Seven vie to be San Diego County’s next sheriff
Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, retired sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers and San Diego City Attorney division chief John Hemmerling lead in money raised and notable endorsements
For the first time in more than 30 years, San Diego County voters won’t have an incumbent sheriff on their June 7 primary ballots. Instead, they will pick the region’s new top cop from a list of seven.
The race was thrown wide open last year when former Sheriff Bill Gore announced he would not seek reelection. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will face off in November’s general election.
New leadership could mean a sea change for a department that has been grappling with staffing problems, high death rates in the jails and an uptick in crime, as well as its own data indicating racial bias in stops and searches. Critics say the department needs a culture shift.
The seat hasn’t seen much turnover. Only four men have been elected as San Diego County Sheriff in more than 50 years.
And while there is no incumbent on the ballot, one of the frontrunners has the backing of Gore and filled the seat temporarily when he retired. Gore held the job for more than 12 years, handpicked in 2009 by retiring then-Sheriff Bill Kolender.
The Sheriff’s Department has more than 4,600 staffers and an annual budget of $1.1 billion. It handles law enforcement in nine cities, from Imperial Beach to Vista, as well as the county’s unincorporated areas. It also provides security in the courts and runs the county’s seven jails.
With Election Day fast approaching and voting already under way, three candidates lead the field in name recognition, fundraising and endorsements: Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, former sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers and recently retired Assistant San Diego City Attorney John Hemmerling.
Rounding out the field are California Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Peck, retired sheriff’s detentions Deputy Juan Carlos Mercado, Redwood City police Capt. John Gunderson, and retired sheriff’s Sgt. Charles “Chuck” Battle.
The Union-Tribune sent questionnaires to all seven candidates with queries ranging from why they are running for sheriff to their positions on key issues facing the department.
Martinez, Myers, Hemmerling
Martinez said she has the most experience — 37 years with the department — and points to the size of the agency and the scope of its work, her current job running daily operations as undersheriff, and the month she spent as acting sheriff when Gore left and before an interim sheriff was appointed.
She also has the backing of Gore, who she said was among those who asked her to run. She embraces his support and bristles at a suggestion of status quo.
“I hope you have already recognized that I am a different person than Sheriff Gore was,” she told the Union-Tribune editorial board earlier this month.
Martinez said she is the most experienced and qualified candidate. “This is a crucial time for San Diego County law enforcement and experience and leadership matter,” she said.
Martinez counts the Deputy Sheriff’s Association — the union that represents rank-and-file deputies — among her supporters. She also has endorsements from San Diego Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.
Myers, who ran for sheriff against Gore in 2018, worked his way up the ladder over 32 years with the department, retiring as a commander. He said department staffers and community members pressed him to run again.
The reform-minded Myers is a harsh critic of the department’s leadership. He told the Union-Tribune editorial board he would put new administrators in place and take fresh look at the department.
Myers lambasted “filthy and unsafe jail conditions,” and said the agency needs “systemic changes” in policy, staffing and infrastructure. Myers said he intends to shift the internal culture by setting goals and holding people accountable.
He has the endorsement of the county’s Democratic party, as well as Congress members Mike Levin and Sarah Jacobs and state Assembly member Dr. Akilah Weber.
Hemmerling said he decided to run last year, when he saw that Gore was leaving and the frontrunners to replace him had both spent decades in the department. “The status quo,” he said, “is not good enough.”
As chief of the City Attorney’s prosecutions unit, Hemmerling positioned himself as an outsider who would bring change.
Hemmerling spent roughly nine years as a San Diego police officer, including time on the beat in Mid-City. He has spent the last six years leading the criminal prosecution unit for the City Attorney, which handles misdemeanor cases.
He also points to his service as a Marine both on active duty and in the reserves, and highlights his time running a prison in Iraq — a job that came with high scrutiny, coming after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Hemmerling has the backing of the county and state Republican party, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and retired San Diego police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who he worked with as chief legal counsel for the department.
Hemmerling also had the endorsement of the Union-Tribune editorial board — until the board rescinded it earlier this week after a recording surfaced of Hemmerling making remarks at a candidate forum that were considered by many to be disparaging to transgender people. Hemmerling retired from the City Attorney’s Office the following day. He said he’d long planned to retire, and he is still running for sheriff.
From Jan. 1 though April 23, Martinez reported more than $56,000 in campaign donations. Myers had more than $72,000, including a $10,000 loan from himself. Hemmerling raised more than $44,000 in that stretch.
They were the only three candidates to pay the $16,000 cost to include a half-page statement in the information pamphlet mailed to San Diego County voters.
Battle, Gunderson, Peck, Mercado
Peck’s campaign raised more than $10,000 this year through April 23, and Mercado had raised a little more than $3,600, including a $3,000 loan to himself.
Gunderson and Battle said they were not seeking donations.
Battle said the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t need reform, and that it historically it has been transparent and accountable.
Gunderson said the department does need change, and the sheriff should be apolitical. “I jumped in the race because all I saw were candidates who were professing to represent one side of the political spectrum or the other, and San Diego residents deserve better,” he said.
Peck calls himself a Constitutional sheriff, and said he is “the one who will protect and defend the constitutional and inalienable rights of the residents of San Diego County.” He said the Sheriff’s Department’s administration failed at that task, in particular over the last two years, and pointed to COVID restrictions he said overstepped constitutional bounds.
Mercado did not respond to the questionnaire the Union-Tribune sent to all seven candidates.
The new sheriff will inherit a department under intense scrutiny because many people have died in county jails — 185 deaths between 2006 and 2020, a rate higher than all other large California counties. The state auditor’s office investigated, and earlier this year issued a finding that the Sheriff’s Department failed to adequately prevent and respond to the deaths of people in custody.
