The race between incumbent Carlos Bolanos and challenger Christina Corpus for San Mateo County sheriff is heating up, amid changes to law enforcement nationally and locally.
The sheriff runs the largest county department with more than 800 people and is responsible for maintaining jails, public safety, emergency services, lab services, and specialty programs. Bolanos was appointed to sheriff in 2016 by the Board of Supervisors after then-Sheriff Greg Munks stepped down. Bolanos was elected in 2018. Corpus is the Millbrae police chief and captain in the Sheriff’s Office, as Millbrae contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services.
The deaths of Sandra Harmon and Chinedu Okobi after deputy interaction led to a shift in the use-of-force policy and an emphasis on de-escalation. Sheriff’s deputies used a Taser on Okobi multiple times and shot Harmon after a shootout, causing significant concern in the community. Bolanos said he doesn’t have all the answers, as some situations are out of the Sheriff’s Office’s control, but Taser use is something to monitor. He said the Sheriff’s Office worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and upgraded its Tasers and use-of-force policy to emphasize de-escalation. The Sheriff’s Office is also training its deputies to use more disengagement when someone is not breaking the law to ensure things don’t escalate. The Sheriff’s Office also added a weapon that uses less-lethal rounds as an intermediate step before deadly force.
Corpus said when tragedies happen, the sheriff needs to be out front and transparent. She emphasized de-escalation and using nonlethal methods like a BolaWrap, a Kevlar cord that wraps around noncompliant people. She suggested MMA defensive techniques through jiu-jitsu and more officer training.
Both candidates identified deputy staffing shortages in the Sheriff’s Office as critical problems. Bolanos said the root causes are the pandemic, the great resignation, the rising cost of living in the Bay Area, and not getting a new worker contract from the county. He noted other counties pay more for law enforcement, and San Mateo County pays other departments more. His talks at a recent statewide Sheriff’s Office conference found most departments face similar staffing issues.
Corpus said morale is low, with deputies not seeing their families due to increased overtime. She said people want change but are scared of retaliation within the organization. She called for more wellness programs, better pay and more support for deputies. She identified the root causes of people now living farther away, low morale and the unfair promotion process.
Mental health programs
Bolanos said that since George Floyd’s death, the Sheriff’s Office had doubled its Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, which pairs a licensed mental health clinician with a deputy. It received additional state funding of $350,000 for an Enhanced Crisis Intervention Team program, the first in the state to train deputies on better responses to specific mental health crises. He is open to getting someone else who is better trained and can provide better outcomes to people in crisis to respond to mental health crises.
“To the degree society wants to peel some of that back, let us focus on keeping people safe, I’m for it,” Bolanos said.
Corpus suggested redistributing funds to a CAHOOTS-style program that first started in Eugene, Oregon. This mental health crisis intervention program sends mental health clinicians to calls instead of the police. Millbrae gets lots of people facing mental health issues at its BART station, and the city partnered with LifeMoves in 2021 to send out personnel to assess the situation and get them into housing. She wants the program copied countywide.
Bolanos said calls to defund the police have died down, and he has successfully managed the budget and worked with the Board of Supervisors. He highlighted that the Sheriff’s Office used $10 million in reserves for a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters, a long-term priority.
Corpus will examine the budget and determine the best ways to be efficient and fiscally responsible, looking at current contracts for improvements and redirected funding. She criticized using funding for a new headquarters when deputies are without a county contract.
Half Moon Bay
In response to calls from some Half Moon Bay councilmembers for more oversight of the Sheriff’s Office, Bolanos said he couldn’t give them control of personnel. He was open to a liaison paid for by the city but noted the city has a very good deal for Half Moon Bay residents.
Corpus said it was hard to envision having a non-Sheriff’s Office employee have oversight over Sheriff’s Office personnel. However, she called for more compromise and conversations to ensure no need for a separate police chief.
“It would be very difficult to have that structure,” Corpus said.
Bolanos said his November 2021 decision not to cooperate with ICE requests to transfer undocumented inmates to federal immigration custody without a judicial warrant was because he listened to residents and thought it best for public safety. He acknowledged that people need to have faith in the criminal justice system for it to work.
Corpus said she would not work with ICE, noting if there were a clear or immediate threat, the judicial system would take care of the issue. She highlighted that deportation is a cruel practice with devastating effects on families and questioned why Bolanos did not stop the policy earlier.
Calls for a civilian oversight group for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office have also grown, and Bolanos is open to a balanced board composition with representatives from law enforcement and the public. He suggested having an auditor but would not give up personnel authority.
Corpus would create advisory boards she would meet with quarterly. She suggested three boards, with one in the county’s south, north and coastal parts. Each would feature faith-based leaders, residents and teachers to listen to concerns.
Bolanos said the Sheriff’s Office should continue to cite people out of jail to reduce staffing strain and overcrowding. Both candidates want to decrease recidivism in jails. Bolanos said he has a range of programs, like teaching inmates how to train dogs to increase their adoption potential, vocational training, youth high school graduation programs and education programs.
Corpus wants to see a better work-life balance for jail staff and more involvement from tech companies in jail programs for adults and kids. She suggested more coding and food programs to give more life tools to inmates.
Bolanos said the Sheriff’s Office’s recent data transparency page is just the start for public openness. Corpus said transparency and accountability are campaign themes and can benefit the whole department, like increased community trust of deputies on patrol. She also wants to be upfront about releasing information and videos of police incidents.
In his next term, Bolanos wants to develop more leadership to replace his executive team, increase staffing, complete the move to the Sheriff’s Office headquarters, continue innovation and work with others in the criminal justice system to meet public safety needs.
If elected, Corpus wants to focus on transparency, new hiring benchmarks and changing culture.
“We have to change our culture and move away from the warrior mentality and move into a guardian mentality. We do that by bringing 21st century policing and being marketable and wanting people to come here,” Corpus said.
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