View video of full interview; Hear audio
March 24, 2023 (San Diego) – Earlier this month, East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery interviewed San Diego County’s new Sheriff, Kelly Martinez, for our radio show on KNSJ. She’s been in law enforcement since 1985, working her way up the ranks from Deputy Sheriff to Undersheriff before winning election as Sheriff last November. She’s also the first woman to serve as San Diego’s top law enforcement officer. In our interview, she spoke about efforts to improve jails and reduce jail deaths, combat human trafficking and fentanyl overdoses, hold deputies accountable for wrongdoing, address homelessness issues, and expand staffing - including some jobs currently open, and more.
Two of her top priorities are increasing staffing and improving county jails.
Regarding staffing, she said, “We’re doing well hiring law enforcement deputy sheriffs right now,” but added, “We’re short staffed in the jails. We need detention deputies, nurses, mental health clinicians, com center dispatchers…So if anyone listening is looking for a job they’re welcome to call the Sheriff’s department. That would be great.”
As for improvements at jails, she said, “We’ve done a lot of work in the last year but we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
The high number of jail deaths in recent years prompted a state auditor’s report and legislative oversight. Sheriff Martinez has implemented many reforms since taking office and has more planned. Asked to discuss some of those reforms, she said, “A: A critical component of people wo come into our custody is really their healthcare, and so we’ve done a lot to improve understanding of the status of people’s health when they come in at intake. We’re doing a better job of medical and mental healthcare screening at intake. We do a voluntary urine sample at intake” to screen for drugs.
To reduce overdose deaths in jails, she says, “Our deputies and nurses and all of our staff have been carrying NARCAN since last year. Late last year, we also introduced it into housing and intake areas for people in our custody to use…About 15 people have been saved by people in custody,” she says, adding that she is “really excited” over this. “We’re one of only about three jails in the state to do that.”
Under her leadership, jails have also expanded telemedicine. “We brought in a contracted provider last June that’s bringing in all of our doctor staff and some psychiatrists and 23 different contracts they manage for us,” the Sheriff said. “We’re having better connectivity through wireless technology,” such as improved access to medical records of people in custody. “That’s helped a lot.”
In addition, body worn cameras have been introduced in the jail system “so we understand what’s happening.” Training and procedures have also been improved, she said.
“We have a lot of infrastructure improvements to make,” Sheriff Martinez noted. That includes a $50 million renovation of the George Bailey detention facility slated to start later this year, as well as a nearly completed renovation of the Rock Mountain facility and plans to upgrade the Vista facility.
Despite these successes, there have been a couple of deaths on her watch. In addition, an autopsy report release the morning of our early March interview ruled that a death of a mentally ill man in custody in March 2022 (before her election) was a homicide. He was found to have pneumonia, malnutrition and dehydration related to untreated mental illness, as well as COVID-19 and blunt force trauma. The report indicates the man had threatened to kill anyone who tried to medicate him.
Asked what can be done in the future with prisoners who are severely mentally ill to help protect them and others, Martinez replied, “After that incident happened last March, we really became proactive in how we handle people in our custody who really need conservatorship. They need someone else to make medical decisions on them . So we’ve streamlined our process to get conservatorship granted through the courts” to enable forced medications and other care when needed. “Then we identified about 10% of the population who are gravely disabled; they’re unable to care for themselves,” she added. “We check on them a couple of times with a multidisplinary team” including doctors, mental healthcare providers and security staff, who assure that the individuals are healthy, check their hygiene and make sure that they are eating. “I think we’re doing a better job,” the Sheriff said.
In addition, the Sheriff’s department is considering a separate psychiatric facility for people n custody who are deemed too mentally ill to care for themselves. “Last year, we started a collaboration with HHSA in behavioral health,” Sheriff Martinez explained. “The focus of that group is to look at best practices to treat people with health issues, not only while they’re in custody, but pre-custody and post-custody, so we can have that continuity of care so people don’t deteriorate when they’re in and out of custody...One thought I had envisioned was a hospital just for people in our custody, so that people aren’t being treated in a jail setting, they’re treating people in a hospital setting. ..Our consultants will advise us if that’s going to be a best practice and I’m looking forward to that recommendation.”
Asked for an update on crime rates and trends of concern, Sheriff Martinez replied, “What’s really been concerning, obviously is fentanyl. That’s really having an impact on our communities…We started a program where deputies have NARCAN, they leave it behind in homes where they think it may help.” She voiced concerns over children being exposed to fentanyl and young adults who are using fentayl and overdosing, sometimes with fatal results.”
A second major concern that she named is human trafficking, including sex trafficking of children. Asked what the Sheriff’s department is doing to help reduce trafficking in our region, she replied, “When I was a lieutenant, I was actually on the ground floor of bringing our human trafficking task force to San Diego along with D.A. (Summer) Stephan. We’re still involved with that,” she says of the task force run by the Dept. of Justice. She called trafficking an “awful” situation, citing concern for victims being groomed and then “ victimized, abused, raped, and trafficked…a lot of times it’s young teenagers, both boys and girls.”
Nationwide, there have been concerns over deaths at the hands of law enforcement that have made names like George Floyd a household name, and most recently the beating death of a young black man, Tyre Nichols, by Memphis police. While San Diego has not been in the spotlight for such horrific incidents, ECM asked Sheriff Martinez what she thinks needs to be done to address the culture within police departments that has contributed to such tragedies, and if she has implemented any changes in training procedures within the San Diego County Sheriff’s department to address this concern.
