Miller’s Genuine Draft
Sheriff challenger is more heart than hardass.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
On a Saturday morning in September, members of the North County chapter of the Latino civil rights group, League of United Latin American Citizens, gathered around a seminar table in the Castroville library. They were there to hear from the two remaining Monterey County sheriff candidates facing off in November.
It was one of the few times both candidates had been in the same room since the lead-up to the June 8 primary. Challenger Scott Miller arrived to the meeting early in jeans. Sheriff Mike Kanalakis came a few minutes late, wearing a sports coat.
Before Miller launched into the importance of building trust between the community and the sheriff’s office (a message that seems well tailored for LULAC, which has accused Kanalakis’ administration of racially profiling Latinos in Castroville), he began with his trump card. He thanked the group for having him – in Spanish, and with a decent accent.
“I am the candidate who speaks Spanish fluently,” he added, in English.
Miller says if he hadn’t become a cop, he might have taught English as a second language. As a self-proclaimed lover of languages, he says he wants to usher in a new era of open communication – in both English and Spanish – to the sheriff’s office.
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It’s been 47 years since voters elected someone from outside the sheriff’s department to be the county’s top cop. But Miller’s convinced that, even as an outsider, he’s better qualified than the two-term incumbent.
He points to the lower moments of Kanalakis’ tenure – such as a pattern of trying to award contracts to buddies and campaign contributors, tension with LULAC, and a heavy-handed disciplinary attitude toward his own subordinates – as inspiring his bid.
“In my opinion he wasn’t exercising proper management skills,” says Miller, a 27-year law enforcement veteran and former chief of the Pacific Grove Police Department. “His tactics during the campaign have reinforced my belief.”
Miller threw his hat in the ring in January, a good seven months after the race had already been defined as a contest between the sheriff and one of his commanders, Fred Garcia. Four years ago, Kanalakis handily squashed a similar challenge from a commander and won reelection with 74 percent of the vote. But this year proved different. When it came out that Garcia committed a campaign-related infraction on the job and a controversy emerged over whether Kanalakis was involved in disciplining his political foe, Miller’s candidacy provided voters with an alternative outside of the scandal. He came in second in the three-way June race, garnering 33 percent of the vote to Kanalakis’ 36 percent.
“YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE HOLISTIC APPROACH OF LOOKING AT THE WHOLE COUNTY AS YOUR FAMILY.”
Since no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, Miller and Kanalakis will face off on Nov. 2. They’re vying to oversee law and order in a county that has a persistent gang problem and proliferating drug use, and includes a city that ranked among the state’s most murderous last year – all at a time of dwindling resources.
That Kanalakis’ campaign spent more than $60,000 in TV and radio advertising before the June vote – including an attack on Miller for being fired as PGPD chief – indicates this is a tight race. Miller’s challenge is to unseat a two-term sheriff who has widespread name recognition and more than 30 years of experience in the department.
While Kanalakis has made headlines during his second term for various missteps, he still has support from many prominent county leaders and an array of political heavyweights, including U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado.
Miller can point to his experience leading P.G.’s police department for six years and the street cred he picked up during 17 years in tough Salinas, but voters will be deciding whether Kanalakis’ track record is weak enough to gamble on someone new.
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The real-life Miller at 57 is substantially grayer than the oversized photo in his campaign signs, which dates to his days as P.G. chief, a position he left in 2003.
Miller calls himself a “P.G. lifer.” He was born and raised in the town where his family’s been since the 1920s. But he was a stranger to the city’s police department until he came in as chief – not unlike his bid to go straight to the top of the sheriff’s department. As an outsider coming in to lead PGPD, Miller fashioned himself as something of a reformer, a move that didn’t make him popular with everyone. But his supporters say the experience has prepared Miller to lead the sheriff’s office.
His law enforcement career began when he was 23, fresh from a two-year stint as a Mormon missionary in Peru, where he polished the Spanish he’d studied at P.G. High.
