Opioids, fentanyl, heroin; a cannabis industry struggling to emerge from a still-powerful black market, fears and realities surrounding immigration; issues like homelessness and domestic violence where law enforcement officers are placed in the position of real-time social workers — these are some of the issues facing the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office as Matt Kendall started his term in office at the end of 2019.
Kendall made opioids a focus from the start.
The issue struck painfully close to home on March 9 when a Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputy suffered an apparent overdose at his home in Fort Bragg. Deputies reportedly found illicit drugs and paraphernalia there when they arrived.
Kendall gave the investigation to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the deputy’s identity has not been disclosed pending District Attorney David Eyster’s decision whether to file charges.
In an interview last week, Kendall acknowledged the incident’s toll on public confidence. O him, it was not an isolated incident, but part of an emerging pattern.
“I’m afraid that addictions nowadays are going to be designer drug stuff, the opioid problem,” he said. “And I think this is going to be the new alcoholism.”
If the “new alcoholism” is based on illicit drugs and the people who supply them, and not the neighborhood watering hole or liquor store, that presents a whole different set of challenges. Add to that the fact that physical injuries are part of the pitcure for law enforcement officers and, these days, that often means opioids.
“If we’re not careful, we can have a pain management issue come up that turns into addiction,” he said. “We have to get ahead of that curve to make sure it never happens to someone who serves the public. It’s not just with us. We’ve got to look at all of public service and public safety the same way… we’ve got to start training people — these are the warning signs.”
As far as tougher measures, Kendall acknowledged that law enforcement unions’ resistance to regular drug testing is a factor.
“That is an issue. The protections that law enforcement unions give,” he said.
He suggested a possible alternative approach, used by one of his old bosses.
“Years ago, when I worked narcotics, I was told by the narcotics commander, ‘One of these days, I’m going to walk in and everybody who works narcotics will give a urine sample. There will be no warning. And if you refuse to take a urine sample, you will not be working in narcotics because, guess what, that’s just a portion of the work that we do. I need to make sure that the public trusts everybody and the public needs to trust us.”
What it comes down to, he said, is watching out for each other.
“In order to keep the public trust where it needs to be, we are going to have to keep some really good eyes on those people (who might be sucepotible, or we’ve got to go back to the old way of doing things.”
Kendall said an easy acceptance of the drug culture in Mendocino County is a root cause of that and other problems.
“In Mendocino County,” he said, “you can be the best parents on the face of the Earth and run a 50/50 shot of having a child who has a problem.”
The first way to address that, he said, is with information.
“We’ve got to start looking harder at self-destructive behavior and get more information out before it occurs. Kids do or don’t become drug addicts or alcoholics based on what they are taught by their parents, not based on legislation.”
Addressing issues in the home is usually a job for a counselor, or a social worker, or a priest. How can law enforcement get the message across? Kendall said it’s simple: call the parents.
He recalled a talk he had recently with the Covelo dad: “Hey, I stopped your boy (who had beer on his breath). He’s on his way home right now...you need to have a chat with him.”
Kendall said the vast majority of parents he’s had that conversation with are grateful.
“Have a chat with those parents. In the small towns...you can actually get things done. When you know everyone on your beat, when you know parents...when a kid is going off the rails, parents want to hear about it.”
Kendall points the finger squarely at the county’s marijuana industry — he doesn’t call it ‘cannabis’ — as a continuing source of trouble.
“The underground industry is bringing a lot of drugs into Mendocino County. It just is. People can say ‘no, it isn’t.’ Oh, baloney. It absolutely is. Because they’re trading pounds of weed for ounces of meth or ounces of heroin. It’s a commodity trade. That’s what it is. As long as that continues on, we’re going to have issues in our homes...People want to say that it’s a victimless crime, a non-violent crime. I can throw rocks at you and hit you in the head and that’s violence. Or I can spend 100 percent of the heating money on drugs. You’re going without heat, you’re going without food, you’re going without things…”
He went a couple thousand years back for a comparison.
“Mendocino County sits on this absolute gold mine of natural resources. If we take care of it, that goldmine’s going to be there for our kids, and when they take care of it, it will be there for their kids, Because It’s sustainable stuff — until this comes along. And it’s no different than the Romans salting the fields when they got done destroying some place a couple of thousand years ago. Right now we’ve got some fields that are being salted.”
Very often, opioids are the salt.
“That’s one that I’m scratching my head on big time right now,” he said, “...Right now the deputies are carrying NarCan. Environmental Health was able to get us a bunch of free NarCan, and we’ve got everybody trained up.
We’ve had several saves in the jail. We’ve had several saves on the street. The concerns for me are the people who are using who we do not see — the homeless population...We can save them when they’re on Main Street because somebody’s going to pick up the phone and call. I cannot save them when they’re out on the river and nobody’s going to call because nobody’s going to know.”
Kendall said changes in state law making it harder to send offenders to state prison have taken away leverage to get people into drug programs.
