Tent city jails, sonic weapons, border crimes, Las Colinas prison expansion, and cuts in deputy staffing among hottest issues
By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Leon Thompson
September 15, 2009 (El Cajon) – Four candidates vying to be the top lawman in San Diego County faced off outside El Cajon's civic center on Sept. 12, dueling verbally over who is the strongest leader to protect our region from crime. The candidates also differed sharply on issues isuch as immigration enforcement, budget priorities, prison overcrowding, concealed weapons, use of sonic weapons, and deputy staffing cuts.
East County Magazine Editor Miriam Raftery and KCBQ radio host Rick Amato co-moderated the debate, which drew raucous responses from the crowd.
Sheriff Bill Gore’s 42-year law enforcement career included heading up the San Diego FBI office before serving five years as Undersheriff, then gaining appointment by the Board of Supervisors to replace retiring Sheriff Bill Kolender this year. Gore defended his record against challengers Jay LaSuer (former Assemblyman and past Undersheriff), Bruce Ruff (a 30-year law enforcement veteran who placed second in the last Sheriff’s election), and Jim Duffy (past president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association and son of a former Sheriff.
“Crime is at a 25 year low right now,” said Gore. He took credit for getting federal grants approved for more deputies to patrol East County and battle border crime, as well as implementing technology programs such as a computerized forensics lab that has become a national model. He also cited experience in collaboration with other law enforcement agencies, forming task forces and having the experience necessary to oversee the department during an era of tough budget cuts. “We’ve made cuts, prioritized, and still have more deputies on the street than at any time in history,” he said.
Gore’s key endorsements include former Sheriff Bill Kolender, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Mayor Jerry Sanders, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, Congressman Darrell Issa, three Supervisors, and Mayors of Lemon Grove, Escondido, and El Cajon.
LaSuer argued that he is the only candidate who has worked in the Sheriff’s Department from the bottom up, gaining experience as a commander as well as political experience. “The most qualified candidate with the most experience is me,” he maintained. A staunch conservative, LaSuer touts endorsement by controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Congressman Duncan Hunter, Santee Mayor Randy Voepel, Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, and Gun Owners of California.
Ruff pledged to streamline the Sheriff’s department to make it more efficient and effective, also vowing to do more to secure our borders. Ruff has stated that he will not seek endorsements because to do so implies favors. In the last election, he drew criticism from some for his endorsement by the Minutemen, a border vigilante group. He criticized the Department’s $6 million budget as well as Gore’s mid-term appointment. “I told you you’d be betrayed mid-term and you were,” he said, reminding voters that he predicted Kolender would resign and assure Gore’s appointment without an election.
Duffy vowed to use tax dollars wisely while fulfilling his obligation to enforce all laws and keep the community safe. He aims to eliminate the two-tier deputy system and train detention sheriffs to be qualified to patrol streets and respond to backcountry fires. “It’s time to prioritize, put public safety first and rebuilt the structure of the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.
Duffy is endorsed by the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs Association, San Diego Police Officers Association, and a bipartisan group of elected officials including Congressman Bob Filner, Congressman Brian Bilbray, Assemblyman Joel Anderson, Senator Denise Ducheny, Supervisor Ron Roberts, and La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid.
ECM asked candidates how they would deal with a federal court order mandating release of state prisoners to relieve prison overcrowding—a move which could lead the state to turn away some of the200 prisoners a week currently sent to state prisons. “It’s going to be a tremendous problems,” said Gore, who supports expanding Las Colinas prison in Santee to add 400 beds for female prisoners as well as 1,000 beds in Otay Mesa for male prisoners.
La Suer opposes expanding the jail in Santee’s town center. Instead, he proposed using the Santee facility as a temporary booking center and building a new facility elsewhere. He proposed erecting a tent city in the desert to house prisoners. “What would Joe Arpaio do?” he asked. “Every prisoner in Maricopa County (Arizona) volunteered to wear that pink underwear…Joe’s first tent jail housed 500 people and cost $1 million,” he said, adding that San Diego’s downtown jail costs $80 million and houses 5,000.
Duffy agreed that release of prisoners will cause crime to “skyrocket” and praised the three-strikes rule. He agreed with Gore on expanding Las Colinas and criticized the tent city idea. “We don’t need a tent city in the desert when we’ve got 1,500 empty beds, mainline beds as of last night,” he said, calling for booking of those with misdemeanor warrants to reduce crime.
“We will have to cut people lose,” said Ruff who added that prisoner releases have been ordered from San Diego jails by federal courts in the past. Ruff called tent cities a “viable option” but suggested the County consider selling valuable land in Santee and house female inmates temporarily at Camp Descanso, which is currently closed.
The candidates clashed when an audience member noted that an Al Qaeda video threatens to smuggle anthrax across the border in tunnels, then asked whether local law enforcement should enforce immigration laws.
“You can’t use county resources to enforce federal law or we have to take them out of the enforcement numbers that we have for you,” said Ruff, who faults the federal government for providing amnesty in the past while failing to control the borders. “It doesn’t take a huge tunnel to bring anthrax in.” Such weapons could be trafficked inside backpacks, he warned.
LaSuer accused Gore of running a “sanctuary county” and faulted Gore for not doing enough to prevent immigrant-related crimes.
Gore defended his department’s policy of detaining suspected illegal immigrants for up to an hour and added that the department has stationed federal immigration agents inside the Sheriff’s facilities. Gore denied that San Diego is a “sanctuary county” and said he’s followed guidelines recommended by County attorneys to comply with federal laws. He noted that the County has received $23 million in federal grants in the past two years to combat border violence without using local tax funds. “We have deputies in East County round the clock now addressing these problems,” he said. “We’ve had over 500 arrests, and over 164 seizures in the last year.”
Ruff retorted, “The bottom line is they’re blowing smoke up your shorts. It’s your tax money, my tax money and it’s being wasted.” Ruff offered a startling proposal for handling suspected illegal immigrants. “I’m gonna put them on busses that hold 55 people. We’re gonna drive them down to the border and tell the federal people, `Here are your prisoners and now you can kick them out of the country.”
Duffy proposed cross-swearing in deputies to serve as immigration agents, too, enabling agents to put a longer hold on unlawful immigrants in the Sheriff’s custody. “If we are arresting someone for a crime and someone is booking into a Sheriff’s jail, why are you letting them go?”
But Gore said Orange County, where deputies are already cross-sworn in as federal immigrant agents, has around the same percentage of releases.
Gore took sharp criticism from other candidates and the crowd when asked about the Department’s deployment of sonic weapons at recent Congressional town hall forums for Susan Davis and Darrell Issa—a story broken last week by East County Magazine.
“The device was purchased as a crowd dispersal,” Sheriff Gore said. He denied that the unit, a long-range acoustic device used as a sonic weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan, could burst eardrums. “This is a non-lethal device to disperse crowds should there be the need,” he reiterated, adding that alternatives would include pepper spray.
La Suer sharply disagreed. “They are very, very lethal weapons. They are military weapons. They have no place in law enforcement,” he said. “Why in the name of God you would take on when a United Statese member of Congress has invited people to come speak about the health debate that’s going on, I don’t know….You have deployed a weapon to be used potentially against American citizens…shame on you.”
Duffy called the $40,000 spent on the LRAD a waste of money, adding, “I don’t think it belongs in our arsenal…It should never have been purchased and secondly, should not have been deployed in that environment.”
Ruff held up a copy of East County Magazine’s article on the sonic weapon controversy. He accused the Sheriff’s office of buying “whiz bang gadgetry” and not fully training personnel in use of the LRAD. He later hinted that he might support its use for purposes other than crowd control, however. “We’re not using this LRAD at the border to stop stuff; we’re not using it to stop terrorists,” he said, arguing for a need to secure our region and our border.
Kim Dvorak of Examiner.com asked Sheriff Gore if he had any credible evidence prior to the town halls that use of such a “brutal force” might be needed. Gore replied that the LRAD was at the meetings “to have it reserved should there be a problem. That’s all I can say.”
Gore also took heat from challengers for pleading the fifth amendment in an investigation into Ruby Ridge, where he was an officer, and for the fact that two 911 hijackers living in San Diego were not discovered while he headed up the San Diego FBI office.
“We missed the 911 terrorists that flew into the Pentagon that trained in this county,” Ruff said. “We had an informant in the house. Somebody at this table is responsible for that.”
Gore defended his department’s efforts, blaming the CIA for failing to inform the FBI in time. “Those two hijackers were long gone from San Diego County and the CIA never gave that information to the FBI until two months before 911,” he said. “Had the CIA given that information to the FBI, we could have found those two people because they were listed in the phone book. It was a massive breakdown in communications.”
Duffy told the audience to read the 911 report, which he said contained criticisms of the FBI in San Diego. But Gore said there were three different reports—and that solving narcotics crimes was the San Diego FBI’s priority prior to 911. Under his leadership, the agency took down the Arellano-Felix drug cartel.
A retired police officer said more deputies are needed on the streets and asked how candidates who accomplish that.
LaSuer said the department is top-heavy with administration. Ruff pledged to develop the former Naval Training Center and train detention deputies on the job to fill patrol positions. Duffy supports a single class of deputies, noting that detention deputies are paid less than law enforcement deputies currently. He also called for more community policing. Gore said the department had $25 million in cuts last year but added, “I am proud to say we have more deputies on patrol than at any time in our history. That’s because we made tough decisions.”
A reporter from the San Diego Examiner asked if candidates would consider individual self protection as justification for concealed weapons permits. Ruff, La Suer and Duffy all agreed that California law is a “may issue” state that gives the Sheriff discretion to make such choices. Gore said California is a shall not state, meaning law enforcement must not issue a permit unless there is cause (as opposed to “shall issue” states where permits must be issued unless there is cause not to). “I’m compelled to comply with state law,” he said.
ECM asked candidates what steps they might take to prevent and reduce hate crimes, as well as improve reporting and investigation of hate-related incidents, citing a rise in racially motivated attacks in East County’s schools and streets.
“Hate crimes are unacceptable,” said Duffy. “There shouldn’t be any tolerance.” He said failure to report a crime as a hate crime (i.e., listing it as a gang incident or some other crime) is a problem and added, “If it’s a hate crime, it should be prosecuted that way.” He also called for revitalization of Sheriff outreach programs “so people know they have a right to contact law enforcement even where there is a language barrier…We need to keep everyone safe.”
Gore said his department has aggressively investigation some serious hate crimes, leading to a conviction in Lakeside and a recent arrest in a Deerhorn Valley incident. He clarified that the District Attorney determines what charges to file and whether a hate crimes charge will be brought.
LaSuer replied, “Any time a serious crime occurs you have hate involved, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be classified as a hate crime.” Although the D.A. determines charges, he noted, “You make the arrest and investigation….Attitude comes from the top down.”
Ruff noted that crimes tend to get “clumped together” instead of requiring officers to know specifics in various penal codes. “We need education,” he said. “If you have a competent case, it should go forward and should be prosecuted—and then we would have the ability to go through the Attorney General’s Office and ask the state to intervene if the D.A. chooses not to prosecute.”
In closing, Gore argued that he has been a a wise fiscal steward over the department’s $530 million budget amid the worst financial crisis since the Depression, and warned that more budget cuts are coming due to the state’s failure to balance its budget.
LaSuer cited his legislative experience on budgetary bills as well as his long career in law enforcement as reasons why he believes he’s the most qualified candidate.
Ruff faulted his opponents as “career politicians” and said he’s a university-trained educator who spent 30 years in law enforcement. “Every place I worked, crime went down,” he said, also calling for borders to be secured. “I know how to get us back and to move us forward efficiently and effectively.”
Duffy, the youngest of the panel at 48, pledged to keep voters and their families safe while using tax dollars wisely and enforcing all laws. “I’ve gotten a lot of support and endorsements from Congressmen, but also from rank and file cops and firefighters on the street and I’m very proud, because the person they want to lead them should mean something to you,” he concluded. “You’ve got to have a leader who is setting the tone and has a vision of where he wants to go.”
To hear the complete debate, visit http://www.amatotalk.com/podcasts/AMATO-09-14-09-HR1.mp3 and http://www.amatotalk.com/podcasts/AMATO-09-14-09-HR2.mp3.
Several of the candidates subsequently appeared on Amato’s show, trading additional barbs. Tapes of those appearances are at http://www.amatotalk.com/podcasts/
To learn more about the candidates, visit their websites at:
JIM DUFFY: http://www.duffyforsheriff.com/index.html
BILL GORE: http://www.goreforsheriff.com/
JAY LASUER: http://www.sheriffjay.org/
BRUCE RUFF: http://www.bruff4sheriff.com/