Q&A with Tina Nieto Candidate for Monterey County sheriff

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By Royal Calkins

Related Stories: Q&A with Jeff HoyneQ & A with Jose MendozaMonterey County sheriff’s campaign needs your attention before it’s too late

The race for Monterey County sheriff will be held during the primary election in June. Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates receiving the most votes will compete in a runoff as part of the November 2022 general election.

Adding a new dimension to the race to replace Steve Bernal as Monterey County sheriff, the latest candidate is Marina’s chief of police, a woman with strong executive experience with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Tina Nieto was appointed chief of the Marina department in September 2017 after a decade with the LAPD, culminating with her promotion to captain, the first woman to reach that level in the department’s long history. In the two years before her move to Marina, she was commander of the department’s West Los Angeles area, population of 250,000. She also has been commander of other LAPD regions.

Below are her responses to a series of questions put to her by Voices of Monterey Bay, lightly edited for space. Voices previously posted a Q&A with candidate Jose Mendoza, who is a retired sheriff’s commander, and has extended invitations for Q&As to the other candidates — sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses, Del Rey Oaks Police Chief Jeff Hoyne and sheriff’s deputy Justin Patterson. They seek to replace Bernal, who recently announced he would not seek a third term in the 2022 election.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge as police chief in Marina and how did you address it?

A: I was new to Marina when I became the chief. Some would even have referred to me as an “outsider.” I knew my “newness” to the organization could be an obstacle to building a strong leadership team and building a trusting, collaborative relationship with the community. Luckily, my experience had put me in similar situations on four occasions over a period of 10 years, where I had to gain the trust of four large geographic communities and their law enforcement professionals. To add to the challenge, within each of these communities were communities within communities, each with their own strengths and challenges.

My way to navigate the complexity of situations like these is to find balance, and always, always, always remember people first. People are amazing when they are trusted, given the tools they need to make the group better, mentored and encouraged as important members of the organization. The same goes with the community, when you listen, I mean truly listen with an empathetic ear, trust grows, collaboration becomes easier and they become true partners in working to make community policing a philosophy woven into the fabric of the organization, not just a tagline to be repeated over and over.

Q: For whatever reason, sheriff’s campaigns tend to be messy affairs. If your opponents go on the attack, how will you react?

A: If any of my opponents chose to run a negative campaign, it tells me two things: First, that they know I am the most qualified candidate; and second, that my opponents cannot run on their own merits. I have over 33 years in public safety with more than 14 years as a successful law enforcement executive and over 13 years in supervisory and mid-level management roles. I have spent my entire adult life in positions of leadership.

Unfortunately, and sadly, dealing with people who don’t want you to succeed is not new to me. Choosing male-dominated career paths as a woman in both public safety and as a commissioned officer in the military has had its unique challenges. But as the saying goes, when given lemons make lemonade; all the adversity in my life has helped me grow and learn to be the strong leader I am today.

My reaction would be to question the motivation of the opponent, be open about the situation, and show the people of Monterey County that I am the only candidate who can truly move the Office of Sheriff in a direction to regain the trust and confidence of the Monterey County communities.

Q: These are challenging but potentially exciting times for law enforcement leadership. Much of the public is calling for new approaches to crime, mental illness, the homeless and race relations. How would you address all that while leading a highly traditional, military-style organization?

A: I think most of us agree traditional approaches to addressing these challenges have proven less than effective. There are many exciting programs that other sheriff departments and law enforcement agencies are running or piloting to address crime, mental illness, homelessness and race relations.

Unfortunately, our current Sheriff’s Department is not on that list. Many of our communities want change; it will not happen until there is a change of leadership and the style of leadership at the top.

Leadership is the single-most important building block in developing and maintaining highly productive organizations. I, as the sheriff, would set the tone, communicate goals, and directly impact my executive team’s performance on a multitude of levels. In creating a high-performance sheriff culture, I will motivate and facilitate team execution by inspiring employees to perform to their highest potential and excel.

Changing a workplace culture must begin with a purpose. To be effective, these social issues need answers that connect with the heart of the department’s leadership. Having taught for the California Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Supervisory Leadership for over 10 years (an elite group of leadership trainers in the law enforcement world), and successfully leading multiple military-style organizations over the years, I have shown that my leadership style works.

Simultaneously, as the sheriff, my executive team and I will begin to address issues of consistency, fairness and procedural justice to build foundations of trust and legitimacy among all communities. Doing this can open the door to community-wide conversations about policing standards, transparency and inclusiveness, race relations and social equity to truly work toward the mission of serving all communities (including the incarcerated community) in our county. There are a multitude of strategies to achieve these goals, but they are doable.

Q: If elected, your gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation would amount to firsts in Monterey County. To what extent do you think any of those will be a factor in the election? In your administration?

A: “I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam,” … Popeye the Sailor Man, philosopher.

