Since Matt Kendall took office as Mendocino County Sheriff in January 2020, the unprecedented has become pretty standard, yet he usually brings an easygoing, confident humor to even the toughest shocks.
But events over the past month on the North Coast clearly have Kendall disturbed.
The backdrop: sustained social protest, whether public demonstrations or calls to his cellphone; the enforcement issues around COVID which has put American law enforcement and government power generally into areas of American life never envisioned; the drumbeat of crisis events, most on the national level that have elected officials and especially elected sheriffs waiting for the next shoe to drop.
In Ukiah, on April 1, a group of Ukiah police officers severely beat a naked man, Gerardo Magdaleno, in the course of arresting him after he ran into traffic on a busy Ukiah street on a Thursday afternoon. Parts of the violent arrest were videoed by a number of passersby.
Ukiah now has its own full blown police scandal. So does Eureka after its police officers were shown, in an investigation by the Sacramento Bee published in March, to be texting each other things like “face shoot the fucker” — that from Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez — and “I'm going to beat those hippies down” at a Black Lives Matters protest scheduled for the Eureka courthouse steps (Officer Mark Meftah).
These events clearly disturb Kendall. But in an interview last Tuesday, he didn't find villains or quick fixes— the “young officer,” who first responded to the Magdaleno call, he said, was probably scared, and put in a position of having to act quickly, since Delgado was running into traffic.
“What do you tell people when he gets hit by a car?,” Kendall asked.
Kendall talked about the legal and moral duty to “do something” once an officer engages with a situation. The pressure is always to act, he said, because the officer has become responsible for the outcome.
Kendall didn't address how the other officers acted as they converged on a prone Magdaleno and subdued him with multiple taser charges and “distraction blows” to the head and body. The Ukiah police department, in a press release, without going into specifics, described what the officers did as part of their training.
“Why is it that police officers are still the ones who are dealing with this?,” was Kendall's core answer last week. “We aren't the ones who should be dealing with this.”
Kendall wasn't idly complaining or passing the buck. He has pushed the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors for two years to create “Dual Response Teams,” — what the AVA’s Mark Scaramella calls the “crisis van” — combining law enforcement and mental/behavioral health workers to go on calls exactly like Magdaleno's. The idea is along the hammer-nail analogy. If you bring more than a hammer to a problem, you don't have to treat everyone like a nail.
But in the real world, these things take time. In the real world, the county's mental health bureaucracy is said — though not by Kendall — to be unenthusiastic about Dual Response Teams because the insurance reimbursement the agency gets for your typical drug abuser is very low.
But three mental health workers, even in this lightly populated rural county, will just barely begin to address this raging problem, and no one in their right mind is talking about doubling or tripling funding, much of which is coming out of the money Mendocino County voters approved in 2016 as part of Measure B, to build a better local mental health system.
Kendall is disturbed by local politics too. He said his predecessor, Tom Allman, met with County executive officer Carmel Angelo every week. Kendall does not, by his choice. The relationship, he says, is not a trusting one.
The message Kendall says he keeps trying to deliver to the county bureaucracy is: “I am really good at keeping people safe. I am no good as a counselor.”
County sheriffs across California have found themselves on the hot seat over the past couple of years. They are the only local elected law enforcement officials around. They are also responsible for the morale of their departments. Some of their constituents (State of Jefferson separatist types) want them to help overthrow the U.S. government. Other constituents (call them Nanny State Overdrive) want to see sheriffs crack down hard on every violator of every Public Health order.
Meanwhile, violent, racially charged police confrontations keeping showing up on screens across the country. Kendall points out, in Mendocino County, his deputies are facing an armed and organized black market marijuana industry like they have never experienced before. Last summer saw full-on gun battles in Round Valley — no one arrested — and eerily empowered weed growers hijacking water trucks that were supposed to be headed for the wildfires.
All this combined has Kendall focused on another statistic: the number of new law enforcement students at the academy at College of the Redwoods in Eureka is at record lows.
“There used to be 30-50 applicants every year,” he said. “Last year's class, I think, there were 13-14.”
The job of law enforcement officer is changing very quickly, Kendall points out, in any number of ways. It has become in large part a social worker's job, and at the same time quite a bit more dangerous. It's also on candid camera now. It is not the job that the young men, mostly, who have signed up for the College of the Redwoods police academy in the past, really want to sign up for now.
Kendall did not say this, but the job of a Mendocino County deputy doesn't pay very well, especially when compared to more populous counties to the south.
As a sheriff in the face of pretty relentless change these days, that particular statistic seemed to disturb Kendall as much as anything else.