North Coast Journal


New sheriff's first 100 days

by Marie Gravelle

Humboldt County's soft-spoken top cop is looking a little tired these days.

Since he took office Jan. 3, Sheriff Dennis Lewis has been working seven-day weeks, 12-hour days. He can often be found at a sunrise breakfast with members of the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce. The same night he might travel to Rio Dell to speak to a citizens watch group. Unlike his predecessor, Dave Renner, Lewis recently skipped a statewide meeting of sheriffs in southern California because he "just couldn't afford the time."

Lewis' biggest challenge for his first 100 days in office has been the delicate task of developing respect and loyalty among his troops, as well as his 50,000 constituents, while attempting to keep his No. 1 campaign promise of "more deputies, less politics."

After his narrow victory in the November election, the former investigator suddenly found himself in charge of a $9 million budget, 74 deputies, a jail, an antiquated record system and two remote substations in this sprawling, lightly populated county. His years of working "across the hall" in the district attorney's office gave Lewis some familiarity with the Sheriff's Department, but not the same experience as an insider.

Local police chiefs and sheriff deputies are giving Lewis cautious high marks so far for his high visibility, community involvement and aggressive willingness-to-learn.

More than one deputy has been surprised while making a routine stop to see Lewis Ñ in uniform Ñ cruise up, jump out of the car and provide backup. Lewis said it's a tip he received from Eureka Police Chief Arnie Millsap. It shows he is concerned with the safety of his deputies and willing to work as hard as they do.

Millsap isn't the only one giving him advice, Lewis said. One of his favorite gems came from the sheriff of Del Norte County: If you're going to terminate an employee, make sure he or she is unarmed.

"I think I'll remember that one," Lewis said.

That's not to say the new sheriff is house cleaning. Lewis campaigned on a promise to correct what he saw as an imbalance in the ratio of administrators-to-deputies but so far, no one has lost a job. With additional funds from Prop. 172 and normal attrition, Lewis has been able to beef up street patrol.

One deputy said Lewis has not had to face any tough challenges, such as layoffs and budget cutbacks, during this honeymoon period. But challenges lie ahead with county preliminary budgets heavily in the red and the potential fallout from an internal audit due this month.

Lewis ordered the full financial audit upon taking office. He said several irregularities have been discovered and will require action.

Friends and some colleagues worry that the new sheriff has set too strenuous a pace for himself and will burn out. Others say Lewis is not moving quickly enough to restructure the department, despite campaign rhetoric.

"I'm moving," Lewis said, "just cautiously."


NCJ: Since January your schedule has been pretty hectic. Do you worry about burnout?

A: Since I've taken office I've actually taken two days off and both of those days I did have some phone calls at home. But I don't believe I'll have to keep this up. I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel.


NCJ: In your campaign one of your criticisms of the department was that it is top heavy. Has that structure changed since you've been in office?

A: One change is that one of the captains retired and we are in the process of filling that position with a non-peace officer, civilian administrative assistant. We've also hired six new deputies on the street.


NCJ: The captain who retired was in charge of the budget?

A: Yes. He retired just before I took office.

We're doing a thorough financial audit of the entire department using an outside auditor. The auditor is highly critical of the record keeping. There was one account that hadn't been reconciled in 17 years. I'm concerned. I also understand a travel account was not recorded properly. It was theoretically possible that someone could be reimbursed for out-of-county travel more than once.


NCJ: Wouldn't a supervisor have to approve reimbursements?

A: There has been an account maintained in the detective bureau, and only management had access, but it was kept independent of the business office and the civil division, both of which deal with out-of-county travel. So in theory, if the three didn't by coincidence or intent, communicate with each other, a person could have submitted identical travel plans and be reimbursed more than once.

A supervisor would have been a check, if that in fact occurred. But we have missing records so I don't know if that indeed happened.


NCJ: How was the transition from the previous administration to the current one?

A: There was no transition. There was no communication between my predecessor and me. The desk was here. I wouldn't say it was entirely clear. There were things waiting to be attended to.


NCJ: What will next year's budget look like?

A: It will be essentially the same budget as last year. All county departments have been asked to submit the same. The Sheriff's Department has the benefit of Proposition 172 funds to count on so we will have at least as much as last year - approximately $9 million.


NCJ: If you have to, where would you cut the budget?

A: Previously, cuts that were proposed were at the field level. I would say that I would look at administration cuts as well as field level cuts.


NCJ: Frank Burkhart, another candidate for sheriff, had targeted the undersheriff position as being excessive

A: Obviously Frank wasn't elected, I was. The undersheriff has job-retention rights. I could, I suppose, ask the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to delete that position, but at this point I'm not convinced that's the appropriate thing to do.

I'm not going to be malicious and yank the rug out from someone, regardless of any position he might have taken during the campaign.

I know it was a concern that I'd come in here and seek retribution against those who campaigned against me. I'm not doing that.


NCJ: With law enforcement being like a fraternity, how do you become a member, and still be the boss?

A: I'd say at this point, from my perspective, I've been accepted as sheriff. I sign the documents and they're stuck with me.


