S.E. Williams

During any election year incumbents are required to walk a thin line between official business and outright campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime.

It is encouraged and not surprising that local sheriffs would hold public forums to build bridges within their communities. Yet, even by that measure the April 23, 2022 “first ever” Tri-County Sheriff’s Forum seemed to defy credulity as a simple ‘get to know your sheriff’ community event.

This is especially true when you consider the three county sheriffs who hosted the event—Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alejandro (Alex) Villanueva—are all running to retain their positions in their respective counties.

It is this reality, beyond all others, that makes the April 23  event—and its timing—appear so politically unseemly.

The forum offered an opportunity for, what,  I asked myself? Did the sheriffs want to discuss the alignment of their policies across three counties? Did they wish to demonstrate  solidarity in the fight against rising crime? Did they want to  discuss a new vision for community policing? To show strength in numbers? To flaunt their power and authority as top local law enforcement leaders? Or was it just one poorly disguised tax-payer- funded campaign rally to fire up their supporters? 

“Hear your sheriff talk about current events affecting residents, business owners and visitors in their county,” the event flier read. (source: youtube.com)

These questions are, of course, rhetorical but certainly worthy of consideration. Especially when the event was advertised as a way for citizens to, “Hear your sheriff talk about current events affecting residents, business owners and visitors in their county.”   

Hear your sheriff? It seems to me if you are a sheriff running for re-election—let’s say in Riverside or Los Angeles Counties—and with only two months until the June 7 Primary—you would not ask your supporters to cross county lines to hear you talk about the great work you are doing on their behalf or chose a location in a different county for your voters to be able to come and ask you questions. 

If this is an example of how these sheriffs view much warranted community interaction to help build bridges, perhaps they should revisit the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Services Toolkit for Policing that provides a list of recommendations for Police-Community Relationship Building. The list does not include hosting events for your residents to attend outside one’s jurisdiction.   

The forum was hosted in a hangar located at the Chino Airport on the western edge of San Bernardino County. For San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus this location is at least within his geographical area of responsibility but why were Riverside and Los Angeles County residents being encouraged to travel outside their respective counties to attend a forum featuring their sheriffs?

Title 2, Chapter 5, Section 8314(a) of the California Government Code states, “It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee, or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”

Was this event a violation of state law? Maybe. . . Maybe not. . .  As we learned regarding federal laws during the Trump era, many laws have escape clauses that can enable abuse. Title 2, Chapter 5, Section 8314(b)2 of the California Government Code states, “Campaign activity” does not include the incidental and minimal use of public resources, such as equipment or office space, for campaign purposes.”

So, was this “first time” tri county sheriff’s forum an incidental and minimal use of public resources?

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco is a darling of the right wing, and an admitted, former member of the Oath Keepers and Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva was recently ordered to testify under oath regarding alleged “gang-like groups of deputies” who have purportedly operated within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for years. San Bernardino County Sheriff Dicus is running to hold on to a position gifted to him by his predecessor retired Sheriff John McMahon with the support of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

Dicus also  came under fire recently regarding  his deputies seizing an armored car carrying $712,000 in cash from licensed marijuana dispensaries heading into Barstow in November and a few weeks later, stopping the same driver in Rancho Cucamonga and seizing an additional $350,000 belonging to legal marijuana stores. In both cases the money was given to the FBI—dollars that would purportedly be shared with the San Bernardino County’s Sheriff’s Department. The FBI claimed the money was tied to federal drug and/or money laundering crimes, but to date, no one has been charged with a crime.

Empyreal Logistics, whose money was seized in these stops, filed a suit against the county and the U.S. Justice Department and earlier this month, the Justice Department settled with the company agreeing to return all the monies seized by the San Bernardino deputies. Did Dicus sanction the stops in defiance of California law which legalized marijuana businesses in the state?  

All three sheriffs were introduced at Saturday’s event with county videos.  If this was not a political event, in addition to the media coverage and taxpayer-funded support, it also provided an opportunity–through the eventbright registration process–for the sheriffs to gather email lists for future campaign outreach. I am not saying this was their intent, only that it is a reasonable possibility.

And as always, of course, this is just my opinion. I am keeping it real.

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 myopinion@ievoice.com.