By Royal Calkins
While growing up in greater Los Angeles, Tina Nieto was a self-described nerd absorbed in her studies. She was no kind of activist. But she saw a troubling law enforcement practice and it stayed with her as she became a cop and rose through the police hierarchy.
Nieto spotted the problem after her family moved in the 1970s to West Covina in the San Gabriel Valley. It had been an almost exclusively Anglo enclave for decades. Her Latino family didn’t fit in and her dad in particular stood out. He was a bar owner and a bookie. It wasn’t the gambling that attracted police attention, however. It was his ethnicity.
His bar was in the city, a long drive from the suburbs. Many nights he would work until 2 a.m. or later and then head home, a brown man raising suspicion simply by being somewhere he wasn’t expected.
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“We were the only Latino family in the community. He got stopped. A lot,” recalled Nieto, 59. She said they would pull him over and ask what he was up to.
“It was racial profiling, pure and simple,” she said during an interview at her Monterey Peninsula home. She hated it then and made that clear later to subordinates as she became the first Latina captain in the Los Angeles Police Department.
It comes as a surprise then that she does not consider herself “a progressive cop,” that rare creature who would turn law enforcement inside out, make it smaller and partner it with social workers and reformers. It does appear, however, that Nieto’s no-nonsense approach to law enforcement, her understanding of competing views and her smarts could convert the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office into something of a progressive operation. As of today, she is the first Latina sheriff in Monterey County.
Nieto received considerable support in the sheriff’s race from the county’s sizable progressive population even though she didn’t advance much progressive rhetoric or make issues of her ethnicity or sexual preference. Regardless, she was embraced by many looking for reform in a troubled Sheriff’s Office.
Following her 2-1 trouncing of the quasi-incumbent, sheriff’s Capt. Joe Moses, in the November election, Nieto becomes the third Latina sheriff elected in California in the past year. A barrier has been broken, at least a symbolic counter to the stream of white, male “Constitutionalists” who have become sheriffs in California and elsewhere over the past decade.
Though Nieto won by a landslide, almost no one would have predicted her victory just a year ago. It started as a four-candidate race and the betting was on Moses. He enjoyed the endorsement of the outgoing sheriff, Steve Bernal, but that turned out to help him only a little beyond a narrow base in the Republican Party and Salinas Valley oil and agricultural interests.
What probably helped Nieto the most — beyond her incessant campaigning and effort to shake every hand and kiss every baby — was the negative publicity Moses and Bernal received throughout the campaign. Most of that came from this publication, whose stories about departmental troubles were largely ignored by the rest of the media until an appellate court aimed some serious criticism at Moses mid-year.
That was a ruling in a long-running defamation case that established Moses as a fabricator of slanderous information during Bernal’s re-election campaign four years earlier. Unlike other issues regarding the Bernal-Moses camp, that was prominently reported by other media outlets. The effect on the election was profound. Though Moses was still able to raise more campaign money than Nieto, the appellate court case leveled the playing field.
So Monterey County readies itself for a relative outsider as sheriff for the first time in a generation. Nieto has been police chief in Marina for five years but wasn’t well known outside that smaller city until the campaign. Though her name recognition was low, her credentials outweighed those of her three white male opponents, Moses, Del Rey Oaks Police Chief Jeff Hoyne and sheriff’s deputy Justin Patterson.
CORRECTION: The first sentence in the paragraph above is a mistake because it neglects Scott Miller, who was elected sheriff in 2000 after working for police departments in Pacific Grove and Salinas. Apologies.
Nieto was with the Los Angeles Police Department for two decades, rising to the rank of captain at the third and highest tier in the LAPD’s step system. When she “retired” in 2017, the department employed 9,000 sworn officers with a budget of more than $1 billion. It’s 20 times larger than the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office.
Nieto was elected here with strong support from the Democratic Party, particularly its progressive wing. Many assumed that she must be a progressive because of her gender, ethnicity and sexual identity. It was wishful thinking to a large degree, but it just might work out.
Nieto and her longtime partner, also an LAPD retiree, have little patience with the Defund the Police movement spawned by the police murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people. However, based on long conversations with her and others who know her well, it seems that her style of policing still could mesh with the goals of some law enforcement’s critics.
She quickly won over Kate Daniels, a rising star among Monterey County progressives. Among Daniels’ many community roles has been to head the Democratic Women of Monterey County, which unanimously endorsed Nieto even though she didn’t campaign for the nod.
“When I think about our core values as progressives and policing, progressives care about fairness and equality,” Daniels told Voices. “We care about racial justice. And we want to end mass incarceration and ensure that there is equal justice. …
“Having had many, many conversations with Tina Nieto, I have never found her values, statements or history in conflict with any of these principles. In fact, I believe she will be a champion for these principles.”
Nieto will be in a good position to make changes in the department because much of Bernal’s command staff is departing, enabling her to pick her own team, and partly because she will enjoy a supportive Board of Supervisors.
As an elected official, Nieto doesn’t report to the supervisors, but they do set her annual budget, a process that can turn rough.