NCJ: We understand the number of concealed weapons permits in the county has risen substantially. Should this be of concern to you?

A: I do see a lot (nodding at a stack of CCW applications piled on his desk.) I had a gentlemen come in yesterday. He's got three DUIs. So I'm not likely to renew his permit. If a person comes in and has a child molest, for example, on their record, I'm sorry but I'm not going to give him a permit.

We have many people living in areas where it takes an hour minimum for somebody to get to them. So I'm far more liberal than the sheriff in Los Angeles County (who approves only 300 a year and only if they have a documented death threat and officers feel they can't protect them.)

My big fear regarding guns are not those who have permits but those who can't legally have guns anyway. Yet they have them. Also, there are many people that can make guns.


NCJ: Concerning the county jail, you had two correctional officers on trial accused of assaulting an inmate. Although they were found innocent, one guard was terminated. What about the other?

A: Brent St. Dennis has been terminated and the other (Martin Sintic) is on unpaid administrative leave. We have a pending personnel action with him. I'm in a spot where I can say nothing more. I'm speaking with an attorney who's representing him.


NCJ: What about the four inmates who died last year in the jail?

A: The jail has been pointed out to me by members of the state sheriff's organization as being our greatest liability. And I heartily agree.

Four deaths in the jail within a year Ñ that is abnormally high given our population. I'm familiar with only one death incident, only one occurred since I've been in office.

I have read the reports, seen video tape of events preceding Mr. Cope's death. I'm confident that both our employees and the ambulance personnel responded appropriately. He died of a heart attack.

One thing I've accomplished is that any death in the jail is investigated as if it were a homicide until we find out (otherwise).


NCJ: The Grand Jury has criticized the Sheriff's Department for having inadequately trained correctional officers. What is your assessment?

A: They are better trained now than they have been in time past. We're hiring more correctional officers in anticipation of opening the new jail.


NCJ: How is the new jail going to help?

A: It won't resolve our problems, but it will help a lot. It will be a better environment for both the employees and inmates.

Right now the jail is a revolving door. Officers tell me the suspects laugh at (them). To them it's a joke. They say, "They're not going to take me to jail. There's no room."

One man I know of has been arrested five times in the last few months for driving under the influence. The charges all are misdemeanors. He's brought to jail, booked and released when he's sobered up. Then he doesn't show up at court. He's had arrests but no conviction. There's no room in the jail to keep him. Now, I understand, one judge has issued an order that this man should be kept in jail next time.

Many people we have upstairs (in the jail) now are extremely violent offenders. There are a couple of attempted homicides. Just vicious crimes. They need to be locked up.

We are looking at the electronic monitoring for people that may be chronic thieves. They're just driving the Eureka Police Department nuts. But if they arrest them, we (have to) let them loose because they aren't violent felons. It just goes on and on. We had a fellow booked into jail recently with 64 pending warrants. That's got to be a record.


NCJ: What is the status of the proposal to consolidate the local communication systems?

A: At the Sheriff's Department we're not computerized. Our record keeping is hand-generated and just does not produce the integrity of information that the Eureka Police Department does. Part of the plan to consolidate the dispatch services would be to consolidate record keeping.

One of the things the Eureka Police Department can do is they can give an officer information while he's on the way to a call. They can give a history of that residence. That can save a person's life.


NCJ: What else will happen with consolidation?

A: The key is working together with other law enforcement agencies. I don't care if the car going to your house is white with a green stripe or black and white. That doesn't matter. What matters is getting somebody there.

This is more and more the approach we're taking. It's not uncommon for the California Highway Patrol to respond to, assist or even handle one of our calls. It's a two-way approach.


NCJ: What has changed in McKinleyville since your election? Residents have been lobbying for a sheriff's station in that town for some time.

A: A proposal we're looking at is to construct a law enforcement office that we could share (with other law enforcement agencies). The crime prevention office that's there now is usually locked up and isn't in a central location.

I want a facility at or near Pierson Park. The McKinleyville Community Services District is exploring the possibility of buying an acre of land from the county with the proceeds from that sale used to build a sheriff's office.


NCJ: Will you have the funds to staff it?

A: At least part time. We're also looking at the citizens-on-patrol idea.


NCJ: Your predecessor was very involved on the state level. Will the Sheriff's Department suffer from a lack of state lobbying on your part?

A: Since elected I've been to Sacramento twice; once for new sheriff's orientation and the second was a one-day trip to the (Department) of Justice.

I'm not saying there's no value to an occasional trip. I'm resigned to that, but I'm going to work with state Assemblyman Dan Hauser and Sen. Mike Thompson. They represent us.

Right now there's a sheriff's association convention in Bakersfield, but as you can see from my desk, I didn't feel I could afford (the time) to go.


NCJ: Will there be any changes in the presence of CAMP (the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) under your administration?

A: I will meet with them next week and hash out some guidelines. Last fall about 200 people came to the Board of Supervisors meeting and complained about CAMP and their officers. The most prevalent complaint was about the helicopters.

I do intend to use helicopters this year, but they will abide by the rules. I don't want anybody violating people's rights of privacy.

Interview by Marie Gravelle.