Like many I am on a quest to be better tomorrow than I am today, and I hope the voters recognize that if you move beyond the labels that we assign each other ourselves, they will see that they deserve a sheriff’s agency that they can be proud of. I am the leader who can get us there. That being said, I understand that biases may garner me votes, and biases may not get me votes.

For being the first, if given the honor by the people to be their next sheriff, I recognize the importance of “firsts.” When I became the first female Hispanic captain on the LAPD, at a time when the agency was already 139 years old, I hadn’t understood why these firsts were so important. I also didn’t understand the responsibility attached to that title. It hit me when a little Latina girl and her mother, who were strangers, approached me and asked for a picture with me, and then told me how proud they were. It made me reflect on the fact that there are underrepresented groups of people in our world and that we “firsts” now share a responsibility to them so that others may follow in our path. “Firsts” also share the burden knowing that if they fail, others will take advantage of the failure to use it to keep qualified underrepresented groups from achieving greater successes. Being a “first” is a privilege not to be squandered for self-gain or power; it is a solemn position to be in so that all the other minority little boys and girls in the world see a path to success.

Q: A huge responsibility of the sheriff is to run the jail. What experience do you have to help prepare you for that role? What improvements would you contemplate?            

A: Running the Sheriff’s Office is a huge responsibility that I will not take lightly. The primary duty of the office is to be the sole and exclusive authority to keep the county jail and the prisoners in it safe and secure … Your readers can always refer to California Government Code Section 26605.

I have a varied background in leadership roles throughout my 33 years in law enforcement. Many times, I was not the “technical” expert for the mission of the team/group/organization I led. In fact, the critical error that many leaders make is thinking they know more than the collective group.

As the sheriff, my role would be to support the command staff of the organization in finding the answers for themselves. In fact, even command level officers in a sheriff’s organization very quickly lose their expertise in other areas of the organization as they move into other assignments. With the ever-increasing complexity of our communities, the changing views on the meaning of justice, rehabilitation, and incarceration and many challenges facing law enforcement, it will be my role as sheriff to think strategically, to develop future solutions with my executive team, and ensure that my command officers empower their own teams to maximize their potential.

My focus is also to work collaboratively with our county Board of Supervisors. The current sheriff has not been successful in doing this, and among the many issues plaguing the sheriff’s office is the breakdown in communication between his office and the board. The organizations I have been honored to lead have been seen as models for “best practices” for public safety by keeping communications open with groups I share philosophical beliefs with and groups that I may be at odds with …  The sheriff must be able to actively listen to all viewpoints. Unlike some of my opponents, I have always made it a point to reach out to these groups and go to them, to meet them where they are. Not vice versa.

In past commands, I was also certified as an auditor, trained in a very narrow field known as “Police Performance Auditing.” I was also part of the team that oversaw the LAPD as it met the mandates of a judicial consent decree. It cost the taxpayers and the city millions of dollars each year and meant that the department had failed to make necessary changes. Our county jail is also under a court order, and every year that the sheriff does not make the mandated changes it will continue to cost the county money, not to mention that the inmate population is deprived of the improvements our community has chosen to make for them.

Q: How closely have you followed the controversies that have dogged the Bernal administration? What would you do to change that environment?

A: I have watched the controversies as have most residents of this county, but I do not have insider information about the scandals that have plagued Sheriff Bernal’s administration. I decided to run for this office because I was tired of reading the headlines about a failed administration.

I have a deep love for this profession and understand that most law enforcement personnel want to truly serve their community and protect the most vulnerable of us. When you get to know these brave men and women who would sacrifice their own life to save a stranger, you learn that many of them grew up in households that had some type of dysfunction, including my own. Others came from families with a deep sense of service. Either way, those experiences shape a person so that they can’t help but to care and want to find solutions to make other’s lives better.

The sworn and professional staff of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, made up  of these caring personalities, deserved better from their leadership. The Monterey County communities that the sheriff is responsible for deserve better. The Sheriff’s Office will never be better unless the leader leads by an ethical standard. I can promise the voters that under my leadership, ethical organizational cultural norms will be interwoven into any changes made under my administration; I will hold myself to these standards just as I would the newest employee.

I have never taken over a large organization that didn’t have its issues, but as someone looking from the outside in, the current slate of candidates is not prepared to guide the organization through either the many challenges facing our profession or the complexities of the changing laws. I am the one candidate with a proven track record, the experience, education, and empathy to guide this organization to be better.

Q: The law doesn’t require an elected sheriff to work any certain number of hours, something that Bernal has taken advantage of. What kind of a work week do you envision for yourself?

A: Very long ones is the short answer, and I don’t need to envision it, I already live it. My family and I had discussions on running for sheriff because of the long work hours and commitment it would take to create a strong organization. I can’t help but care about the things I do and the community I work for, it’s part of my DNA. In fact, I considered running for the office earlier in the year, and because of the sacrifices I have made in the past for the communities I have served, my family and I decided that although I would be a successful sheriff, and very good for the Monterey County communities, it was time to slow down a little and spend more time on myself. As I thought about it more and more, the voice in my head kept saying “the men and women of the MCSO deserve better, the community deserves better, we can do better.” I couldn’t quiet that voice even as other candidates announced their intent, so here I am.

