In addition to interviewing Tina Nieto, Voices of Monterey Bay’s Royal Calkins sent her some written questions. Here are her responses on some key issues facing the department as she becomes sheriff.
Royal Calkins: You said you would be highly focused on the jail. What do you see as the biggest problems there? Staffing? Training? Leadership? Attitude? Health care? What can be done to improve things quickly?
Tina Nieto: I think leadership is the biggest challenge. The folks who work there want to do a good job, but the upper leadership was constantly in the news for the several scandals (as you well know) and morale was not the greatest. The deputies and professional staff want their leaders to follow the rules and set the example. Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” Leadership is the lynchpin to move the office of the sheriff forward to deal with staffing, training, attitude, etc. I also believe that a new team coming in with a fresh perspective has already started to change some attitudes.
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RC: Are you be interested in replacing Wellpath, the company that provides health care, physical and mental, to the inmates and that has received considerable criticism for its work? I’m not sure if there are good private alternatives. Would you support investigating a way to have Natividad or other county resources take over medical and mental health treatment at the jail?
TN: Yes, I am interested in replacing Wellpath and shifting the care over to our partners at Natividad, a county hospital; however it will take several years and many meetings to implement such a shift in medical and mental healthcare.
RC: You’re not a progressive cop but do you feel that running a clean, well-disciplined department can accomplish some of what the progressives are looking for — better treatment of suspects and inmates, investigations based on evidence rather than politics, etc.?
TN: I believe our agency needs to follow the rules that are already established for our personnel and hold people accountable to doing their jobs. I also believe that all people need to be treated with dignity and handled professionally. The office of the sheriff needs to base its programs on what they call evidence-based programs that show success that can be measured. It should not be implementing programs just because it sounds good or is just the latest movement of either political side. My team and I have to evaluate how the Sheriff’s Office operates based on many factors that can be measured to show improvement in our duties. Finally, although I am elected, our investigations will always be based on the evidence and where it leads us, no matter what the truth reveals. I am not willing to violate my own values to win an election, it is just not worth it in my opinion.
RC: You mentioned LAPD’s zero-tolerance policy. Will you enact something like that here?
TN: Yes, we should be taking all complaints so that we can build trust with our communities and that no voice is unheard. Like the LAPD model, how we classify and adjudicate complaints will be key in creating a doable program that can be included in transparency reports to the public.
RC: Your undersheriff spent considerable time with the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. Does he have much jail experience?
TN: Yes, he does, but most importantly he has leadership experience. You should talk to him.
RC: Will you explore a way to separate the hiring of correctional officers from the hiring of deputies?
TN: That is a conversation that we are already having with our unions that represent both jail and field personnel. Also, my team and I will be talking to other sheriff offices to see how they have worked out that issue. There are 58 counties in our beautiful state, I don’t understand why the MCSO operates as if they are the only ones with ideas. That is going to change as soon as I assume office, and my team and I have already started those conversations with our sheriff partners.
RC: Will you seek ways to divert more mental patients, addicts and others to treatment rather than incarceration?
TN: As many as our county can handle without sacrificing public safety. The MCSO is the most expensive hotel, and medical provider in our county (and cities). We need to continue to work together to get mental patients, addicts and others to treatment so that the jail can stop being a revolving door for short-term solutions to larger problems that continue to grow worse.
RC: You’ve said you would support a community oversight board for the department? How about an inspector general? Santa Cruz County is hiring an outside company to come in and serve as inspector general for the SO and the jail. Up there, they are now having a debate over exactly how much power to give to an IG, to determine how independent it can be. Can it just review department events and investigations or can I conduct full-blown investigations of its own, with subpoena power, etc.? Are you concerned about sheriff’s staff reaction to such a move?
TN: I just believe that the sheriff should not have so much power that they are only accountable to the voters. I support oversight, whether it is in the form of an oversight committee or an inspector general. An inspector general model is the easiest to implement, but the Board of Supervisors has to do exactly what Santa Cruz is doing, determine what powers they will have, what training, are they truly independent etc. There are no simple solutions unfortunately, but we have to do it better than we are, even if that means there could be bumps in the road along the way.
RC: Finally, with your budget limiting the number of sworn staffers, can you envision a way to have your detectives do more with sex trafficking, white-collar crime, computer crime, government misconduct and cannabis?
TN: Yes, holding people accountable is a start. The MCSO needs to get back to basics in its evidence-based problem-solving models, then we can start doing more with sex trafficking, white collar crime, computer crime, government misconduct and cannabis. We also need to partner more with our municipal, state, and federal partners to work on these issues that are not just occurring in the county but that are crossing into all our jurisdictions. Collectively we can get more done.
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