Gore questioned the auditor’s methodology and pushed back against the findings.
Martinez, Myers and Hemmerling all embraced the report and said they would make reforms, including creating a far more robust booking process to include medical and mental health evaluations.
Martinez said detentions deputies will wear cameras, and broken security cameras will be fixed. The department is also upgrading the wireless technology in the jails so they can connect better internally and to health care systems.
The department has also prioritized hiring and retention, she said, and she has promoted new people to lead the jails.
Myers said he sees a lack of leadership and a resistance to change. “Once you have a sheriff at the top that sets attainable goals and holds people accountable ... we are going to see significant changes,” he told the Union-Tribune editorial board.
Myers said he will order “a comprehensive review to get at the systemic problems that are at the root of the jail deaths.”
He also wants to create protocols to help alcohol- or drug-dependent inmates during their withdrawal when they enter custody. The county recently began providing traveling teams of clinicians to help people in acute mental crisis, and opened centers where they can be taken to be stabilized. Myers said he wants those same sorts of tools in the jails.
Hemmerling — he said he commanded four prison compounds in Iraq “without incident” — said his reforms would include frequent safety checks, and closer supervision of inmates with a higher risk of death due to mental illness or drug overdose.
Hemmerling told the Union-Tribune editorial board that the jails are microcosm of the drug and fentanyl use happening in society at large, and said he is a “huge proponent” of rehab programs in the jails.
Peck said the problem is overworked jail staff, lack of trained medical personnel to address inmate needs, and street drugs getting inside the jails. “The obvious answer is to retain and hire more qualified deputies and staff,” Peck said.
Gunderson said the jails need “a complete culture change” including how inmates are safeguarded.” He said he would start by meeting with jail staff to find out what resources they are lacking to be able to do their jobs.
Battle said staff could do a comprehensive review of the jail to identify problems and suggest fixes.
Bias in policing
In December, the results of a study commissioned by the Sheriff’s Department showed that people of color are stopped, searched and subjected to force by deputies at higher rates than White people, even when taking into consideration crime rates and poverty. It’s one of several studies and data reviews that show the kinds of racial disparities that communities of color have long decried.
Martinez said racial bias and use-of-force concerns are a systemic problem nationally. Victims and suspects each “deserve a highly trained law enforcement response from people who respect everyone we serve,” she said. Martinez encouraged people to report unfair policing, and said she will investigate any claims made.
Hemmerling said he believes in community policing as an effective approach, and pointed to his time as a police patrol officer in Mid-City, where he said he worked to gain trust by getting to know people in the community.
“Officer welfare and public safety cannot fall victim to a sociologist’s data sheet,” he said.
Hemmerling said he will prioritize resources in communities most impacted by crime. “Failing to provide adequate law enforcement to underserved communities is just as wrong as over policing.”
Myers said it’s “completely unacceptable” that department leaders have “failed to even acknowledge its own data on racial disparities. To me, that’s a complete failure of leadership.”
He said would drill down into data to see if the stops are actually deterring crimes. He would also use the tools to flag use-of-force incidents, and look at when and why force is used, and by whom.
Myers said he would listen to community members, and see that the deputies get ongoing cultural competency training.
Gunderson said acknowledging the data is legitimate is “a good first start,” and it should be followed by working with leaders of affected communities “to find a way to move forward toward our common goal of equal treatment for all.”
Peck said: “Social media, movies and politicians have portrayed law enforcers as threatening, unjust and corrupt instead of members of their community serving and keeping peace.” He blamed politicians for creating conflict by enacting laws he said are unconstitutional.
Battle said the community must understand that deputies don’t use force arbitrarily, and that deputies respond properly 99.9 percent of the time to the actions and behavior of people they encounter.
In alphabetical order, the seven candidates are:
Charles “Chuck” Battle, 72, of Lakeside, said he served in the U.S. Navy and is a Vietnam war veteran. While with the Sheriff’s Department, his assignments included work in the jails and on patrol before he retired as a sergeant in 2007. He has also been licensed as a private investigator for 35 years.
John “Gundo” Gunderson, 46, lives in San Diego, and commutes to his job as a police captain in Redwood City, a city of roughly 85,000 people located between San Jose and San Francisco. Over his career, he said, he has worked with for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and the Redwood City Police Department. His assignments include working in jails and on patrol. He said he’s been a detective, a member of SWAT, and worked in administration.
John Hemmerling, 56, lives in San Diego. He was the chief prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Criminal and Community Justice Divisions until he retired this week. He spent nine years as a San Diego police officer, and is a retired Marine Corps Reserve colonel who served in the Gulf and Iraqi wars.
Kelly Martinez, 59, of San Diego, is the undersheriff, which is second-in-command to the sheriff, and as such she is responsible for the department’s day to day operations. When Martinez started with department in 1985, women were not allowed to work in patrol. She is the first female undersheriff and would be the first female sheriff in the department’s history.
Juan Carlos “Charlie” Mercado did not respond to the questionnaire the Union-Tribune sent to all seven candidates.
Dave Myers, 60, is a La Mesa resident who started his career with the Sheriff’s Department as an Explorer in 1986 and retired as a commander in 2018. Over those 32 years, he served in roles from patrol deputy to homicide detective. As a commander he managed two dozen substations and the Special Investigations Division.
Jonathan Peck, 41, of Ramona is a California Highway Patrol officer who has spent 19 years in law enforcement — five years with agency in Los Angeles County and 14 in San Diego County.
Sign up for the Encinitas Advocate newsletter
Top stories from Encinitas every Friday for free.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Encinitas Advocate.