Soon after Matt Kendall moved up from Undersheriff to Sheriff on Dec. 30 last year, he made several visits to the Mendocino Coast. On Jan. 11, he showed up at the award ceremony for Ian Miller, a State Parks lifeguard who saved the lives of two people in the space of a month in the winter of 2018. The following week, he made an appearance at the Fort Bragg City Council meeting. He’s met with the Latino Coalition of the Mendocino Coast, the Point Arena City Council, Manchester and Gualala Municipal Advisory Councils, the Manchester/Point Arena band of Pomo Indians and South Coast fire chiefs, as well as attending assorted events in Fort Bragg. He’s on the League of Women Voters of the Mendocino Coast’s agenda next month.
Kendall had the incentive to hit the ground running. His predecessor, Tom Allman, raised the public profile of Mendocino County’s Sheriff to new heights, with a natural talent for gab, no shyness around TV cameras, and a number of high profile cases and issues that got national attention.
Allman also got elected to office four times and was highly visible in real life too, hosting events, cutting ribbons, auctioneering, taking high profile roles in the campaigns to fund and build mental health facilities in the county, and prepare for wildfire, power shutoffs and other emergencies.
Allman wanted Kendall to succeed him and said so often. They’d served side by side for decades. Both of them grew up locally — Allman in Willits — and not very far apart.
But Kendall’s and Allman’s public styles are very different. There was almost a Joe Friday curtness in the way Kendall introduced himself at the Fort Bragg City Council meeting in January.
He spoke for all of about a minute, delivering the message that the Sheriff’s Office would be focused on efficiency and service, and if anybody had any questions or concerns, his door was open. The city council said thanks and he sat down.
But Kendall isn’t reluctant to talk. He readily agreed to an hour with a reporter; no preconditions or uneasiness with the press were apparent. The questions were hardly combative, but Kendall seems to be fine with speaking his mind and letting people decide for themselves about what he thinks.
His story starts with, and often circles back to, growing up in Covelo.
“I took a test to get out of high school when I was 16 years old,” he said. “I immediately went to work on ranches. When I turned 18, I went to work at the sawmill, saved up a little bit of money and went down to Santa Rosa Junior College. I was going to study marketing. So I actually got my feet in the door. I got a job at a feed store and I started doing all these new marketing things. Well, guess what? When you’re 20 years old, marketing sucks.”
Kendall returned to Mendocino County and went to work at the county jail in May 1990, an entry point for many locally grown Sheriff’s deputies.
After two years at the jail, Kendall transferred to the coast as a deputy Sheriff and worked there until 1995, when he became Covelo’s resident deputy. A year later, he joined the County’s Major Crimes Task Force, where he worked as a detective until 1999.
That year, Sheriff Tony Craver promoted Kendall to Sergeant, and he was assigned to Ukiah for about a year. He transferred to Willits and worked the north part of the county — a hot spot for very large grows and black market activity — for about 16 years. He returned to an investigations position in Ukiah, and in 2018, Allman appointed him as Undersheriff, where he served until Allman’s retirement on Dec. 28, 2019. Two days later, Kendall was sworn in as Sheriff.
His dad, Alonzo Kendall — who goes by Burl or A.B. — was a heavy equipment operator for the county, then a firefighter for what was known as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CalFire today.
Kendall credits his dad most often for teaching him and his two brothers and two sisters to work, among other things. But when it came to resetting his career after the early foray into marketing, Kendall said he was guided by some of his mother Judith’s advice. (Judith Kendall died in 2003. Her maiden name was Hurley and both she and Alonzo Kendall came from Mendocino and the South Coast.)
“You can sit on your butt and you can pray all day long,” Kendall remembers his mom telling them. “You can pray that you can get good grades. You can pray that you’re going to get this job, but first you have to get off your butt and put your gloves in your back pocket. God’s only going to meet you halfway.”
Family and work come up often when Kendall is making a point, and clearly shape his approach to the Sheriff’s office and the various groups of people it and he come into contact with.
So does Covelo.
Covelo is an unusual community even for Mendocino County. Its modern (post-settler) history starts in tragedy — the Round Valley Reservation was the destination of Northern California’s own Trail of Tears. Native Americans from the far northern reaches of the state and all through the Central Valley were driven by the U.S. cavalry to a remote coast range valley and forced into co-existence and a struggle for survival.
But Round Valley is also home to the triumph and continued struggle of those tribes — now formally organized as the Round Valley Indian Tribes — living and working together, and to the communities and families there who survive and thrive through courage and faith in each other. That kind of success — “it’s little wins in life that keep us going,” Kendall says — balances out the fact that a very large portion of Mendocino’s County’s violent crime happens in and around Covelo. For many reasons, Covelo comes up often when Kendall talks about what he hopes to accomplish as Sheriff.
Whether it’s the jail, the opioid plague in Mendocino County and across rural America, maintaining his department’s staffing, Kendall also talks often about changing how people think and see.
“A lot of it is the culture you are raised in,” he said regarding domestic violence, though the statement applied to many of his points. “I’m not talking about the culture of the Irish versus the Native American versus Chinese. It’s not that culture. It’s the culture of your home. When people talk about culture, they want to attach it to a race. A lot of times, culture is not about race, culture is about what occurred in your home as you were growing up.”
