Oakland’s Sheriff Is Ousted After a Long Tenure Leading Deadly Jail

Greg Ahern’s loss to Yesenia Sanchez in Alameda County makes him one of several California sheriffs with poor results this month. But local advocates stress they’ll need to fight for change no matter who sits in these offices.

Piper French   |    June 16, 2022

Yesenia Sanchez won the sheriff’s race in Alameda County, California (Sanchez/Facebook).

Voters in Alameda County, the East Bay county that’s home to Oakland, have decisively fired their sheriff. Gregory Ahern conceded on Wednesday to challenger Yesenia Sanchez, a sheriff’s commander who ran on promises to reform the department.

Ahern has been sheriff since 2006, but he never once faced an opponent in any of his four prior elections. During Ahern’s long tenure, his county jail drew condemnation for its dangerous conditions. Santa Rita was the deadliest lockup in Northern California; a KTVU investigation found that 58 people have died there since 2014. A lawsuit alleging neglect of incarcerated people with mental health needs led to a massive settlement that will require the department to overhaul its treatment and suicide prevention practices. 

In the first contested election he ever faced, on June 7, Ahern only received 31 percent of the vote. Sanchez received 53 percent, and clinched the win without needing to go through a November runoff. 

Sanchez’s win is a stark reminder of how often local officials with immense power over the lives of their constituents, especially people of color and the poor and mentally ill, stay in power year after year regardless of their popularity, with no one stepping forth to challenge them. Local activists told Bolts that they have found it difficult to generate public outrage toward jail deaths, but they forced attention to the issue during the campaign and expressed satisfaction on Wednesday that voters seemed to have taken notice.

“Voters did not only overwhelmingly reject Ahern’s leadership, they rejected his failed harmful policies that have only resulted in countless lawsuits and loss of human lives,” Jose Bernal, the organizing director of Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, told Bolts via email.

Sanchez channeled the criticisms of Ahern’s tenure in her campaign. “He’s been of the status quo for 15 years,” she told Bolts in an April interview. She vowed to institute better communication with the public about jail deaths, establish support for families of people who die inside the jail, and create more programming so that people have work opportunities when they leave jail. At a January candidate forum, she said that people with mental illness do not belong in jail, calling for more alternative solutions. 

Sanchez also denounced Ahern for collaborating with ICE deportation orders and for promoting the militarization of law enforcement, including giving a platform to the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia. 

But Sanchez will also enter the role as a consummate insider. Since early 2020, she has been the commander in charge of Santa Rita. 

Sanchez has faced pointed criticism of her own record overseeing the jail from local advocates. “While Sheriff Ahern bears the ultimate responsibility for the atrocities that have taken place in the jail, it is important to note that Sanchez is also at the top of the chain of command as the Santa Rita Jail commander,” Bernal told Bolts

When Sanchez spoke with Bolts in April, she acknowledged that Santa Rita had not transformed under her leadership. But she blamed the stasis on Ahern’s intransigence and said she had proposed changes that had been rejected by the sheriff. “It’s definitely a paramilitary kind of organization,” she told Bolts of the chain of command in the sheriff’s department. She also stressed her efforts to reduce the population in solitary confinement, saying that it had gone down from approximately 150 to around 50. She referred to it as “administrative separation,” the department’s preferred euphemism for solitary confinement. 

Similar results played out elsewhere in California, with other sheriffs under fire for abuses in their department losing their seats or performing underwhelmingly in the June 7 elections. In Los Angeles, where ballots are also still being counted, the unpopular but high-visibility incumbent Alex Villanueva has received a bit less than 32 percent of the vote as of publication to retired Long Beach police chief Robert Luna’s nearly 26 percent. This is the lowest result for a sitting Los Angeles sheriff since at least the 1940s, and it leaves Villanueva in a challenging position for this fall’s runoff. 

In San Mateo, the county just south of San Francisco, Christina Corpus beat six-year incumbent Carlos Bolanos. Corpus campaigned on a reform platform, criticizing her boss’s collaboration with ICE and advocating for better mental health services, including a mental health crisis response model led by clinicians and specially trained deputies. 

Corpus, like Sanchez, is an insider of the office she is now set to take over: she works as a captain in the San Mateo Sheriff’s Department. And in the upcoming Los Angeles County runoff, Luna’s tenure as Long Beach police chief is not without its own controversies, including a pattern of entrapping gay men in sting operations and a host of wrongful death and racial discrimination lawsuits. The department ranks only two percentage points higher than LASD on Police Scorecard, an online database that compiles data on law enforcement departments around the country.

California law requires that sheriff candidates have law enforcement backgrounds, which limits the field of possible candidates. The specter of Villanueva’s about-face after his 2018 win in Los Angeles—from would-be reformer who charmed local Democratic and progressive organizations, to defiant leader who reflexively opposes any attempt to increase oversight or accountability, and has reversed many of the modest reforms of his predecessor—hangs over the state’s sheriff elections. Many activists in Los Angeles and Alameda stayed out of the races, maintaining that these departments cannot be reformed from the inside and seeking other routes to limiting their reach. A local coalition in Los Angeles is proposing a charter amendment to codify civilian oversight and create a mechanism for impeaching the sheriff, for instance.

In Alameda, local groups like the Ella Baker Center, Oakland Rising, and the Anti-Police Terror Project have also been sharply critical of the consent decree that is meant to improve conditions at Santa Rita, arguing that it will only serve to confer more money and authority on the sheriff’s department. They are instead pushing for measures that would reduce the jail population and the sheriff’s powers in the first place.

“Real change and real safety will only come when we begin to see significant decreases in the jail population, significant divestment from the jail and significant re-investments into non-carceral health affirming resources, such as outpatient mental health services, housing and living wage jobs,” Bernal said.

In conversation with Bolts, Sanchez approved of the terms of the consent decree, saying, “We should have been able to identify this on our own.” She said some of the issues with Santa Rita stem from Ahern’s lack of focus on the jail and subsequent understaffing and underfunding, which are matters that the consent decree aims to address. 

When Bolts asked if she would work to implement the consent decree in a way that aligned with community groups’ demands for the department, Sanchez spoke of the importance of partnering with local organizations to meet the needs of people struggling with mental illness and homelessness, especially around the transition out of jail and back into the community. Sanchez also said she would be open to asking county officials to reallocate some of the funds that the consent decree allocates towards jail staff towards community organizations who work on continuity care. 

Soon enough, Sanchez will be the one in charge of making these decisions, and Bernal, who has been critical of the sheriff-elect for remaining too vague in her platform, will be watching. “We are prepared and ready to hold anyone in that office accountable,” he told Bolts