Sheriff Martinez responded, “I think when you look at both George Floyd and Tyre Nichols there was a culture in the departments. One startling thing in the Tyre Nichols case was those officers were on camera and they continued to beat him … That was clearly a homicide. That wasn’t a police action at all. And I think it’s important to know that most officers and most deputies in this country are doing the right thing for the right reason. In San Diego County we’ve been very proactive in de-escalation techniques and monitoring body worn cameras and just really being engaged with our supervisors when things are going the wrong direction.”
On her watch, several deputies were recently arrested for crimes ranging from bringing drugs onto jail property to a bar fight involving an off-duty officer. “We’re not above the law in this job,” the new Sheriff told ECM. “Trust and accountability go hand in hand. I expect people who work for me to have integrity and to do the right thing for the right reasons – certainly not commit criminal acts, and if they do, then they’re going to be held accountable-- and I’ll be very open and transparent about those arrests and what is going on. In talking to the people in our department, they are holding their heads a little higher right now because they understand that we are a department of integrity.”
ECM asked about a concern raised by the family of Ronald Town, a man who died after being found injured on Highway 78 in Ramona on January 9 under suspicious circumstances, with blunt force injuries. California Highway Patrol took a report but did not investigate a report of theft or concerns raised by those close to him over whether his death may have been a homicide. His mother, an employer, and a friend then tried to go to the Sheriff’s department, but said the Ramona substation wouldn’t take a report. Town, who worked as a handyman, was found late at night three miles from his home, without the service dog that he took everywhere and without either of his vehicles. Before he died, he reportedly said he’d been robbed. Family and friends told ECM that his landlord had Town’s vehicles and that family learned that Town’s belongings went missing and his safe was emptied out.
Sheriff Martinez said the primary agency of jurisdiction is CHP. “They can conduct a homicide investigation if they believe there is enough information there,” she said, adding, “That would be the agency the family should press for answers… They can investigation any crime that occurs on state property” including thefts. “ She added that family can ask for a supervisor.
Homelessness is a big challenge in our region. ECM asked Sheriff Martinez about her approach to compassionately deal with homeless people in need while also addressing community concerns if a homeless person is doing something illegal.
“ I started the Homeless Assistance Research Team in 2018. They’ve done a terrific job of providing resources to people who are homeless,” she said. “They continue to work in all of our unincorporated areas…They cleaned up the Magnolia area (aformer homeless camp, now a safe parking site for homeless people). “
She added, “If someone commits a crime, it doesn’t matter if they are homeless or not. We know that homelessness and crime intersect, both with people being victimized as homeless individuals, or homeless committing crimes. Right now, we don’t have the room to house people long-term…We’re working on that, so hopefully we can provide safe space for people committing crime and then provide them the resources while in our custody, so that hopefully they won’t be homeless when they get out.”
Sheriff Martinez ran on a platform of improving transparency and information to the public. Asked what’s been done on this since she took office in January, she said, “We’ve done a lot. As far as our Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board, we have an MOA that I signed with the director last year to respond to in-custody death scenes as well as officer-involved shooting scenes. We’ve had some deputies arrested…We were very open and transparent about that. “ She added that there are a lot of materials now available on the Sheriff’s website at www.SDSheriff.net, “and I’m trying to make myself a lot more available to the media.
ECM asked what can be done to improve communications to the press and public about crimes and other incidents, especially during emergencies that threaten public safety. Editor Miriam Raftery noted that since a new state law took effect prohibiting transmission of private data over law enforcement radio channels, the Sheriff’s department and all East County police departments have taken channels offline, and that fewer press releases from most agencies have made it even harder for media to access information.
Sheriff Martinez said the Sheriff’s department does a lot through social media to instantly alert the public about severe weather, wildland fires, and more. To better inform the community, press releases are now in Spanish and English, she added, but acknowledged a need to “do better” at increasing the number of press releases on major crimes and breaking news incidents.
Asked what else she is doing as San Diego County’s “top cop” to help improve the Sheriff’s department and keep people safe across our region, she rpelied, “For a lot of our communities they might notice some new leadership at the stations,” noting that commander promotions are coming up at stations and some substations may also have new leadership soon. She encouraged the public to keep an eye on the Sheriff’s social media accounts for info on coffees with the community and other opportunities to meet these new leaders.
She added, “We’re really working on evidence based policing…Be sure to report when something happens in your community, because that’s how we know how to focus our resources.” Prevention is also important, she said. She urged residents to lock their doors and vehicles, and to let others know if you’ve been victimized by a crime such as mail theft, for example, “so that people can be on the lookout and be each other’s advocates for safety.”
Sheriff Martinez closed with this promise. “I’d like everyone in our communities to know that I work for you. I’m a Sheriff elected by the people, and I really work for the people. My goal in life is to keep our communities safe--and to do the best job I can for all of you.”
Domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police.
FBI statistics showed an average of 4,194 officer assaults occur annually from domestic violence calls. Between 1980 and 2006, a total of 113,236 officer assaults occurred at these calls and 160 officers died as a result of these assaults. https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/22/us/domestic-incidents-police-officers-dan...
It would probably be unsafe to send an unarmed person out to those types of incidents, though if it's been tried anywhere I'd be interested to see the resuls.