Kendall’s growing up happened in the woods, mountains, ranches and rooftops (his dad was also a roofer and “we basically were his little slaves until we left home”) in the northeast corner of Mendocino County, during a time when Round Valley still had a large sawmill, and the county jail filled up every winter with loggers and fishermen who did their DUI time in the off-season, by arrangement with an understanding judge.
Now Round Valley’s sawmill, along with Fort Bragg’s, Branscomb’s, Ukiah’s, are all closed. The hills and towns of Mendocino County, home to a now barely legal, generations-old marijuana industry, are rife with heroin, fentanyl and meth. The people in the county jail don’t have logging jobs or fishing boats to go back to in the spring. In a lot of cases, the people getting out of jail, in their addicted and mentally battered condition, don’t have any hope at all.
That, Kendall said, is something he wants to work on.
“If I have a guy who comes in here and serves two years, when he walks out the door, he is homeless most of the time,” he said. “If he walks out the door to a job? We recently had one of our contractors show up on a Monday morning because we had a guy who was getting out of jail and he already had a job. He came and picked him up. That’s where we’ve got to get.”
There’s a lot of ‘getting there’ to be done, though. Kendall is frank about the deficiencies of the current jail for the services required today, many having to do with mental health, addiction treatment and education.
The day before the interview, a man had walked out of the Emergency Room at Mendocino Coast District Hospital and straight down to the Noyo River, where he was discovered drowned several hours later.
The same man could have ended up at the county jail, and whatever lethal (and very expensive to treat) demons he was fighting would have fallen on the Sheriff’s Office. Punishing the man for his crime would have come in a distant second to keeping him alive.
The Sheriff’s office has teamed up with the county Behavioral Health Department to provide a discharge planner (like they do at hospitals) who can get a person ready for release, oriented toward programs that will help, and connected with family if that is possible and healthy.
Kendall is also enthusiastic about the classes offered inmates through Mendocino College, and about recent changes making it easier for people to continue their education after they are released.
At the same time, challenges from limited local budgets to state legislation that has eased overcrowding in prisons but shifted the burden of policing those theoretically non-violent offenders to local law enforcement, present brand new scenarios. Simple crime and punishment is far from the name of the game anymore. And that’s where new approaches come in.
“For a couple years of my life,” he said, “if I wanted to go to a class reunion, I just walked across the street (to the jail). I mean, that’s just kind of the way things work when you’re raised in this county.
“So, when these guys walk out the door, we need to have a different expectation for ourselves and for them. We need to have an expectation that we’ve done everything we can to lead a horse to water. Can this guy hold down a job now? And if he can, then we are not going to see him again, because that’s just kind of the way it works.
“We’ve also got to have a different expectation for ourselves, that when a guy walks out of the jail, we don’t expect to see him back.
“I believe in the Pygmalion effect,” he continued. “Years ago, there was a study done, I believe it was in the Los Angeles County school district, where they took a handful of kids that were struggling. They dispersed them to different classrooms and they did a little whispering in the teachers’ ears: ‘You want to pay attention to that one, because he is flippin’ brilliant. You want to pay attention to that one, because he’s got a gift.’
“The only thing that changed were the expectations of the teachers. The teachers were not allowed to tell the students what they knew about them. They came back six months later and these students were at the top of the class. The only thing that had changed was the expectation that was provided to them by the people who were teaching.
“One of the things I want to see is that the expectation when somebody gets out of jail is that they will be more successful than when they walked in.
“One of the best things that my dad did for my four brothers and sisters and I was that, the day we left home, every one of us knew that we could do anything. We could pick up a hammer and pound nails. We could drive heavy equipment. We could work on a farm or a ranch. We had good math skills. We could read well. There was nothing on Earth that I didn’t feel like I could do.”
Putting that feeling into people walking out of jail into today’s bewildering, survival-of-the-fittest society is a tall order.
The best way to solve the problem is by keeping people out of jail to start with, a task that starts with the deputy’s beat. There too, Kendall said, he seeks a change of focus.
“Right now, with retention — it’s not hiring we need to do, it’s all retention. If we can retain people into that three or five year range, they are not going to leave. Because three to five years is when a young man decides that he’s in love. He loves where he’s working — truly, he does. They get ingrained in the community in three to five years. You get enough time there that the issues that you are working on become your issues.
“For years and years, there was a clinical detachment (among deputies)… I began seeing as we stepped into that next generation, my generation of people. When I went to work as a very young man, the deputies would say, ‘You own your beat. If there’s a problem in your beat, it’s your problem. Because you’ll get to know these people. Their problems will become yours.’
“As we grew older, and those men started retiring, there is a clinical detachment between this next generation, an ‘it’s my problem, for eight, ten, 12 hours a day, however long I’m on. But the moment I go off duty, it’s no longer my problem.’
“The way that you change that, is you get people working in an area and knowing the population, and working with people, as opposed to, ‘Oh, that’s not my problem’.
“My goal is to make 100% of our deputies problem solvers.
“If you get called out to a place, even though it may not be a police issue — let’s say it’s not criminal whatsoever — can you offer solutions to be able to help? Can you be a problem-solver? The most successful deputies that I’ve seen in my career have been the guys who are willing to become problem solvers.”
(Coming up: The problems: Kendall’s views on addressing opioid abuse, immigration, cannabis, cartels, and domestic violence.)