The Office of the Sheriff serves over 433,000 residents who all have different needs. To fulfill our mission, this cannot be done by working a traditional work week. As a chief of police and as a Commanding Officer with the LAPD, I know all too well that I will be working nights, weekends, and responding to critical and high-profile incidents as the need arises. I will be attending many meetings with our different stakeholders both on a regular basis and as problems are identified. I have been in an executive position for over 14 years, and although I am quite adept at time management, being a successful sheriff is all encompassing.

Q: Sheriff’s Department employees generally favor promotions from within, to what extent would you look outside the department to fill key positions?

A: There are many talented and caring people already in the sheriff’s organization. This would be the fifth time I would be taking charge of a large organization, and I have learned that you must actively listen to the many stakeholders, including employees, to find the facts, not the rumors, before any major personnel decisions are made. Creating the executive leadership team is an important decision.

I understand that I would be looking to change the direction of the agency so I would be looking for individuals for leadership positions based on their skills and abilities, not because of who they know or don’t know. I also believe that my leadership team needs to be comprised of empathetic leaders who have the skill of active listening. If you look at my track record, you will see I am not someone who throws the baby out with the bath water and that I make every effort to identify those already in the organization who show that they possess the values and traits that are aligned with high ethical standards. We all have the capacity to learn, some just choose not to. Sometimes in the past, because my predecessor had failed in succession planning, or due to retirements, I have hired from the outside.

Despite what I inherit, I will make every effort to ensure that succession planning (a focused process, not just words) at all levels is practiced, so that when promotional opportunities are available, the talent pool in the organization is reflective of our community. I would never bring a person onto the leadership team just based on how they look or what group they belong to. It will always be based upon the most qualified person for the position.

Q: If you were sheriff now, would you mandate COVID vaccinations for the sheriff’s staff?

A: It is unfortunate that the current sheriff’s administration did not communicate its intentions with the Board of Supervisors that the Sheriff’s Office did not support, and would not enforce, a vaccination mandate prior to the county mandating vaccinations for all county employees. If the lines of communication had been open, we might be in a different situation today. More law enforcement officers in 2021 have died of COVID than from gunshots, so I understand the urgency to protect the public, our inmate population, and our employees.

If I had been the sheriff, I would have taken a much larger role in working with both the supervisors and the sheriff’s unions to craft a policy that protected the public, our inmate population and the deputies while addressing union concerns. The sheriff has the responsibility to keep the jails functioning in a safe manner and providing police services in unincorporated areas. If part of the workforce refuses vaccinations, how can you maintain public safety? I am sure that had there been open lines of communications, a plan could have been implemented; but, before any decision to mandate vaccinations, all stakeholder issues needed to be resolved. Forcing the issue now before the federal mandates on vaccinations are clarified, which is going to happen soon (which is the same goal of the Board of Supervisors) is only going to result in ill will and lawsuits between the unions and the county. This is not how you build relationships.

Q: Have you identified any sources of campaign funding? Are you prepared to partially finance it yourself?

A: I have a tight circle of advisers and friends to navigate the in-n-outs of campaign fundraising. I have always been successful in raising monies for charities and nonprofit organizations, but it is much different asking folks for money for my campaign. I have community members and friends who have committed to donating to my campaign, and I know the people will help me win this campaign because I cannot do it without their support.

Q: Have you received any promises of endorsements? If so, from whom?

A: Yes. It is too early to put these into print right now, but as the campaign moves forward, I will be happy to name the people who trust I can get the job done.

Q: How would you describe yourself politically?

A: The roles I have chosen in my life have always required for me to look at viewpoints and beliefs of people at each edge of the political spectrum. As a law enforcement executive both currently and when I was with the LAPD, and the Army, I dealt with communities and groups that had different viewpoints, and my job was to find the commonalities to work to achieve goals. As the sheriff, I will be committed to continuing to listen to all communities, to fulfil a common purpose serving the residents of Monterey County. I believe we have a shared responsibility to make things better, and I am a strong advocate of the First Amendment, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peacefully assemble, and lastly the right to petition our government. We are so blessed in this country to be afforded the protections of our Constitution that I have taken several oaths to defend. If I didn’t believe these things, I would not be running for sheriff.

Q: What else would you like to tell us?            

A: I am a native Californian who grew up in a large Hispanic family. My parents struggled to provide for our family, but I was lucky because although we didn’t have a lot of things, we had a lot of love in our household. I am blessed to have a supportive life partner who has stood by through the years as I have given my life to public service. I am grateful to all my mentors through the years who encouraged me to do better.

Finally, I am an awesome karaoke singer (will this fact lose me votes?)  and I love dogs because they love you back unconditionally. Unfortunately cats make you work for it, lol.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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