“Our hands are completely tied when it comes to enforcement now. It used to be ...If you got caught with a booger of heroin in your pocket, that was a felony offense and they would that felony as a hammer to say, “We’re going to give you a misdemeanor,” because it’s actually the law that the judge can go in that direction, and you will attend these classes, you will do these things.
“We don’t have that anymore. If I catch you with a booger of heroin in your pocket right now, you get the same citation as you would for driving on a suspended license.”
Kendall is a big fan of the county’s drug courts.
“Do you understand why drug court has been so successful? Because of the amount of work that goes in it. If you can do the work that that judge makes you do, you are going to get clean. The word travels like wildfire among drug users: if you want to get clean, this is what you do. But man you’d better brace yourself. Katie bar the door, there’s going to be a lot of work that comes with it.
“We could start doing it more for Joe average drug offender. They focus on anyone who wants to get clean, we just don’t have a hammer on them. It’s almost like, when somebody comes to jail, the first thing they think about is getting back on drugs when they get out. But if we can change that focus, now all of a sudden we can focus on education.
Hearts and minds
“Education is the one thing that’s going to put us ahead of the curve. We can fight cartels from now until the cows get home. They have a lot more money than we do. When you think about cartels, they are billion dollar industries. They’ve got a marketing plan. They’ve got a bottom line, delivery. They’ve got all of this stuff. What’s the one thing that would destroy Apple tomorrow, that would destroy Google tomorrow? If everybody quit using their product. They would tank out.
And what about the cartels, an often referred-to but invisible presence in Mendocino County?
“The shot-caller for the cartel, you and I are never going to eyeball that guy and say, ‘Wow, that’s the shot-caller for the cartel.’ They aren’t going to drive through town in a jacked up yellow humvee.
“The issues with the cartels are very simple. Mendocino County — when the price of marijuana tanks out, it is worth very little here, but it’s worth a lot of money everywhere else. In San Jose, California, when the price of methamphetamine tanks out, they cut it with narcotics. Every bit of methamphetamine that we’re seeing, heroin that we’re seeing, every counterfeit pill that we’re seeing, is all fentanyl.
Fentanyl is the cheapest drug on the face of the Earth. With marijuana tanking out in price, they’ve got to come up with another strategy to keep more people addicted to get more money in. So the price of methamphetamine has completely tanked out and it’s all that fentanyl in it.
“Years ago, we were buying methamphetamine, when I was working narcotics 25 years ago, we were buying methamphetamine at $1000-$1500 an ounce, depending on the time of year. We had a lot of labs in Mendocino County then. Then, with the banning of precursor chemicals, 11383 of the Health and Safety Code basically says you cannot possess these precursor chemicals in concert — and then all of a sudden it became ‘ephedrine with the intent’, you didn’t have to have two or more chemicals. If you just had ephedrine with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine, you were as good as gone.
“So nobody is cooking methamphetamine in the United States anymore. It’s all being cooked south of the border and north of the border, where you can still get your hands on precursor chemicals. With NAFTA and a few other things, they opened up the borders and everybody’s smuggling it across. It’s an easier way of doing things than having a meth lab in the United States, where you face real time.
“There are sheriffs down on the border, for years and years they would look across the river and see marijuana fields. There are no marijuana fields now. There are poppy fields across the border. That’s where the money’s at.”
Twenty-three-year-old Khadijah Britton vanished from Round Valley in February 2018. The case has been publicized repeatedly and the public asked for leads.
Kendall told the Ukiah Daily Journal last year, “This is the biggest thing on my mind; we need to get that taken care of for a lot of different reasons. Do I think that we will? Absolutely. Is it going to happen overnight? No, it won’t. I’ve worked on cases that I didn’t solve for 20 years, but they do get solved, and we are going to get this done, and we are going to make sure we figure out exactly what happened.”
So far, neither Khadijah Britton nor suspect Neggie Fallis — Britton’s boyfriend — has been found.
Kendall said Britton’s case is a product of the world of dealers and enforcers he mentioned earlier, as is the difficulty solving it.
Law enforcement believes that there are people in Round Valley who know more about what happened to Khadijah Britton. But black market culture, Kendall said, generates fear.
Addressing that, he said “has to come from two directions. These guys who come from that dirty world of being enforcers, being intimidators, dealing drugs. Dealing in weapons and basically make it an unsafe place — they need to disappear...We’ve got a few people in this county, not just in Covelo, who are like that. And, I’m sorry, I’m a cop and those people are going to be targeted and dealt with through the legal system. When that happens, then the good people are going to be able to say, “Law enforcement has our back. The Sheriff’s Office has our back.”
Khadijah Britton’s story has been told as part of the continent-wide but often invisible issue of unsolved violent crime against Native American women, as well as part of the more general plague of domestic violence.
Kendall said when it comes to domestic violence, he sees progress, which he thinks is a direct result of a tougher approach from law enforcement and the courts.
He cited an experiment by an East Coast police department, where they charted repeat domestic violence offenses according to the punishment given for the previous offense.
“As soon as you were booked into jail and the DA had a bite out of this, they were seeing this massive drop in repeat offenses,” he said, “like an 85 percent drop. It was because people were forced to take a different look at things.
