In June, Darren Thompson won re-election to a third consecutive four-year term as Sheriff of San Benito County. Here are his written answers to some questions posed by the Free Lance, subject to some editing for space considerations.
Question: Tell us about yourself and your family.
Answer: I grew up in the Santa Cruz area in a family that fostered a culture of serving others. Ultimately, it was my love for people combined with my passion for justice that led me to pursue a career in law enforcement.
I recently celebrated my 30th year of service in law enforcement and will be soon celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary. My wife and I moved to Hollister to raise our children in this amazing, family-oriented community, and that decision has proven to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Our children share a proud heritage with this community. We recently became grandparents, which has brought us tremendous joy.
San Benito is a great community with so much to do. It is home to great motorcycling, a classic car community, plenty of opportunity for amateur musicians, a strong “foodie” culture and great neighbors. We are proud to call San Benito home.
What are some of the big plans you have for the sheriff’s department and public safety in San Benito County over the next four years?
We have so much to be proud of, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I look forward to bringing our office’s initiatives to fruition in my third term.
During my first term, our office and community was tested by layoffs and budget cuts. We persevered through those tough times. My second term was a reset, an opportunity to rebuild. We reorganized the rank structure into three divisions, providing a greater level of supervision, communication and staff development. We introduced a new records management system that shares information with our jail, our patrol teams and the Hollister Police Department.
In our third term, we hope to sow some seeds for the future. The average age of the members of our agency indicates a large departure into retirement in the next three to six years. We need to hire and develop staff of all classifications to prepare for the future. This will not be easy, as the candidate pool is numerically very small compared to previous generations. But I am confident we can meet any challenge.
What are some of the biggest public safety challenges facing the sheriff’s office and communities in San Benito County? Any particular types of calls or emergencies that have become increasingly common in the last four years?
Law enforcement is evolving across California and the nation. Twenty years ago, our largest public safety concern was gang-related crimes. Voters and legislators in California implemented some very tough prison sentences for gang crimes and were able to address some of the circumstances that discouraged witnesses from participating in the criminal justice process. Collectively, these two dynamics resulted in a reduction of gang crimes. Conversely, it created overcrowding in our state prisons. The current political spotlight on immigration issues may cause some immigrants a bit of reluctance to come forward as cooperative witnesses in gang crimes. Combine that with California’s commitment to reduce incarceration, and California could see an uptick in crimes committed by organized criminal enterprise.
Have Prop 47, Prop 57, AB109 and other state provisions intended to keep low-level offenders out of the prison system impacted public safety in San Benito County? If so, how?
Some impacts of these new laws and policies have been positive, and others a bit over-reaching. Incarceration is not very effective when it comes to rehabilitating people, but it’s very effective at protecting the public from continued victimization. Understanding that most offenders return to freedom, California has placed an emphasis on rehabilitation, hoping to reduce recidivism. There have been some unintended consequences. Low-level offenders were pushed from state prisons back to county jails. Now county jails have pushed them out to make room for habitual and higher-level offenders. Low-level offenders no longer have the threat of incarceration as an incentive to overcome their addictions and modify their behaviors. We are relatively early in this development, so we have yet to get meaningful evaluation data. Of course, this is an issue we are keeping a close eye on, and will respond as needed to ensure public safety.
Sheriff’s deputies and jail staff have recently started wearing body cameras on patrol and in the jails. Any examples of how these tools have aided the prosecution of a crime or corroborated a deputy’s account of an incident?
We recently had an armed robbery in Tres Pinos at the Tres Pinos Country Store. A clerk was robbed at gunpoint. The responding deputies were able to get surveillance footage in the area. One deputy recognized the man as the same person he had stopped in a vehicle the week prior. He was able to go to his body-cam footage and produce an image of the man from that stop. This image was then used to identify the man, who was later arrested and confessed.
On July 5, our deputies were involved in the pursuit of an armed suspect. Though this incident was resolved without anybody being hurt, it was a great test of our system to see just how well it can capture these life-changing moments. An audit of the system showed it worked very well, and had the incident ended tragically, the evidence would have been captured.
Many of our interactions occur away from the patrol vehicle, even if they begin there. The pursuit case was a prime example of that. Our office now has the capability to capture these incidents.
What is the sheriff’s office policy on releasing body camera footage to the public?
Society is pushing hard in two conflicting directions. There is a call for more transparency, and simultaneously a call for more privacy! This creates a no-win situation for body camera footage. Conversely, we in law enforcement are anxious to clear our own reputations when our actions are scrutinized. From a safety perspective, the release of footage can have other damaging impacts like tainting potential jurors or jeopardizing the safety of witnesses. These dynamics and other factors will be considered as we evaluate whether to release footage. At this time our final policy is undetermined and is undergoing legal evaluation
What programs, projects or equipment would be at the top of your wish list if funding were available?
Radios. The topography of this county makes radio communications difficult. However, in recent years, and in an ongoing effort, our radio infrastructure has been, and will continue to be upgraded. We are working toward a modern, networked radio infrastructure that truly is the lifeline for our deputies and those in need.
Staffing. Attracting qualified candidates is a problem in this field, and in this area. We are in competition with surrounding agencies that have more attractive employment packages than we can offer.
Training. Funding training is a problem many law enforcement agencies have. Apart from the “mandated” training, it has become increasingly difficult to send staff away for more detailed, in-depth training off-site. This “advanced officer” training is essential to having a more well-educated and professional agency. No agency should ever strive to meet the minimum standard.
How have mental health issues and homelessness impacted the sheriff’s office and the community’s safety in recent years? Have these issues grown in the last four years?
In 2011 we arrested a homeless man for the murder of another homeless man at an impromptu unauthorized encampment. In 2012 and again in 2013, in separate events, mentally ill offenders murdered their mothers and dumped their bodies here in San Benito.
Mental health issues and homelessness can certainly have a nexus, but they can also be very independent topics. Some of our homeless are just down on their luck, and others are overwhelmed with mental health issues. Statistically, if they offend, both tend to be low-level offenders. As I mentioned, low-level offenders have been pushed out of county jails to make room for higher offenders and habitual offenders.
The relaxing of sentencing in drug cases has also played a role in our community. Homeless people and those with mental/behavioral illness are “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol at a very high rate.
The most recent census indicates there are approximately 527 homeless in the county, down 124 people from last year. Although this is a positive trend, the percentage of homeless who fail to cooperatively participate in available resources is sharply increasing. Of the 527, it is estimated more than 200 are not responding to services that are offered. This is a dynamic seen statewide.