Last night (April 24th) was the first public debate between the candidates for Sheriff (incumbent Adam Christiansen and Deputy Tom Letras) and District Attorney (incumbent Birgit Fladagher and attorney Frank Carson). I attended the debate as did approximately 80 other people. First, it was nice to see that the sheriff did not wear his uniform while campaigning, as he was reprimanded by the Civil Grand Jury four years ago for violating California Government Code 3206. This reprimand came as a result of a citizen filing a complaint.
The candidates were each allowed an opening statement, then responded to questions from the audience and ended with a closing statement. The debate was moderated by Steve Madison (Chamber of Commerce and head of StanCo which oversees the county’s investments in housing) and Sandra Lucas, a Republican’s Democrat.
The first question asked by the audience was “the Sheriff’s Department has been hit with many lawsuits over the last several years. What would each of you do to prevent future lawsuits?”
Sheriff Christianson claimed to have “won all the lawsuits.” Deputy Letras contradicted this by saying that the Sheriff had just lied to the audience. He believes there is a difference between winning a lawsuit in court and settling to avoid going to court. He does not consider it a “win” when the county pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements.
Deputy Letras believes that open communication with employees can both improve morale and lesson the likelihood of lawsuits (50% of the lawsuits have been filed by employees). He believes the sheriff needs to have an open door policy and be willing to meet with and discuss employee concerns and that by doing so problems can be solved before they become legal issues. He indicated that the sheriff does not have good relationships with his subordinates and that is what leads to lawsuits and a high turnover in the department.
Sheriff Christiansen claims to have an open door policy and blames the rash of lawsuits on the fact that we live in a litigious world. He believes that it doesn’t matter who the sheriff is, lawsuits will be filed. He said that some of the employee lawsuits were “frivolous” and were filed because he was attempting to make employees be accountable.
The lawsuits have ranged from sexual harassment (a new female employee being pressured to attend an after work party at a strip club in order to “bond” with her co-workers), to racial prejudice, discrimination against injured workers, deputy brutality and the deaths of several people in custody.
Forty-one suits have been filed. The county pays the first $250,000 in expenses (which comes to $10,250,000) settlements and expenses after that amount are covered by insurance. The county maintains a general liability fund to cover the the deductibles, but administrators of the fund had to triple the amount during Sheriff Christiansen’s tenure.
One heart-breaking lawsuit was filed by the family of Craig Prescott, a former deputy himself. Mr. Prescott was forced to resign and as a result began to suffer serious stress and anxiety to the point of becoming mentally unstable. His family phoned the sheriff’s department when they became afraid for Craig’s safety, believing that his former co-workers would be able to help him. He was placed in a cell and because a person in the next cell didn’t like the noise Craig was making, a decision was made to transfer him to a safety cell. In order to transfer him (because he was mentally unstable), he was Tasered and shot with bean bag guns. He was dragged into a safety cell at which time he was face-down, unconscious, and deputies sat on him for several minutes, suffocating him.
Sheriff Christiansen defended the actions of his deputies and made every effort to delay an investigation. After the lawsuit was filed, a video tape was released to the family’s attorney. That video tape did not match the written description of the tape that had been viewed by the Assistant D.A. The tape had been altered so parts described by the Assistant D.A. were missing.
Another question asked of all four candidates was “do you believe arresting and prosecuting drug offenders will reduce the drug problem, particularly where marijuana is concerned?”
D.A. Birgit Fladager expressed the opinion that we have to arrest them to help them hit bottom so they can then begin to recover. She said that being in prison is the bottom and the rehabilitation can then start. Ms. Fladager refers to marijuana as a “gateway” drug, believes it is addicting and leads to increased crime.
Attorney Frank Carson opined that we need more early education in the schools and more intervention. He also said that it was a waste of time and resources to prosecute someone for growing a few plants in their back yard.
Sheriff Christiansen hammered on the point that even though California has legalized medical marijuana, it is still a federal offense and people should be arrested and prosecuted.
Deputy Letras believes that this issue will be settled by the voters in the near future and it’s best not to waste time and resources (and jail space) prosecuting people who smoke marijuana in their homes.
Questions were asked about the Sheriff’s Department budget and vacancies. During the last two years, while complaining about vacancies (due to budget cuts) and fewer deputies on the street, the department has come in $1,000,000 under budget. Sheriff Christiansen indicated that there is a lack of qualified applicants. Deputy Letras questions why there is such a lack of applicants, noting that only 1% of applicants ever go very far into the application process. This is true even for clerical positions. He agrees that law enforcement needs to be held to a higher standard, but wonders if the standard Sheriff Christiansen has set is eliminating qualified applicants who would make very good employees and is also the reason there is a lack of diversity in the department.
Closing statements by the four candidates re-hashed what had been said in answering the questions, except that attorney Frank Carson said it was important to stop the 26,000 wiretaps put in place by D.A. Birgit Fladager (at a cost of $300,000) which have resulted in zero convictions.
In addition to lawsuits, there is an incident involving Sheriff’s Deputy Kari Abby which resulted in the death of Rita Elias.
To read more about the Sheriff’s Department
To read about Deputy Kari Abby