Editorials

Will no one challenge Sheriff Scott Jones and his ‘succession plan’?

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones announced a bid for re-election after the lieutenant he endorsed to succeed him abruptly announced he wouldn’t be running. With the filing deadline weeks away, no challenger has emerged.
Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones announced a bid for re-election after the lieutenant he endorsed to succeed him abruptly announced he wouldn’t be running. With the filing deadline weeks away, no challenger has emerged. rpench@sacbee.com

Listening to Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones expound on his succession plan for that office, we wonder whether the lawman-turned-politician remembers that he was elected, not crowned.

Still, his words cut uncomfortably close to the truth: For the second time in four years, Jones is running unopposed for re-election, and the campaign for a third term, such as it is, is shaping up to be little more than a preamble to a coronation. Jones is so confident in his re-election, so sure that no other viable candidate will enter the race, that he is casting himself as the savior of a department that would be in jeopardy without him.

Incumbents are tough to unseat, countywide campaigns are expensive and local interest groups such as the county Deputy Sheriffs Association may be reflexively loyal, but the field is being too easily cleared in this race. Someone should step up.

“Since I am unwilling to leave the future of the Sheriff’s Department to an uncertain future,” he wrote in a memo to county employees earlier this month, “I have decided to seek another term.”

Leaving aside the question of whether the public asked for this apparent honor, this is not how Sacramento County should get its next sheriff. We’ll reserve our assessment of Jones until we make an endorsement for sheriff later this year, but voters are best served by competition of ideas and a robust discussion of the issues. That’s why we have elections.

In that spirit, we hope other candidates join the race – and some deep-pocketed donors and farsighted deputies back them – before the March filing deadline. The Sacramento region is changing too quickly for the status quo to continue unchallenged, and the job of sheriff is too important to be handed down like a family heirloom.

Besides, it’s not even clear that Jones really wants the job.

In 2016, he was willing to walk away from law enforcement to run for Congress. He lost a brutal campaign to unseat Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove. Then in 2017, Jones was the subject of speculation that he would run for higher office, or perhaps seek a federal appointment, and announced that his second term as sheriff would be his last.

Jones had handpicked and publicly endorsed one of his top lieutenants, Kris Palmer, to succeed him. Then, this month, Palmer unexpectedly quit. So now Jones is running unopposed, at least for the moment. There would be plenty to debate if a campaign occurs.

Under Jones’ leadership, the county has been forced to settle costly lawsuits. There was the $6.5 million awarded last year to the family of a schizophrenic man who was killed by a deputy in his home. And before that, there was the $3.5 million awarded to four female deputies for harassment and retaliation by their superiors.

There was also the $515,000 settlement in 2012 to end a case in which an inmate in the downtown jail vomited blood for hours and died while deputies apparently stood around and did nothing. And let’s not forget the one for $150,000 in 2016 to settle an excessive force complaint against Deputy Paul “Scotte” Pfeifer, who repeatedly beat suspects with his flashlight.

Not surprisingly, the Sheriff’s Department has been taking an increasing amount of heat over its use-of-force policies. But Jones has resisted calls for reform, refusing to embrace increased transparency or accountability.

Instead, Jones has engaged in a war of words with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and gotten into an ugly battle with State Auditor Elaine Howle, who accused the sheriff of breaking the law by publicly picking apart her report on his office’s concealed weapons permit process before it was released.

“I have to stand up for myself,” he told The Bee’s Marcos Bretón.

That attitude may serve Jones, but whether it serves the county is another matter. So far, he has been able to fall back on his popularity in the county’s less urban areas.

But even Jones’ fans deserve a chance to decide whether the legal payouts and public bickering are worth it, or whether the county, like the city of Sacramento, might want to consider a fresh approach and mindset.

Incumbents are tough to unseat, countywide campaigns are expensive and interest groups such as the county Deputy Sheriffs Association may be reflexively loyal to the incumbent. But the field is being too easily cleared in this race.

Someone should step up. Assemblyman Jim Cooper tried in 2010. Former Sacramento police Chief Rick Braziel has considered a run, too, but has been quiet. Other good candidates may be out there.

If Jones wins in November, he will become one of the longest-serving Sacramento County sheriffs in recent history. But that succession plan should be the voters’, not his.

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