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Sheriff candidates talk jail deaths, homelessness in Lincoln Park forum

The two candidates vying to be the region’s next sheriff talked jail deaths, homelessness and their qualifications for the job during a forum at a Lincoln Park church Wednesday evening.

Undersheriff Kelly Martinez and former chief of the City Attorney’s criminal prosecutions unit John Hemmerling emerged as the top two voter-getters in the June primary and are facing off in the Nov. 8 election.

This is the first election in 30 years without an incumbent sheriff on the ballot in San Diego County.

In recent years, the department has been grappling with record numbers of jail deaths, staffing problems and an uptick in crime, as well as its own data indicating racial bias in stops and searches.

The county Sheriff’s Department has more than 4,600 staffers and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. It handles law enforcement in nine cities, from Imperial Beach to Vista, as well as the county’s unincorporated areas. It also provides security in the courts and runs the county’s seven jails.

Wednesday’s event at City of Hope International Church was hosted by 15 congregations from the San Diego Organizing Project, a nonpartisan network of faith congregations from across the region. They presented topics for discussion, including homelessness and jail deaths.

Eighteen people have died in jail custody thus far this year, including a longtime and long-ailing inmate who died shortly after a compassionate release from custody. That number matches the record-high number of deaths in 2021.

The state auditor looked into the high death rates and released a report earlier this year that was highly critical of the department. The report suggested legislation was needed to ensure change.

San Diego County sheriff candidates Kelly Martinez and John Hemmerling participate in a candidate forum hosted by the San Diego Organizing Project at City of Hope International Church on Wednesday in San Diego.

(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Martinez told the crowd she embraced the state auditor’s recommendations, and that most of them have been put in place. “We have a lot happening, a lot going on,” Martinez said.

She said new arrestees get physical and mental health screenings when they are booked, as well as a drug test so jail staffers can start withdrawal protocols if needed. Mail reception has been centralized to one location to better block drugs from getting into the jails.

The undersheriff said she authorized $16 million in wireless upgrades for better connectivity with jail and medical staff, and said doses of naloxone — which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — are available in inmate modules. And, she said, an inmate used the naloxone earlier this week to save another inmate’s life.

Martinez said she has allocated than $50 million in upgrades planned for George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa, and is spending $1 million to study how to upgrade the Vista Detention Facility.

Hemmerling said improving the jails will take more than adding doctors and other healthcare providers: “It’s about the positive will of leadership to make a change.”

“The ongoing crisis of senseless deaths in our jails is profoundly disturbing,” Hemmerling told attendees.

He said he supported scanning inmates and visitors when they enter secure areas, having tighter control of access points, and using block chain technology to track inmates and their health care more efficiently.

San Diego County sheriff candidates John Hemmerling (left) and Kelly Martinez

San Diego County Sheriff candidates John Hemmerling and Kelly Martinez participate in a candidate forum hosted by the San Diego Organizing Project at City of Hope International Church on Wednesday in San Diego.

(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hemmerling talked about the department’s inability to prevent deaths, and as well as staff shortages creating burnout among jailers made to work overtime.

A retired Marine colonel —serving 30 years in active duty or the reserves — with two combat tours, Hemmerling pointed to his time running a prison in Iraq, a assignment he received after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

“We sent the world a message that change and safety for individuals is possible, even in a war zone,” he said. “I’ll return honor and safety to our jails here.”

Both candidates also addressed the topic of homelessness, which the county Board of Supervisors declared a public health crisis earlier this week.

Martinez said that four years ago, she created the Homeless Assistance Outreach Team to get resources to unhoused people. She noted the intersection between homelessness and crime.

“While homelessness is not a crime, a lot of people who are involved in homelessness either do commit crimes or are victims of crimes” Martinez said. “Law enforcement is not the answer to homelessness but it definitely needs to be part of the solution.”

Hemmerling said he would approach it with “compassion and accountability.” He said he would have his deputies connect people with services proactively “when appropriate” instead of jail.

“But make no mistake, though. When there is crime occurring, enforcement will be used to protect our communities,” he said. “We can’t ignore criminal behavior.”

Martinez has spent 37 years with the department, and worked her way up the ranks in a variety of roles and station locations. Former Sheriff Bill Gore promoted her to be his undersheriff, responsible for daily operations much like a chief operating officer. Gore is endorsing her run for his old job.

Hemmerling has positioned himself as an outsider who would bring change. He is the former chief of the City Attorney’s criminal prosecutions unit, and also served as legal council for San Diego police under two chiefs. Before that, he spent roughly nine years as a San Diego police officer, including time on the beat in City Heights.

On Wednesday, retired sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers — who also ran to be sheriff and placed third in the primary — endorsed Hemmerling.

The sheriff’s race is nonpartisan, but local endorsements have split among party lines, with the county Republican party backing Hemmerling and the county Democratic party behind Martinez.

Myers, a Democrat who had the party’s backing in the primary, crossed party lines to back Hemmerling. Myers has long been a vocal critic of Gore, the former sheriff.

Myers said Hemmerling reached out to him after the Union-Tribune pulled its endorsement of Hemmerling after made statements considered anti-transgender. Myers, a member of the LGBTQ community, said he and Hemmerling met, and that Hemmerling also met with — and listened to — activists in the transgender community.

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