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news1 sher1Meet the three candidates for Santa Cruz County Sheriff

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak could have stepped down in the middle of his term, and essentially handed his seat off to the man he hopes will replace him, Chief Deputy Jim Hart. But instead, to his credit, he let the democratic process take over, and made it a race.

Wowak’s decision to step down and endorse Hart in March only left a week for other candidates to declare by the filing deadline. But that was enough time for two retired deputies, Bob Pursley and Roger Wildey, to jump in. Both men have a breadth of experience in different departments, served as lieutanants and headed the bomb squad and S.W.A.T teams.

The sheriffs’ department is one of the centers of community debate over public safety, law enforcement and the jail, and the race has raised some intriguing hot-button issues. Not all of them will be handled directly by the new chief, but he will influence, or be influenced by, these policy decisions. In an attempt to provide some insight into their vision for the sheriff’s office, here is where the candidates stand on three such issues:

Needle Exchange

The City of Santa Cruz shut down the needle exchange last year, prompting the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency to handle the 20-year-old local practice of passing out syringes. Neighbors of the Emeline facility say the change has impacted their neighborhoods, and some people say they want the exchange shut down for good.

Jim Hart: “If Santa Cruz was a utopian society, and we didn’t have problems, we would never even have this discussion,” he says. “But with Santa Cruz, like most communities, there is a segment of drug users, and we do have a number of IV drug users, and we do have to worry about the health risks associated with that, and with passing on hepatitis C, HIV. I think the needle exchange, because of the health risks, is here to stay.” Hart wants to see one-for-one needle exchanges, and have each syringe barcoded with a serial number, so it can be identified—whether it’s later found in a park, or turned back into the county. Hart would also like to see roaming exchanges that move from one neighborhood to the next to lessen the impact on any one given community.

Roger Wildey: Like Hart, he believes a roaming exchange would be a good way to minimize the impact on local neighborhoods, but he’s also skeptical of data from places like San Francisco that say exchanges cut down on hazardous trash—although he hasn’t had time yet to comb through that data. “I’d like to see what is done elsewhere and go over the statistical analysis, because it’s very easy to apply the wrong statistical analysis to a given set of data, and, if you do that, it skews the outcome,” he says.

Bob Pursley: The former lieutanant supports one-for-one exchange of collapsible syringes—needles that collapse once they have been used, to reduce the health risk once they are discarded. “That would put them on a path to seeking out help for their addiction, because it might just be too much work to keep filling up,” Pursley says.

Automatic License Plate Readers

When the Santa Cruz City Council approved the purchase of License Plate Readers for its patrol cars, activists raised questions about how the technology would affect privacy. Would the candidates support the adoption of the devices—small, high-speed cameras which can photograph thousands of plates per minute—by the county?

Hart: Since most of the sheriff’s jurisdiction is rural, he doesn’t believe the cameras would be a good fit. “If I’m going to spend money right now, I’m going to spend it on personnel,” Hart says. “I’m going to spend money on making sure all our gates are staffed. I don’t want to throw a bunch of money at a technology system right now that might not get a lot of use.”

Wildey: “I don’t think they’re necessary. It seems rather intrusive to me,” Wildey says. He adds that he isn’t a fan of red light cameras either, a system he calls a “money maker—mostly for the manufacturers.”

Pursley: “What I would use those cameras for is I would put them on exit points for the county, or on city limits. Say, for instance, it’s your child that was abducted. That vehicle will now be able to leave the confines of this county without being reported and tracked. But we could go back to that vehicle at the time of the abduction or the crime and bring up all the cameras and start specifically looking for that vehicle.” Pursley notes that surveillance footage helped the FBI quickly crack the Boston Marathon bombings case. (Boston Police also had an Automatic License Plate Reader program, but the department placed in on hold last December, after they mistakenly shared 68,000 plate numbers with a journalist for The Boston Globe.)

Racial Profiling

The issue got thrust into the national spotlight this past year when the New York Police started getting heat for their stop-and-frisk practices.

Hart: Profiling doesn’t look like a big problem at the sheriff’s office, according to the data, Hart says. The department did a study a few years ago that tracked every car stop and pedestrian stop. It also tracked whether or not a deputy had been cleared to call on them. “The data showed us our guys were well within the demographics of Santa Cruz. We also give training on racial profiling, so our staff is well aware that’s not an acceptable practice,” Hart says. “It’s not something we condone, and we want to make sure when our staff are stopping people, they’re stopping them for one reason, and that’s that there’s a law violation.”

Wildey: The small number of complaints the sheriffs’ office receives shows that the problem is with lone individuals, if it exists at all, he says. “There are bad auto mechanics, and there are bad cops. If I knew somebody that was racist that was working for the department, I’d be having a chat with them,” Wildey says. “And I really wouldn’t tolerate that in the least.”

Pursley: The highest-ranking person of color ever in the sheriff’s department, he acknowledges the department gets few complaints—but he has a different explanation. He says people don’t complain because they believe nothing will be done about the problem, even if they do. But he encourages anyone who feels they have experienced profiling to step forward, because the department listens, he says. Pursley recalls driving on Highway 1, when a patrol car followed him from Vista Point to State Park Drive. “Once I was pulled over, the deputy walked up to my vehicle,” Pursley explains. “I rolled the window down, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ There was no reason why pulled me over. He just stopped.” Pursley called the deputy’s sergeant, and “that issue was dealt with,” he says. “There was not any punitive [action] on the deputy. It was called to his attention, and I really doubt that deputy did that again.”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

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