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The Election of Our Next Sheriff: A Latino Perspective

Author: Bill Flores
Created: 01 December, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read


The candidates for San Diego County Sheriff would do well to take note of the following:  Latino voters may be in a position to decide this county-wide race – a race in which the vote promises to be badly split.

From the start, Latino voters have had distinct concerns about each candidate’s record, or the lack thereof. And the candidates’ performance since then hasn’t done much to reassure Latinos, who constitute approximately 20% of San Diego County’s likely voters.

Both of these factors should also raise questions with a variety of SD County voters, and not just those who live in areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department. We all have a stake in who heads up the state’s second largest Sheriff’s Department (with 4,000 employees and a budget of almost $600 million). Among other things, sheriffs run the jails and are responsible for coordinating emergency responses to disasters. And once elected, they tend to stay in office for a good while.

The race has been anything but dull. At the last debate, for instance, the candidates talked about everything from issuing pink underwear to jail inmates, to putting them in tents out in the desert, to deploying a hi-tech noise-maker at the border. It seems that candidate Jay LaSuer’s mantra is “What would Joe do?” – referring to Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Candidate Bruce Ruff hinted at deploying the noise-maker to dissuade border crossers.

Ruff and LaSuer are well-known quantities in the Latino community.  Both of them are arm-in-arm with the local Minutemen. Ruff has said he will “kick” suspected illegal immigrants out of the country by rounding them up, presumably without bothering to secure the necessary federal authority to do so, and driving them to the border.

LaSuer refers to the undocumented as “people who broke into the country” and rants about San Diego being a “sanctuary county.” At the last debate, LaSuer delivered the truism that “attitude comes from the top down” and proceeded to laud the embattled Arpaio, who has been repeatedly accused of and sued for racial profiling. Go figure.

At the East County debate, LaSuer touted his stint as commander of the Poway Sheriff’s Station. That stint was marked by an infamous sweep during which his deputies arrested 100 Latino males (all of them suspects in a single rape incident) and held them at the Poway High School football field. The rape incident soon unraveled when it was learned there had been no rape. Civil rights lawsuits filed by the migrant workers soon followed.

While it’s tempting to focus on Ruff and LaSuer to the exclusion of the other two candidates, there’s much to find troubling about Bill Gore and Jim Duffy, who can be described as the “establishment” candidates. In the short time Gore has been Sheriff, he has managed to change the top command’s makeup from a diverse group to one comprised entirely of white males. At the next lower management level, six of those eight positions are also held by white males. This does not bode well for a county where a third of the population is Latino.

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For this and other reasons, relations are very strained between the Latino community and the Sheriff’s Department, which patrols not only the unincorporated areas, but also cities with large Latino populations like Vista. During Gore’s tenure as Assistant Sheriff and Undersheriff, deputies assigned to the Vista Station were involved in six shootings – all Latino victims shot by white deputies, and a seventh victim who died after being Taser’d multiple times. The department’s response was a review of the use of force policies, which did not include public input and did not consider the question of the apparent disparate use of force against Latinos.

As for Duffy, it’s not his record that is a source of concern, but the lack of one. His campaign rhetoric, however, is becoming worrisome. Playing to an East County audience, Duffy came out in favor of turning Sheriff’s deputies into the primary enforcers of complex immigration laws by entering into what is known as a 287 (g) agreement with the federal government. It is an extra task for which Sheriff’s deputies are ill equipped and is unnecessary (there are immigration officials already assigned to the booking jails).

All in all, Latino voters have written off Ruff and LaSuer, whom they have every cause to distrust. Gore still has a chance to show that he intends to provide better accountability to ALL parts of the communities served by the Sheriff’s Department. Duffy should rethink expanding the role of Sheriff’s deputies in the jails to include enforcing immigration laws – something which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now handles by assigning agents to the jails.  More importantly, he needs to rethink about the result of driving more of a wedge between the department and the Latino community. We don’t need deputies on the street using ethnicity and appearance as reason to detain people.

It’s still early and perhaps a fifth candidate may emerge. Latino voters will closely follow how the campaigns unfold, knowing that they may be able to deliver the whole enchilada.

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