Supervisors Wendy Root Askew and Mary Adams supported Nieto’s campaign and are supportive of various reform measures. And creating a new 3-2 majority on the board, conservative Supervisor John Phillips, a Bernal supporter, is retiring and being replaced by North County business owner Glenn Church, a procedural wonk with clear progressive tendencies.
Following a series of dustups during the Bernal regime, the supervisors are poised to create a civilian oversight body, something Nieto is just fine with.
In the interview, Nieto wasn’t ready to delineate her priorities except to say she will be “laser focused” on the jail, particularly reforms that have been mandated under a federal court order known as the Hernandez decision. While the Sheriff’s Office has increased jail staffing as ordered by the court, the sheriff’s staff has been slow to make mandated improvements in health care, physical and mental. Escapes, rapes and in-custody deaths, some mysterious, stained Bernal’s two terms in office. A preventable suicide led last fall to a $2.5 million legal settlement.
Capt. Moses is still with the department and has said he would prefer to continue helping oversee the jail. Nieto wouldn’t comment on his likely assignment but said the jail has been a “disaster” in recent years.
Nieto has been active in restorative justice groups, which aim to reconcile conflict between the bad guys and their victims. At the same time, she loses points with potential supporters on the left by supporting the assignment of uniformed officers to campuses. Critics see that as normalizing a police presence without providing any measurable protections.
Nieto also learned during the campaign that the department’s policing of internal wrongdoing has been spotty or worse. Department insiders say deputies loyal to Bernal have seemed immune from close scrutiny by Internal Affairs detectives. Favored detectives have run up overtime, doubling or tripling their salaries. Bernal even rehired a deputy who had been fired by the previous administration for paycheck padding. On-duty drinking by some has been deemed okay but a career ender for others.
Department critics including Christian Schneider, who is involved in the slander litigation against Moses, have charged that their Internal Affairs complaints have been illegally ignored by the Bernal administration.
Nieto often mentions the “zero-tolerance” policy of the LAPD, which refers both to the way it responds to crime outbreaks and to breaches of regulation within its own ranks. Following astonishing outbreaks of corruption within various LAPD precincts plus a string of riots caused by police tactics, the department presents itself as a stickler for the rules that are supposed to keep officers in line.
Nieto wasn’t announcing a zero-tolerance policy for the MCSO but she has made it clear that the party is over for some.
As for herself, Nieto acknowledges that she was the subject of a couple of internal investigations that didn’t slow her climb up the LAPD ladder in record time.
At Covina High School, class of ‘81, Nieto was a high-achieving student, an achievement considering her working class background. Her parents are of Mexican descent. The extended family dwelled mostly in New Mexico before moving to Southern California.
She got good grades in advanced courses, and for a year wore the school’s mascot costume, a colt. The Covina Colts. As she stands just 5-foot-1, the outfit must have been a loose fit. She played competitive tennis and badminton but found she was much more interested in reading. Especially science fiction, still her favorite.
With six kids in the family, college wasn’t an automatic for Nieto. She was expected to marry and raise kids. But after high school Nieto enrolled in one San Gabriel Valley community college and then another, and played the field vocationally. She tried marine biology, partly because she wanted to live near the ocean. She tried psychology but was scared off by an internship at a state psychiatric hospital, according to an earlier profile by Peninsula writer Susan Meister.
From there, she enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, majoring in criminal justice, in large part because some of her friends were going that way. She joined the ROTC paramilitary program. It took her eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree because she had to work, mostly as a security guard. She was an armed guard at a car dealership with mob connections. She also worked regular security shifts for the 1984 L.A. Olympics.
After college, she joined the Army reserve, serving for more than a decade, and chose the equally regimented world of law enforcement for her civilian career. During her decade in the reserve, she held several positions, including ordnance officer involved with transporting nuclear weapons, and reached the rank of captain. For a time she was Capt. Capt. Nieto.
At the LAPD academy, she was one of 22 women in a recruit class of 90. She finished at the top academically.
From there it was into patrol in the early 1990s, a terribly turbulent time. There was the Rodney King police beating and the resulting riots. She described it as anarchy. The gangs were in full bloom. But if she has stories of dangerous situations or peace-keeping successes, she mostly keeps them to herself.
Early on, she showed an interest in management. The LAPD bureaucracy was all for it and moved her from precinct to precinct. Over time she became expert at working in Salvadoran and Korean neighborhoods.
“By talking to people,” she said, admitting sheepishly that her Spanish is a work in progress.
Moses tried but mostly failed to make Nieto’s time in L.A. a campaign issue.
During the sheriff’s race four years ago, Moses and colleagues falsely and very publicly accused Sheriff Bernal’s opponent of embezzlement and money laundering. That’s what the slander litigation is about.
Moses resisted his urge to go low this time until just two weeks before the November vote. That’s when his people called reporters in an attempt to paint Nieto as an enabler of corruption in L.A.’s Koreatown district and as the reason for a $1.25 million lawsuit settlement awarded to an LAPD detective. The accusations led to a little media coverage but only that because they came so late in the race and Moses had nothing with which to back them up.
