Senator Wiener’s Legislation to Allow for More Diverse and Democratic Sheriff Elections Passes Senate Public Safety Committee

March 18, 2021

SACRAMENTO – Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s legislation to expand eligibility for who can run for Sheriff, Senate Bill 271, passed the Senate Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-1. It now heads to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

SB 271, also known as the Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act, allows any registered voter to run for sheriff — reverting back to the longstanding eligibility requirement in place from 1850 until 1989. Currently, only law enforcement officers (people with Peace Officer Standards and Training [POST] certificates) are eligible to run for sheriff. Because only a tiny pool of people are eligible to run, sheriffs are effectively insulated from political accountability and are only accountable to the law enforcement officers who are authorized to challenge their reelection. As a result, various sheriffs have aggressively cooperated with ICE to facilitate deportations, have refused to enforce COVID public health orders, and have failed to respond appropriately to community demands for police and jail reform. Moreover, most sheriffs — among the most powerful elected positions in the state — run for reelection unopposed, and 49 out of the 58 California sheriffs are white men. California has no Black sheriffs.

From 1850 until 1989, California law allowed any registered voter to run for sheriff in their county. In 1989, after intense pressure from the Sheriffs Association, the law was changed in reaction to a non-law enforcement officer being elected sheriff in San Francisco.

With the racial justice uprising last summer in response to police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and with the long overdue focus on mass incarceration and unsafe prison conditions, there is increasing consensus in favor of a dramatic reimagining of policing and our criminal justice system. Current state law regarding sheriff eligibility requirements, however, make it challenging to move toward police and criminal justice reform, given the narrow pool of candidates eligible to run. Various sheriffs in California do not act in the best interest of constituents on a number of issues: some cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), despite California’s sanctuary state status; some have refused to enforce health orders while California’s COVID-19 death and hospitalization numbers rose; and some sheriffs’ departments treated protestors with unnecessary force this summer during the uprising.

California operated for 139 years without limiting Sheriff candidates to law enforcement officers. If we want to see dramatic and important racial justice and immigrant justice measures implemented, and our criminal justice system changed, we must diversify and democratize who can run for sheriff. Voters should be able to elect a candidate who represents their values, and who has the training and skills necessary to change our criminal justice system and prioritize mental health training and de-escalation rather than force.

California’s Sheriff eligibility requirement is a minority rule. 24 states allow non-law enforcement officers to run for Sheriff, and various major law enforcement agencies do not require their leader to be a law enforcement officer, for example, the California Department of Justice, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

SB 271 is sponsored by the California Immigrant Policy Center (CPIC), NextGen California, Secure Justice and Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.

“County sheriff is one of the most powerful positions in California, and people who hold this office should be accountable to their constituents,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “We’ve seen Sheriffs in various parts of the state refuse to implement public health orders, mismanage county jails, and cooperate with ICE even though California is a sanctuary state. We need to change our eligibility requirements for this office to create a more diverse and democratic process that will ensure Sheriffs are accountable and responsive to constituents. SB 271 simply reverts back to longstanding sheriff eligibility requirements that allow all registered voters to run in their county. That’s a commonsense change that will improve the quality of candidates.”

"We are proud to co-sponsor SB 271, given the outsize role that Sheriffs play in contributing to the arrest-to-deportation pipeline, as most people are turned over to ICE for deportation from county jails," said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. "Sheriffs' policies disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. We have to  make sure that we hold them accountable to the communities’ needs. SB 271 opens up and diversifies candidate pools, providing immigrant community members the opportunity to not only reimagine what community safety means to them but also to begin implementing that vision." 

"This bill embraces the ideal of electing Sheriffs who come from diverse backgrounds, communities, and law enforcement perspectives by expanding the universe of people who may seek the office – whether they be former public defenders, judges, progressive prosecutors, or civic leaders,” said Ken Spence of NextGen California. “As we remember Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other victims of police violence, the need for bills like this, that support the critical work of reimagining policing in our state, is self-evident. Therefore, we are proud to co-sponsor The Sheriff Democracy and Diversity Act and are pleased the Assembly Public Safety Committee voted to move this bill forward today." 

"Residents of Alameda County have given millions of our sorely needed taxpayer dollars to a sheriff whose department and jails have brutalized members of our community and even killed with impunity,” said Judith Stacey of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. “Like too many CA sheriffs, he is out of step with the values of our community, yet has run unopposed four times.  The Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club is co-sponsoring SB 271 to expand the pool of eligible candidates to include people committed to reimagining public safety and better serving the needs of our residents.”

“Secure Justice is excited to co-sponsor Senator Wiener’s SB 271 because we believe that a local election should be subject to criteria established by the local residents in that county, not a state mandate,” said Brian Hofer, executive director of Secure Justice. “Each time a proposal for greater oversight of Sheriffs is proposed, the Sheriff’s Association claims that the ballot box is a check on their power, conveniently ignoring the fact that they have stacked the deck in their favor with legislation and that most elections for the office are uncontested in California. SB 271 will level the playing field and allow for a more diverse pool of candidates to seek this important office.”