Sonne Days Ahead?
New sheriff thinks the future of the department lies in getting back to basics.
Thursday, December 31, 1998
Incoming Sheriff Gordon Sonn has a motto for his turn at the helm of the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department: "Back to the future."
"We used to be a family. We played, worked, laughed and cried together," reminisces Sonn, a 27-year department veteran. "One of my desires, one of my dreams is to go back to that, back to the future."
As quirky as it sounds, Sonn''s motto, as he assumes the reins of the county Sheriff''s Department on Jan. 4 for the next four years, relays a back-to-basics sentiment--a no-nonsense approach to law enforcement and a more personal touch within departmental doors.
And, if department morale is indeed as bad as he says it is, Sonn''s dream of returning it to the good ol'' days may not be a bad idea. Sonn and his supporters have alleged that outgoing, eight-year Sheriff Norm Hicks was out of touch with his department and fostered a looming state of low morale. But can Sonn really change things? He, at least, certainly thinks so.
"The day I was elected, morale improved markedly. That''s what people are saying and that''s the way it is, bottom line," he says. "When I appointed the new management team, morale continued to go up. I haven''t seen them like this in years. Everyone kind of feels like things are better. There is a laughter and happiness in the department, not because of me, but because there is going to be a change."
Ironically, that''s exactly what Hicks told CW eight years ago when he was first elected to the sheriff''s post. Riding on the wave of change, Hicks defeated former Sheriff Bud Cook in 1990 to become head honcho for two terms. Likewise, last June, Hicks was defeated in an upset by Sonn, whose campaign also touted the need for change, despite the fact that Hicks outspent him more than 5-to-1 on his re-election campaign.
"It was unusual that I won the election. I tell you what it showed me: I see a change and a trend in politics, and I think that maybe the citizens and the public in general wants change and they want fresh ideas," says Sonn. "They don''t want, so much, politicians in office, they want people. Jesse ''The Body'' Ventura [the professional wrestler who recently won the governorship of Minnesota] proved that anything is possible in America. Even nonpoliticians and little guys are gambling that the democratic system works, and I was beginning to wonder."
While Sonn likes to see himself as a political underdog catapulted to power by a fed-up constituency, his unlikely victory was also fueled by a couple of election-time lucky breaks. Just prior to the June 3 election, an allegation that Hicks improperly used an ex-felon to distribute campaign petitions for his 1994 campaign was referred to the Monterey County District Attorney''s office. And, days before the election, a group of veteran deputies publicly challenged the validity of the Deputy Sheriffs'' Association (DSA) endorsement of Hicks because the ballots were not anonymous--mailing labels placed on the backs of the ballots contained voters'' names and addresses.
But now that the election is history, Sonn is looking forward to implementing his back-to-basics approach to law enforcement by returning more officers to the street. He has previously criticized Hicks for unnecessarily deploying deputies to flashy crime prevention programs such as DARE (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) that are "all political and all for show," Sonn told CW last March. Hicks, for his part, has denied that politics had anything to do with his crime prevention programs.
"Any time you take officers off of patrol and put them in special projects," Sonn says, "whether they''re justified or not...you''re putting the public at risk."
While he isn''t opposed to crime prevention programming, per se, Sonn says it''s a matter of getting more "bang for the buck," of efficient allocation of limited resources. To that end, Sonn says he''ll take an overall assessment of department personnel and how officers are deployed to see where changes can be made. For instance, he says, the county jail is down 15 or 16 officers, and there are empty slots in the investigations and narcotics divisions. Sonn says he intends to fill the voids by redeployment and unchaining officers from their desks.
He also advocates using unsworn personnel to perform administrative tasks that officers are currently doing. However, when it comes to replacing jail staff with unsworn personnel (a controversial position which created a political backlash for Sonn during his unsuccessful 1994 bid for sheriff), he backs off, saying that the jail staffing situation should continue status quo.
In order to use officers'' time more efficiently, Sonn''s plans include expanding a system of field offices around the county where officers can stop in to make phone calls or write reports. Field offices already exist around the county, and Sonn plans to open another in Aromas which will serve officers from Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. The idea of the field office is to increase the amount of time that deputies spend in the field, lowering response time, and increasing visibility and community relations.
"The fewer deputies you have in the field, the greater the response time. The public doesn''t like that," Sonn says. "They don''t want to wait when they make that call. How do you combat that? You need more deputies and to develop new field offices."
The new sheriff is also putting a lot of stock in his three newly appointed chief deputies, Glen Brown, Jim Smith and Terry Pfau, all detective sergeants that have each served with the Sheriff''s Department between 20 and 30 years. With the three long-timers and himself leading the charge, Sonn hopes to keep morale up and response time down.
"I have worked with and trusted my life with them for almost 30 years," says Sonn, "and these guys are all well-respected within the department. They''re trusted, down-to-earth cops who understand what the problems are within the department and within the community.
"I believe that we will be more in tune to the public as well as to interdepartmental needs," Sonn continues. "We want there to be communication up and down through the ranks; up and down, top to bottom. We''ll be more open to receive suggestions and comments, ideas on ways to improve not only our service to the public but to improve our relations from within."
Easier said than done? Only time will tell. cw