“...A lot of the training that they did was to change how the police officers felt about what they were dealing with. In a de facto fashion, when the aggressor went to jail, they were receiving training also about how the police officer felt about it. And then when he spoke with the judge and they were offered support and whatnot for their families, all of a sudden it began to change the way things were done in the nucleus of the home. That’s what they think is bringing that down.”
Here,too, Kendall came back to the black market: “Where we are not doing good, is with a lot of these areas that are producing massive amounts of drugs, a lot of the marijuana areas, people are being shuffled in, shuffled out, staying on the downlow, staying under the radar. We hear about things long after they happen. I hear about armed robberies in grows long after they happen. I hear a lot of them because I call around to friends I grew up with and ask them, “Have you heard anything?”
But, as with Khadijah Britton, too often, people are afraid.
The solution to that, Kendall said, is simply presence. One of his main goals is pushing law enforcement coverage outward to the smaller, more remote communities. He hopes to establish 24/7coverage on the coast as soon as some deputies return from leave.
“If I can get 24 hours in Covelo (or elsewhere in the more remote corners of the county), a lot of the problems are going to stop. When I drive into (Covelo), my niece is a teacher up there — she can tell me, “Oh I know you’re in town because they put it on the Covelo Facebook page. They saw you driving through Dos Rios.
“Social media has completely changed the game. When I have 24 hour coverage in all these areas, social media will not change the game. It’s going to become just the norm that the police are here. The deputies are here.
“The fact of the matter is, in places like Covelo, Point Arena, Gualala, in a lot of our Native communities, we have a lot of elders, who absolutely deserve 100 percent of what the Sheriff’s Office can bring as far as quality of life, so they aren’t being victimized, things like that. There is an expectation. There is a reason why we got funny looking cars with lights on the top. I don’t have to say anything to anyone. When I’m driving down the road, most people are going to do the speed limit.”
The relationship between local law enforcement and the federal government when it comes to immigration has been a focus of the public. Would the MCSO answer the call if Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked for help?
“I can tell you that that would not happen,” he said. “I don’t have enough manpower, to be honest with you. I’ve got enough to kind of get my job done in a time of no emergency whatsoever.”
Kendall said it does not take much of his department’s time.
“Strangely enough there is not a lot (of activity). I could not even give you the stats from last year — two (people deported from Mendocino County), something like that, three?
“Maybe it was the year before last we got two people pulled out of here and I think last year it was zero. One of the reasons is, we have a very good partner in the District Attorney. When some fellow comes in here and he is undocumented, and he commits a felony, 99 percent of the time he will go to prison.
“Does he get deported by the State? I’m certain that they do. For years and years when I was younger, guys would go to prison, and then as a condition of their parole they would not be allowed to return to the United States. So if I caught a guy in the United States, that’s a violation of his parole and he immediately went to jail.
“We can’t ask about a person’s immigration status and to be honest with you, I don't really care about their status. The penal code for burglary says if you enter a building with the intent to commit larceny either grand or petit, or the intent to commit any other felony, you’ve committed a burglary. It doesn’t say whether or not your documented, undocumented. It makes no difference to me.
“The flip side of the coin is, if I have a serious bad man, someone who’s slinging drugs left and right, a rapist, a murderer, someone like that, do I want to see him gone? Absolutely. Because when he goes into a community where people are not comfortable talking to law enforcement already, those people are ripe to be victimized”
With the probe into the Fort Bragg deputy’s overdose ongoing (Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office did not answer requests for an update on the investigation) and county agencies swept up this week in the evolving response to the corona virus, Kendall has a full plate.
Describing his approach, he again circled back to his Covelo boyhood.
“My father gave us three things, and I’m trying to make sure I give the people in the Sheriff’s Office the exact three things, the three keys: tools, training and trust. The trust comes with basically an expectation that when I give you tools, and I give you training, that you have the drive to use those tools and training to your advantage in life.”
There’s a certain kind of deputy, Kendall said, he’d like to cultivate:
“We had a detective for a while — he solved crime after crime after crime. But it was because he was from the area. He had relatives in the area. You and I would have been out there looking for fingerprints and picking up cigarette butts. He’d go home in the evening, turn on the news and wait for the phone to ring. One of his cousins would say, ‘hey, you might want to pay attention to this guy because there was a red truck out there with a beat up tailgate. That’s what he drives.” Well thank you very much.
“So how do we get back into that style of policing?...We have to look at the opportunities in this…When you look at government, who does the better job? As soon as you start moving into smaller government, you see a better job being done. Make it out to Covelo, get down into Gualala, get up to Piercy. Our most resilient communities are ones that don’t have much service. They’re resilient when it comes to natural disasters. They’re resilient because they’re so accustomed to working together. You know who your neighbors are. You know who can’t get out of the house and you take care of those people.”
Connecting with those communities is going to take both a lot of communication and cooperation. Kendall said he thinks his message is getting out.
People will say, ‘What’s the deal with Matt Kendall?’
“Man, it’s back to basics every day of the week.”