Nieto says she was friendly with Koreatown merchants but scoffed at the Moses contention that an internal affairs investigation found she had been too friendly. A Moses associate referred reporters to an LAPD lieutenant for “proof” but the lieutenant said he had nothing but old rumors.
Nieto said she, like most command staff, was the subject of occasional internal investigations but none stuck. She mentioned that the L.A. police chief at the time of her departure attended her swearing in as Marina police chief, something he wouldn’t have done if she had left under a cloud.
In the lawsuit the Moses campaign tried to hit Nieto with, the LAPD detective accused Nieto and other senior officials of treating her unfairly. She also alleged that Nieto under-reacted when she was threatened by a detective.
Nieto says she did all she could to protect the detective, and others in the department questioned whether there actually was a threat. Nieto said she was surprised by the size of the settlement but noted that she was not a defendant, or the only supervisor accused.
The detective declined to comment.
“I saw Tina in action on the LAPD,” said retired LAPD Capt. Nancy Lauer. “She is very smart and makes smart decisions; that’s the bottom line. Whether it’s choosing a leadership team, developing crime reduction strategies, supporting her officers or building community partnerships; she knows what to do. It’s that simple.”
Another former LAPD leader who asked not to be named recalled Nieto as “smart and ambitious.”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in her way,” he said with a laugh.
The Moses camp also tried, unwisely, to make an issue about Nieto’s role as a member of the state’s Police Office Standards and Training Commission, which sets hiring and training standards for law enforcement agencies. The allegation: that she somehow used that position to silence critics. The evidence: non-existent.
“How would I have done that?” she wondered.
Nieto is proud of her role with POST and says she will do whatever she can to improve training in the Sheriff’s Office.
Monterey County, unlike many counties, requires incoming deputies to work first in the jail, a condition unpopular with many potential recruits. Changing that could prove difficult because it would require agreement from the deputies’ union. Nieto says she might want to explore that, partly because deputies hired to work in the jail may be rusty on patrol-related procedures by the time they get beyond corrections.
She said she left L.A. simply for personal and professional reasons, not because anyone pushed her.
“For one thing, I was driving the 405 each way every day from Seal Beach to West L.A.,” she said. Outside rush hour, that’s an hour and a half drive. During rush hour, never mind.
Nieto said she also left Southern California because she wanted to be a police chief and the number of competitors in a huge department weighed against her. She decided to leave, pension in hand, and find somewhere smaller and also near the beach. She was a finalist for police chief positions in several cities, including Gilroy, before the Marina job came along.
It wasn’t all hugs and confetti in the little city. A commander she hired in Marina filed a formal personnel complaint against her, which remains under investigation. There were signs of tension between Nieto and the city manager’s office. She won’t talk about it and the city manager doesn’t return calls.
As a newly elected sheriff, Nieto will serve a six-year term, two years longer than previous terms because of recent state legislation.
While Nieto won’t cop to the progressive label, she acknowledged that she shares several concerns with law enforcement critics. She said she is bothered about the militarization of police departments, many of which have obtained tanks and heavy artillery from federal surplus.
She said she also wants to address polarization between law enforcement agencies and the public, “the us-them thing.”
Many law enforcement agencies have become highly insular in recent years at a rate probably equal to the increased criticism of police tactics and attitudes. The “us-thing” thing in some departments is a view that if you’re not a cop, you’re probably a perpetrator.
Nieto said she understands much of what the progressives are saying but will never accept it all.
“I believe that if someone does something bad, he should go to jail. Does that make me a conservative?”
Nieto possesses her share of self confidence. (She once told an interviewer, “I’m a very good karaoke singer.”) Despite her size, she walks with a bit of a swagger. She doesn’t mind the “smart” label and indicates through words and demeanor that she’s not going to be intimidated by the men and women she’ll be supervising.
She’s proud of her accomplishments (see her resumé here) and almost as proud as the computers she built at her Peninsula home. She shares the place with her partner and three loud dogs. The smaller ones are yappers who sound like a much larger group when a visitor arrives.
The dogs are rescues, the latest in a long line in her household. A pile of small boxes sits in the corner of the home office. They contain old collars and dog-themed trinkets, reminders of those that came before.
It’s a large house in a nice neighborhood, a one-time adobe that was modernized before Nieto bought it. It is still in the updating process along with the large backyard guest house that will be home to her parents. The walls are covered with framed photos taken by Nieto.
She smiles as she gives a tour of the remodel. It looks like she is digging in for the long haul. She whispers that she’s already decided to run again in six years.
Two elements of law enforcement that Nieto missed in Los Angeles is management of a jail and a coroner’s office.
To help with both, she has named Keith Boyd as undersheriff. Until this move, Boyd was chief of police in King City, where his assignment was to fix a department that had been wrecked by corruption, Boyd formerly worked in the Marin County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked in the jail and supervised the coroners’ division.
One of two chief deputies will be Garrett Sanders, promoted from commander in the department. He’ll be in charge of the jail. The others are Del Rey Oaks’ Hoyne, one of Nieto’s opponents in the primary election, and Eddie Anderson, who had been Nieto’s deputy chief in Marina. He’ll be in charge of the administrative bureau.
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