Sheriff talks civil unrest, COVID and the signal sent by announcing he won’t run for re-election

With his announcement last week that he would not run for re-election, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore’s time at the top of the department will end January 2023, capping three terms in that position and a half-century in law enforcement.

On Friday, the 74-year-old talked with The San Diego Union-Tribune about why he went public with his decision now, and shared his thoughts on the last year of widespread protests against police brutality and racial injustice, the emergence of COVID, and the progress he sees in caring for mentally ill inmates in county jails.

The primary election is just 10 months away, on June 7. Gore said he wanted to give potential candidates time to build their campaigns.

“There’s a lot of people — supporters of mine — that would not consider running against me,” he said. “They needed to have some clarity.”

Gore said he won’t talk now about who he might back or encourage to run. “I’m sure there will be a lot of good candidates and I don’t want to get ahead of anybody.”

The sheriff’s seat has had just four occupants in the last 51 years. The next sheriff will be in charge of a department of 4,600 employees and a budget that just topped $1 billion. The department provides policing in nine cities and the county’s unincorporated areas, runs the jails and provides security in the courthouses.

Over the last year, after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis when a police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes on Memorial Day 2020, protests erupted nationwide as people called for an end to police brutality and racial injustice. Thousands marched in San Diego, highlighting systemic racial disparities, decrying use-of-force policies and pushing for reforms like regulating or eliminating pretext stops.

Gore said his agency went into “listening mode.” Some of what people wanted, he said, was already in place.

“The big things, we agree on,” he said. “De-escalation. We have been a leader in de-escalation training. Duty to intervene. We have always taught that. … That doesn’t mean that we are not still listening and there’s not still work to be done. But we are in a better place clearly than we were a year ago.”

As the anniversary of Floyd’s death approached, the Sheriff’s Department highlighted several reforms they had made, including increased de-escalation training for deputies. It also added a “safety deputy” designation, a person assigned to monitor the health and safety of a person restrained during use-of-force incidents.

The protests led to a big change in use-of-force policy last year: The San Diego Police Department announced it would no longer use the controversial carotid restraint to subdue people.

The restraint calls for compressing the vascular veins on the side of the neck to cut blood flow. Applied correctly, the subject will lose consciousness. But it can lead to injury or death, and critics say it often is used disproportionally on people of color.

That announcement from police Chief David Nisleit came on a Monday, June 1, 2020, following a weekend of protests turned riotous in the region.

Gore said he spent the next day defending the value of the restraint, which he said prevents deputies from having to use “weapons of impact.” Gore said people often confuse the carotid restraint with the chokehold, in which a person’s airway is cut off — a maneuver already banned in the department.

In light off that confusion and the protests, Gore realized the push to ban the carotid restraint was unstoppable. By that Wednesday, he joined other local law enforcement leaders in agreeing to ban it.

Gore acknowledged that putting more deputies in higher-crime areas leads to more discretionary stops — like pulling someone over for a minor traffic offense then looking for evidence of a more serious crime. Critics say such pretext stops unfairly target people of color.

Gore said it’s a “legitimate conversation,” one that’s happening inside his department.

“Those are the conversations that good police agencies are having right now with their deputies and police officers,” Gore said. “What do we need to do to make sure that we are not over-policing, and we are not indiscriminately stopping people just because there is a tail light out.”

“On the other hand, a lot of very good arrests have been made and a lot of stolen property seized on a traffic stop that was based an equipment violation.”

Gore noted that his department and other local law enforcement agencies started meeting with a group called Stand in the Gap, made up of Black pastors, including some who had been in law enforcement.

The department is also working with the local chapter of the NAACP, and recently collaborated on a recruitment video. He said the connection has been a great source of “constructive criticism and partnership.”

COVID-19 presented another challenge to his department, particularly in the jails, which last March had about 5,400 inmates a day. The jails released some inmates early and took in fewer arrestees, dropping the jail population to 3,200. But the disease still spread in the close quarters, sickening inmates and staffers.

The jails are back up to about 4,000 inmates, and even though new arrestees are quarantined for a week, the COVID cases are inching back up. Vaccinations are a hurdle, with roughly the same percentages of vaccinated employees as in the community at large. That is a concern for Gore, who said he wants to see more people get the shots.

He’s looking at options, like requiring frequent testing for unvaccinated workers. Inmates, though, cannot be forced to be vaccinated — or forced to be tested.

While COVID is a relatively recent concern in the jails, other concerns about medical care and safety of inmates are being scrutinized. In 2019, the Union-Tribune published “Dying Behind Bars,” an in-depth, six-month investigation that found the mortality rate in San Diego jails was the highest among large counties in the state.

At least 140 people died in county custody over a 10-year span beginning in 2009, an average higher than one inmate dying every month in that time. Natural causes was the most common reason given, sometimes for treatable conditions. Suicide was second. Most of the deaths happened among people not yet convicted of a crime.

The investigation included reviewing thousands of pages of court documents and records, including internal Sheriff’s Department communications, and data that jail systems provide to the state’s Department of Justice. The reporters talked to dozens of people, including surviving family members, their attorneys and national experts on the topic.

Last month, the state auditor announced it would investigate the matter after a group of San Diego-area Democrats requested such a look.

Gore sharply disagrees with the approach the Union-Tribune took in determining mortality rates, and said the newspaper made unequal comparisons. He said his department’s jail system is among the best in the state, and that other departments have reached out to learn more about its practices.

“I think the perception has been created because I disagree with the methodology used by the U-T that I am ignoring the issue,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He pointed to increases in funding for medical and mental health care in the jails — which are the county’s biggest provider of mental health beds. When he started with the department, the allocation for medical and mental health care was $52 million a year. He said in the newest budget, approved by the Board of Supervisors in June, it’s about $130 million.

Gore is also encouraged by efforts to take the response to people in mental health crisis “out of the criminal justice system to the extent we can and put it where it belongs — with the mental health professionals in the community.”

“I find that very exciting, especially now with the increased resource we have been asking for being committed by this board,” he said. “It’s an exciting time.”

Gore said the Sheriff’s Department as a whole is “very progressive,” and has “a good leadership team.”

“I feel comfortable that the future of this department and this county’s law enforcement is really going in a positive direction.”