SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — For the first time in more than a decade, there will be a new head of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
In February, Bill Gore stepped down as San Diego County Sheriff, after more than 12 years at the helm.
In March the Board of Supervisors unanimously chose Anthony Ray to serve as the interim sheriff of San Diego County. Ray, an assistant county sheriff who oversees courts and human resources, will serve in the position until a new Sheriff is elected.
Vying for that position are seven candidates with varying backgrounds and law enforcement experience.
The person elected would be taking over a department struggling with recruitment and retention, a staggering number of inmate jail deaths, and what some law enforcement officials have described to ABC 10News as a department with a morale problem.
According to an exclusive ABC 10News/Union-Tribune Poll released Tuesday, Kelly Martinez is the front runner. The poll interviewed 614 likely primary voters in San Diego County. According to the poll, Martinez takes 22% of the vote today, leading among most demographic groups. However, the poll found voters are split among the other candidates. The top two candidates move on to the November election. The margin of error for the question was plus or minus five percentage points.
Martinez is the current Undersheriff and the first female to hold that position. She’s worked in the County of San Diego for 37 years.
“I understand the job, I understand what it’s going to take and what needs to be done better than anyone else,” Martinez said.
Chuck Battle says he got into the race to make a difference. Battle says he worked in the Sheriff’s Department and as a defense investigator. He says the people in the county need a Sheriff that’s “willing to go straight down the middle and treat everybody equally and fairly, follow the law, but more importantly follow the constitution.”
John Gunderson has 31 years of law enforcement experience locally and at agencies across the state. He says the department needs someone new at the top. Gunderson says he wants to use his experience to improve the county.
“A Sheriff should be apolitical and represent all persons in our community,” he said.
Up until a week ago, John Hemmerling was the City of San Diego’s top prosecutor. Hemmerling says retirement from the city had been in the works and he stepped down to spend more time working on his campaign for Sheriff. Hemmerling, also a former San Diego Police Officer says he believes the biggest challenge the department faces is, “the problems and concerns we have in the jails.”
Dave Myers spent 35 years in law enforcement including as a commander with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Myers ran in 2018 against then-Sheriff Bill Gore. He’s been critical of current leadership and the number of deaths in the jail system.
“The complete failed leadership in the department has led to mistrust, record-high mistrust, ” Myers said.
Jonathan Peck is a California Highway Patrol Officer that’s spent 19-years in law enforcement. Peck is running as a constitutional Sheriff Candidate. He says he got into the race because he saw situations unfolding in the county he didn’t agree with.
“During the COVID lockdowns we saw people get arrested on the beach, they weren’t near anyone and that was a violation of their rights,” Peck said.
Juan Carlos Mercado did not respond to ABC 10News' request for an interview regarding the upcoming election. According to his online biography, he was a military police platoon leader and has worked with the department since 2007.
ABC 10News asked the candidates a series of questions regarding the department, policies, and retention. According to the ABC 10News/San Diego Union-Tribune Poll how the department handles calls, transparency and deputy retention are top issues facing the department.
On deputy retention Battle says members of law enforcement are hired mostly by word of mouth and right now that isn’t great.
“What causes people to leave more than low pay is low morale. It doesn’t cost any money to improve morale, you just have to know how to lead. You have to know how to make people feel like they are being treated fairly. To go back to what I mentioned earlier nothing gives you the opportunity to see how people are being treated unfairly than to walk a mile on the other side,” said Battle.
John Gunderson believes as society evolves the department has to be open to the changing needs of employees. He’s pitched an idea for what he describes as a self-funded sabbatical.
“In law enforcement it’s a difficult job and sometimes you just need a break or something else that comes up in your life where you think to yourself, wow I’d really like to try that but you don’t always have that time to do it. I think if we can give folks that break, that six or 12-month break to go chase their dreams and then come back fully refreshed you can probably come back with a better appreciation of what the job actually is. I think that can be one step closer to developing that type of culture where employees feel valued,” said Gunderson.
John Hemmerling says he knows the department is short-staffed and getting things to a positive atmosphere will help with recruitment.
"I think keeping them in the department goes back to bringing leadership to the department that shows that we care about the staffing, we care about the deputies we're going to support them. Work with the Deputy Sheriff Association to get the word out there that we're going to improve morale by putting in place policies and leaders that are going to make effectual change to help everybody, help the community, and help the department as well,” Hemmerling said.
Dave Myers says the department needs to recruit from areas within the agency of neighborhoods they police.
“We must look like the communities and that’s not going to happen if you have mistrust. If you have an agency whose leadership continues to perpetuate mistrust within the communities from failed leadership at the transparent level when it comes to independent community oversight, not supporting AB 2343 which is the result of the jail deaths, and not being publicly transparent about even body-worn camera footage when it comes to critical incidents," said Myers.
Jonathan Peck says during the 2020 protests members of the department felt like leadership did not have their backs.
“That’s why a lot of people decided to leave. Then on top of that, we had all these COVID mandates and people just decided I don’t want to deal with this stuff, I’m going to leave law enforcement. That’s a lot of reason why we can’t get new people in there either. Those people within the departments now aren’t recruiting anyone. That’s a huge part of recruitment is word of mouth to family and friends,” said Peck.
According to the ABC 10News/San Diego Union-Tribune Poll, 44 percent of likely primary voters somewhat approved of the job Bill Gore did as Sheriff. 17 percent of those asked somewhat disapproved and 19 percent were not sure. That question was asked of 614 likely primary voters.