Q&A: Placer County sheriff discusses long career, realignment

Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner has passed two milestones – 40 years serving in the same agency and winning a sixth term. Bonner began his career as a Placer County sheriff’s deputy in 1974 after graduating from UC Berkeley. The Placer choice was an easy one, and not just because he was a local product who grew up in Loomis and graduated from Del Oro High School.

“Placer County called first,” Bonner said, chuckling as he explained that he had also applied to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and Roseville Police Department.

On June 3, Bonner was elected to a sixth term after running unopposed. The 63-year-old sheriff has never faced a challenger.

The Sacramento Bee sat down with Bonner to talk about his career and other issues facing the Sheriff’s Office.

How did you rise through the ranks?

I was always a good student. In the Sheriff’s Office culture back then, education was not required. Having a university education helped me prepare for advancement. When I started, I was the most junior deputy, badge No. 39, but in six years was promoted to sergeant. As a deputy, I worked in patrol, at the jail and as a detective. Each experience was challenging and increased my potential to be promoted.

Can you talk about realignment, the state’s shift of inmates and released offenders to counties? How has that affected your agency?

Realignment reduces the incarceration options for offenders. We’re taking up jail space with those who would have gone to state prison. Some of the larger counties aren’t even accepting people because their jails are filled to capacity. In some cases, petty criminals don’t do any time if the sentence is less than 180 days.

Managing this different jail population has been challenging. We’re housing people who are more sophisticated in their criminal behavior. They have more gang affiliation, which causes problems inside the jail. Inmate-on-inmate assaults have risen dramatically. The amount of contraband found on prisoners has gone up considerably. They want to bring in their drug of choice.

Case in point: 2010-11 had 136 inmate-on-inmate fights. In 2012-13, there were 238 documented assaults. In 2011-12 we intercepted 36 cases of contraband. A year later, that number grew to 176.

As a society and as a state, we need to decide who goes to jail and who doesn’t.

In your opinion, who should go to jail?

Habitual violent criminals, people who pose a significant threat to public safety. They all start somewhere, usually with low-level offenses. An exception would be violent offenders.

Many of these low-level offenders get off the hook in the beginning. If you catch a burglar, it wasn’t their first burglary. If you catch a bank robber, it wasn’t their first bank robbery. Early corrective intervention is needed.

You want to make sure your jail beds are reserved for people who really deserve them. That’s what realignment will force us to do. It’s the biggest shift in public safety in my 40 years at the agency.

So what is your take on realignment?

I’m not a supporter or a detractor of realignment. This is my new environment. I’m ready to adjust to the rules. There will be problems and benefits.

How do you combat contraband smuggling?

We use a body scanner, much like the ones found at the airport. But it’s less descriptive than at the airport. For example, it might show an “unidentified package,” possibly up one’s rectum.

With this realigned population, officers need to be ever vigilant. You’ll find methamphetamine, painkillers and even heroin. Which, by the way, is making a big comeback.

A new jail opened recently in Roseville. What purpose will it serve?

With the growing county population, we anticipated the need for additional jail beds. The Roseville jail, with its 420 beds, was designed and planned prior to the implementation of realignment. It’s really a wonderful facility and will allow us greater flexibility.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered over the years?

My biggest challenge is losing colleagues. These people are my family. Every day, I send people out in harm’s way. They do work on behalf of the sheriff. I try to do everything possible to make sure they get home safely at night. Another challenge is dealing with families. It does pile up. One month, I did six eulogies.

The Sheriff’s Office has also been hit by the recession, like everyone else. No money, no mission. It’s much more dangerous now for our deputies. There’s less respect for life. We’re often outgunned. It’s a societal shift – people are more violent.

Are you considering retirement anytime soon?

I’ll go for a while. I don’t plan on retiring, just changing what I’m doing. We’ll see what happens.