Alameda County — For the first time during his 14 years as Alameda County sheriff, Gregory Ahern has two challengers trying to take his seat. Ahern says he welcomes his coming battle for re-election.
“I am very dedicated to the citizens of Alameda County,” Ahern told The Independent last week. “I think I am the best choice for sheriff. I think I have the most experience, and I think I am the most qualified person to make this the best sheriff’s office in America.”
Ahern announced in June that he planned to seek his fifth term at the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) helm, overseeing a $523 million budget and about 1,500 employees, including 1,000 sworn deputies. The job includes running the county coroner’s office and court security.
Livermore and Pleasanton have their own police forces in the Tri-Valley, but ACSO handles police work in Dublin and unincorporated areas.
Ahern, who turns 64 this month, started as a deputy 40 years ago and worked his way to the top. He was first elected sheriff in 2006.
“I think I am the most innovative person in law enforcement in Alameda County,” Ahern said. “I have displayed that in a number of different arenas.”
So far, Alameda County sheriff’s Division Cmdr. Yesenia Sanchez — the highest ranking woman in the agency — and veteran San Francisco Police Department Officer JoAnn Walker have announced their candidacies to replace Ahern. The primary is set for June 7.
Each challenger has said it's time for new blood and fresh ideas in the office, alleging Ahern’s leadership has resulted in poor morale among the force and blaming him for a high suicide rate at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin that has put the facility under the oversight of a federal judge.
Whoever is elected must implement stipulations of a “consent decree” set to be preliminarily approved Sept. 22 in U.S. District Court as part of a settlement between county officials and a law firm that sued in 2018 to improve jail conditions. The lawsuit alleged the jail required increased staffing and mental health programs to address the number of suicides.
The consent decree will require Alameda County officials to improve the delivery of mental health care, expand out-of-cell time for inmates, and provide Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations for inmates with mental health disabilities. It also has provisions for use-of-force and discharge planning.
Ahern acknowledged the problems in the jail occurred during his watch, but said all of it could have been avoided had the Board of Supervisors listened to him 10 years ago when he requested the funding to increase personnel and improve the facility and its programs.
Ahern said he told supervisors and the media that inmate-on-inmate assaults, inmate assaults on deputies, and inmate assaults on other staff — along with jail suicides — would increase if they did not provide him with the funds he requested.
Last year, in response to the litigation, Alameda County supervisors approved spending $318 million over three years to authorize 450 new positions at the jail. Besides hiring more deputies, the money is to be spent on physicians, behavioral health clinicians and mental health specialists.
“We wouldn't have been in this predicament if we were better funded about 10 years ago,” Ahern said.
Ahern said work to fill all those jobs is already underway, and he is the right person to implement the required improvements.
"It’s my opinion you need someone with the experience and qualifications that I have,” Ahern said.
Touting some of his achievements, Ahern said his deputies became the first in the county to wear body-worn cameras, and his jail personnel were the first in the nation to wear cameras in detention facilities. He also said he advanced the department’s technology to solve crimes, expanded its aviation fleet of helicopters and airplanes, and initiated the use of drones at crime scenes, especially where suspects are barricaded and refusing to surrender.
“Our drones can even speak to the suspects,” Ahern said. “We can fly them into isolated areas and make contact with suspects on what we want them to do."
Listing another achievement, Ahern said he established the department’s cold case unit, which delves into unsolved crimes, some of them decades old rapes and homicides. Among them, Ahern cited the 2020 arrest of a Castro Valley woman linked through genealogy sites and DNA evidence to the killing of her 2-day-old son in 1988.
Ahern said a challenger’s accusation that hundreds of rape kits — used to gather evidence following sexual assault — remain unprocessed was untrue. Although a backlog occurred years ago and many sat on shelves awaiting attention, the office obtained grant funding and all kits have been examined, he said.
“Those cases, many of them have been resolved where the suspect has confessed to the crime,” he said. “We are at zero. Every rape kit we have now we process through the crime lab.”
Ahern said he created the Youth and Family Services Bureau, replicating programs in Hayward and San Mateo County, to address issues that lead to crime problems, including poverty, a lack of opportunities for higher education, unemployment and drug and alcohol addiction. The bureau provides educational, recreational and employment opportunities to hundreds of boys and girls and their families. Ahern said he also operates programs that provide jobs to help people when they are freed from jail, including re-distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of food that supermarkets, restaurants and farms would otherwise dump.
In addition, Ahern touted his crime prevention methods, which include units to combat gangs and drunken drivers, and assist the homeless. He said his deputies work with the county’s public works department to clean up areas where homeless reside, sending the message to residents that “we care and are concerned and are compassionate.”
“We want to make sure we are addressing the issue and not letting it get out of hand like we've seen in other communities,” Ahern said.
Ahern denied accusations from his opponents that morale among his deputies is bad. He said he listens to his deputies for new ideas, holding meetings twice a year just for that. One deputy, he said, suggested all deputies carry Narcan, a medication to help people who have overdosed on opioids. They have already saved lives, he said.
Ahern said his role as the county’s director of emergency services, which places him at the helm during an emergency, also makes him the most qualified. Ahern said his background handling the county’s wildfires, COVID-19 response, active shooters and last year’s civil rights protests, should give him the edge over his competitors.
“That experience alone is worthy of noting,” he said.
Born in Oakland, Ahern has spent most of his life working for ACSO. He and his wife, Kathleen, have an adult daughter.
“It’s the first time we have two contenders running against me,” Ahern said. “I think it's wonderful. I get an opportunity to speak about the great work of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the great achievements that have gone unnoticed. It's a great opportunity for me.”