Sheriff John McMahon (Image courtesy of Youtube)

S. E. Williams | Voice News

“Sheriff demographics are gravely unbalanced: While African Americans are confined to jail at over three times the rate of White Americans, only five percent of sheriffs are African American. And even as the number of women in jail trends higher, fewer than three percent of sheriffs are women.”

The Reflective democracy campaign

White men are 30 percent of the population but are 90 percent of all sheriffs in America.

The demographic imbalance in law enforcement leadership (and officer representation) is evident here in the inland region where White sheriffs and police chiefs compared to the demographic make-up of the region—like many places in the country—is grossly out of balance.

In some instances, like the city of San Bernardino for example, it appears the city would rather operate indefinitely with a so-called “interim police chief” than risk being called out if they fail to appoint a chief more reflective of the demographics of the city. The county of San Bernardino on the other hand, has taken a different and more circuitous route to what has historically been the same “white bread” ending.

John McMahon, who has served as San Bernardino County Sheriff since 2012, recently announced his unexpected retirement effective July 16.

McMahon won re-election outright in the 2018 primary election in June 2018. The reason he has now set his sights on an early departure is unclear though in a video statement he advised, “It is now time for me to focus on things in my personal life that require the attention of my wife Shelly and I.” 

Certainly, a man who has served his community for nearly 30 years deserves to bow out at his discretion and though some may be sorry to see him go, many others believe he can not leave soon enough as he leaves a trail of wreckage for many members of the minority community in his wake.

Whether we recall how the federal government had to step in and shut down the horrendous torture and sodomizing of county jail inmates in 2014 on par with what the world witnessed at Abu Ghraib during the “tortuous” presidency of George W. Bush, or the grotesque and questionable murder of Nathaniel Pickett in 2016 by a San Bernardino County deputy that resulted in a $33.5 million dollar settlement  awarded to his family at the taxpayers expense; or what appears to be the racist arrest of a Black  federal corrections officer who was allegedly detained by two San Bernardino County deputies at gunpoint while at a fast food restaurant and taken to the Victorville station despite the fact he had a badge and other identification which clearly proved who he was—McMahon’s tenure has been dangerous for many.

And then there was  the 2019 settlement of a civil rights lawsuit claiming the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department failed “to provide minimally adequate medical, dental and mental health care” to inmates in the county’s jail system, and had failed “to prevent unnecessary and excessive uses of force against inmates and impose[d] on inmates the harmful and excessive use of solitary confinement in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments…” This was followed in November 2020 by a lawsuit against the department claiming  two former deputies brutally beat an inmate unconscious at a county jail facility. 

All of this human damage, pain and suffering is largely reflective of the careers of too many sheriffs who held the job before him.

Keep in mind most jail inmates are awaiting trial—innocent until proven guilty. They sit in jail because of an unjust money bail system.

Remember this list of injustices and a host of other atrocities that occurred under McMahon’s leadership as his supporters begin singing his praises over the  next couple of weeks.  

All of this human damage, pain, and suffering is largely reflective of the careers of too many sheriffs who held the job before him.

McMahon was appointed sheriff by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in 2012 and was subsequently elected to his first term in June 2014.

More than 99 percent of local jurisdictions  across the country are served by elected sheriffs. And, because most sheriffs are elected, there is little oversight of how they operate as exists with local police chiefs who are appointed by city councils and therefore accountable to them. 

When sheriffs depart before their term expires, Boards of Supervisors in California have options regarding how to replace them. They can either hold special elections depending on rules outlined in local  municipal charters. This approach seems relatively non-controversial.

This provides a great advantage for those favored with such appointments. The appointees garner media attention, name recognition and opportunities for fundraising, all of which make them a shoe in by the time the first official election rolls around for them to earn the seat competitively at the ballot. By then of course, they have a definite advantage over any competitor.  

The problem in San Bernardino County however is that for the last three sheriffs, early retirement has been normalized and in each instance, the initial decision about a replacement was taken out of the hands of the voters and made by the county supervisors.

This worked like a charm when former Sheriff Rod Hoops ran for re-election and then suddenly decided to retire mid-term and recommended McMahon to replace him. The very same strategy had worked like a charm when former Sheriff Gary Penrod retired in the middle of his term after being reelected. He, of course, recommended Hoops to replace him.

What a scheme! Or is it merely a convenient series of fortunate circumstances for those involved? I think not…

Unless the public rallies for change White men may continue to ride roughshod over a county where most residents are people of color.

As discomforting as this is for many, it is well within the clearly defined menu of options available to the Board of Supervisors. As explained by county spokesperson David Wert, “Due to the requirements of the County Charter and State law, the only available date for a special election in this case would be June 7, 2022, which as you pointed out is also the date of the next regularly scheduled election for sheriff. Under the charter, if the board does not call a special election or appoint someone to serve out the unexpired term within 60 days of the vacancy, the default is the special election option, again taking it to June 7, 2022.”

Wert further explained why the date ‘June 7, 2022.’ As he highlighted,  “Plans for an election could not be made until July 16 at the earliest because that’s when the vacancy is expected to occur. According to the charter and the State Elections Code, the special election would be held on the next established election date—a random date is not an option—that is no less than 130 days from the date that the election is called.

The charter also states if the date of a special election would be less than 180 days from the statewide primary election—which is also Election Day for county offices—the county must proceed with the regularly scheduled election.

As further explained by Wert, the next three established election dates are August, 31, 2021; November 2, 2021; and April 12, 2022. August 31, 2021, and November 2, 2021. All would be less than 130 days from the date the election could be called.

In addition, April 12, 2022, is greater than 130 days from the vacancy but less than 180 days from the Statewide Primary election. This takes us to June 7, 2022, as the first possible date for a special election, which is the regularly scheduled date for the sheriff election. As you can see, the table is legally set for this to occur in perpetuity unless the charter is revised.

When it comes to replacing sheriffs in San Bernardino County, timing is truly everything. Unless the public rallies for change White men may continue to ride roughshod over a county where most residents are people of color.

In the final analysis however, it is less about the color of  the sheriff than it is about the mindset of those given the advantage of being appointed to the office. If it is true that weak leaders breed weak leaders, I believe the same holds true for sheriffs. Those who allow disparate and abhorrent treatment of segments of the county’s population are certain to breed replacements who are prone to do the same.  

Now that we know the rules of the game, it is time for the citizens to change them.

Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m keeping it real. 

S. E. Williams is editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. 

S.E. Williams

Stephanie Williams is executive editor of the IE Voice and Black Voice News. A longtime champion for civil rights and social justice in all its forms, she is also an advocate for government transparency and committed to ferreting out and exposing government corruption. Over the years Stephanie has reported for other publications in the inland region and Los Angeles and received awards from the California News Publishers Association for her investigative reporting and Ethnic Media Services for her weekly column, Keeping it Real. She also served as a Health Journalism Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Contact Stephanie with tips, comments. or concerns at