies. But, Wilson said, his department has come in under budget for nine of the 11 years he's been in office.
The two years the Sheriff's Office did come in over budget was due to the impacts of AB 109 jail realignment, he said.
"That's one of the biggest challenges the community as a whole faces," Wilson said. "Because one of the issues that the community is facing is the rise in property crime - theft and non-residential burglaries. We're seeing that rise over the last three years, and I think that's directly attributable to the shifting in (inmate) processing and the philosophy behind realignment."
Even though AB 109 became law two years ago, Wilson said the turmoil in the county's probation department and the District Attorney's Office has left it behind in implementing the program. Plus, he said, the county's lack of resources and small size makes dealing with the additional probationers and jail inmates difficult.
"As sheriff I fought against AB 109 when it came out because I don't believe we have sufficient funding nor do we have the resources here in Del Norte County to provide what would be beneficial to these inmates to give them the proper kind of programs," Wilson said. "And the money is insufficient. There's not enough money."
During his tenure as sheriff, Wilson said he established a felony investigations unit, which deals with homicides, robbery, sexual assaults and other victim crimes. One detective in the Sheriff's Office also specializes in property crimes and cyber-related crimes involving social media and other technology.
The Sheriff's Office also had to build expertise in dealing with narcotics, especially commercial-size marijuana grows. Although he said he doesn't care about marijuana use for medicinal purposes, he noted the absence of open storefront marijuana dispensaries in Del Norte.
"We had seven at one time and they're all gone," he said. "The reason for that is because it's illegal. You cannot sell marijuana. There's no legal way to sell it."
As for a better presence of deputies in outlying areas, Wilson acknowledged residents' concerns but said the department only has one sergeant and two deputies on at any given time.
Lately, Wilson said, he has been reaching out to residents on behalf of the Sheriff's Office more often via Facebook, something that has become increasingly popular. He said he sees one of his jobs as keeping the community better informed, especially dispelling any rumors that might be flying around.
"A lot of decisions I made in putting that out was unfortunately driven by the fact that the Daily Triplicate went from five publications down to three publications," Wilson said. "When rumors are flying around about a couple of issues, I address those because the paper's not going to come out for two more days. My reaching out on Facebook, probably more than anything else, has received more kudos from the public. They like the Facebook interaction."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .