By Miriam Raftery
May 10, 2022 (San Diego) – John Hemmerling is a a retired Marine Corps Colonel and combat veteran, a former San Diego Police officer, and he’s served as head prosecutor in the city of San Diego’s Criminal and Community Justice Division. Now he’s running for San Diego Sheriff, hoping to fill the vacancy left by the retirement of former Sheriff Bill Gore.
East County Magazine recently sat down for an in-depth interview wit Hemmerling for his goals if elected. View the interview. View a followup question on scanner traffic. Hear an audio version aired on KNSJ Radio.
“Probably my most relevant experience would be the leadership that I bring,” he said. “You need strong leadership at the top. I’ve spent 36 plus years in public service.” That includes combat tours and running jails in Iraq. As a police officer he worked nearly a decade in City Heights, obtained his law degree and eventually became chief legal counsel for San Diego Police before his current position as chief criminal prosecutor for the city of San Diego.
San Diego has the highest number of jail deaths of any major California County and has been the target of a state audit, which called for major reforms. Asked if he supports the proposed reforms or has other approaches, he said, “I will do everything possible to make sure that no one else dies in our jails.” He noted that he provided comprehensive medical screenings at jails he ran in Iraq and will work to address deficiencies identified in the auditor’s report. He pledged to assure inmates in need of behavioral or psychiatric health are identified at intake. “I will demand better.”
He's pledged to reduce violent crimes is one of your top priorities. He cites changing laws such as Prop 47, the so-called “Safe Neighborhoods, Safe Schools Act” as being a “get out of jail free card” for many who came out and committed more crimes. “I’m going to focus on neighborhoods that have been underserved” on both violent and nonviolent crimes. He says victims are not being adequately respected to investigate and hold people accountable, but also sees a need for fixes in Sacramento.
He wants to improve morale in the Sheriff’s department. He says the last couple of years has seen a perception of law enforcement, bad press and “defund the police” have caused morale and recruiting problems. A county requirement for new employees to be vaccinated against COVID has also made it harder to fill vacancies in the Sheriff’s department, he adds. He also wants to increase advancement opportunities in the department.
Recent racial justice protests nationwide and locally have exposed concerns by many people of color about equity in policing. ECM asked how he would restore trust and improve equity, as well as address hate crimes.
He cites his time working in a diverse area, City Heights. “Connecting with people promotes trust and transparency.” He says public safety and protecting people’s lives will be his priority. He pledged not to ignore disadvantaged neighborhoods, which he said is “just as bad as overpolicing. …I believe equal protection is not just constitutional, it’s also a matter of life and death in some of those communities.” As for hate crimes, as a prosecutor he implemented a vertical system where one person takes the crime all the way through, from contacting victims to taking a case to court. “I get briefed on every single hate crime that comes before us, so that I’m familiar with trends…I think it’s important that we take all hate crimes absolutely seriously.” He also wants to be sure victims know he will make it an “absolute priority” to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on bias such as race or gender.
Some rural areas in East County such as Campo and Jacumba have very long response times, even to calls reporting violent crimes in progress. Residents in these areas are taxpayers just as residents in urban areas. Asked what can be done to improve Sheriff response times to protect their safety, Hemmerling replied, “These individuals in the rural areas pay taxes just like anybody else does.” He notes that the Sheriff recently renewed contracts with nine cities, adding, “I’m going to look at each and every one of those taxpayers” to make sure they are fair for all. He said those contracts impact how many deputies can be assigned elsewhere. To improve service in rural areas, he said, “It may require me going to the county board of supervisors” to request more money for law enforcement in rural areas. “Quite the opposite of defund police, we need more officers” in areas such as unincorporated areas of El Cajon or Bonita “and if they do call it takes a day or two for someone to come out and respond to the call…It’s not fair to the public and it’s not fair to the deputies who need support.”
Hemmerling has said he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and concealed carry permits, an issue over which Sheriff Gore was sued. He’s endorsed by the Republican Party and some conservative leaders, yet has drawn criticism from Michael Schwartz, head of the San Diego County Gun Owners Association, largely over his enforcement of gun violence restraining orders under red flag laws. We asked him to respond to that criticism and share his stance on laws cracking down on ghost guns, homemade weapons commonly used by felons prohibited from owning weapons.
“I am a supporter of the gun violence restraining orders and red flag laws,” he said, but indicated his actions have been mischaracterized. He cites situations where someone is not in their right mind due to drugs or making immediate threats, these “are useful to the community and law enforcement. Contrary to popular belief, I support this only when there is due process” where a judge weighs in. As for the county wanting to pass ghost gun laws, he says, “There are already laws on the books. We just need to enforce the laws that exist.” As for concealed carry permits, he says he’ll be the “strongest Sheriff you’ve seen in decades.” He believes if someone cites a need for self defense or personal safety, and passes a background check, they should be issued a permit.
Asked whether all rape kits should be tested, he said he doesn’t know how many are untested but that if possible, they should be tested. A new statute requires testing, he noted, but said sometimes kits have been untested because a suspect was already identified and is in custody.
His endorsements include “individuals who understand good, conservative law and order” notably the San Diego County and California Republican parties, as well as El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, Santee Mayor John Minto, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, as well as the San Diego Deputy City Attorneys association and more.
In a followup question in a separate video we asked Hemmerling if he would commit to restore public and media access to scanner traffic, other than private info required by a new state law to be encrypted. Since January 1, the Sheriff has blocked all access to scanner traffic, unlike SDPD, which moved private info onto a secure channel, but kept the vast majority of scanner transmissions available to the public. This action has prevented our own East County Wildfire & Emergency Alerts from accessing real-time information on law enforcement emergencies that threaten public safety.
“Absolutely I will commit to that,” Hemmerling said of restoring access to scanners. “One of my priorities…is transparency and accountability and this fits right in line with it…When the public knows what’s going on and they’re more informed and engaged” with law enforcement, he added.
“It’s important to have a leader who has vision and a leader who has backbone,” Hemmerling concluded, noting his experience ranges from being a beat cop to leading people in combat. “Instead of focusing so much on social justice, I’m going to get back to criminal justice and respecting victims of crime.” His website is https://www.johnhemmerlingforsheriff.com/
Hemmerling, is one of several candidates running for San Diego County Sheriff in the upcoming June primary election. We’ve previously interviewed two of the other leading candidates, Dave Myers and Kelly Martinez. You can find all of their interviews on our website at EastCountyMagazine.org in the Politics section.