When he interviewed in 1976 for his first law enforcement job at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office, Miller told the sheriff he wanted to be a deputy so he could “help rehabilitate criminals and help people.” Though his starry-eyed response got a laugh, he was hired. The county had a quota of Spanish-speakers to fill, and Miller’s application was fast-tracked.
After four years, Miller wanted to come home to Monterey County and applied for positions at the Salinas Police Department and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. “Both offered jobs the same week,” he remembers. Having worked at the Santa Clara County jail, Miller wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of another jail job, and opted for the city gig.
He’s quick to say, however, that he’s prepared to run the county jail as sheriff. “My hat goes off to the folks who work day in and day out in jails and prisons,” he says. “They tend to be tough places to work.”
Miller says he enjoyed the fast pace during his 17 years in Salinas. He worked his way up from beat cop to sergeant to captain, and picked up a master’s degree from the California POST Command College associated with California Polytechnic State University. He’s patrolled for drunk drivers, carried out detective work on sexual assault cases, and managed homicide, narcotics, special events and SWAT teams. “Everything there is in police work, I have done,” he says.
Several officers who served with Miller at Salinas PD speak highly of him. “I liked working for him,” says Sgt. Mike Groves. “I always thought he treated us fair.”
Miller was in Salinas in the early 1980s when law enforcement first began to take note of gang organizations, a perspective he says has given him insight into present-day solutions. As second-in-command for eight years, he says, he was in charge of the department’s multi-million-dollar budget.
Assistant District Attorney Doug Matheson worked with Miller on trials in those years. He says Miller has a reputation for writing meticulous reports and preserving evidence. “In a nutshell, he makes us look real good in court,” says Matheson, president of the Monterey County Prosecutors Association, which is supporting Miller’s bid.
The part of Miller’s past that raises the most questions are the chain of events that led him to retire from his post as Pacific Grove’s police chief. Miller claims he was wrongfully forced to resign as punishment for not cooperating with the corrupt culture of the city’s leadership at the time.
Miller’s adversaries from that period counter that he was hard to work with and unapprochable. Mary Margaret O’Connell, an attorney who represented P.G. officers in disciplinary matters, disagrees – she found Miller respectful and appreciated his direct style – but she heard from her clients about low morale in the police department.
“Many of the officers would express that they were feeling that they were not appreciated,” she says. “They were feeling he had lost touch with what they do in the streets.”
But perceptions were mixed. One former P.G. officer remembers that he wouldn’t hesitate to call on the chief to translate for a Spanish-speaking arrestee.
In the aftermath of his forced resignation, Miller sued the city of P.G. for wrongful termination and accepted a $150,000 settlement. Neither the lawsuit nor the events leading to it seemed to bother P.G. voters who, in 2004, elected him overwhelmingly to the City Council, where he served for four years.
While several city leaders of that era describe Miller as focused and intelligent, he did have his political foes. “I just found Scott negative,” says former councilman Ron Schenk. “Personally I felt he was a vindicative type of person.”
His critics have also been able to depict the Millers as lawsuit happy. Scott’s wife, Jane Miller, recently settled her own lawsuit against the city of Carmel for alleged sexual harassment by City Administrator Rich Guillen.
Scott maintains these are the only lawsuits he and his wife have ever filed. He will say how proud he is that she had the courage to speak up: “She is a courageous hero to me and to anyone who knows the facts.”
Miller’s contentious departure from PGPD was featured in a negative ad the Kanalakis camp aired in late May, in which voters are told they can’t afford or trust Miller (who is shown wearing a Hawaiian shirt) . The ad claims Miller collects $120,000 from taxpayers “not to work.” Miller counters that he’ll freeze his pension if elected sheriff.
Kanalakis’ ad bumbled the facts on a so-called “audit” that found a “lack of trust at all levels” at PGPD under Miller. Miller had actually requested that outside consultant Jim Roth perform a review, which didn’t find shortcomings in his leadership. In May, Roth wrote an open letter to set the record straight: “The only criticism I can recall directed specifically at Chief Scott Miller was his lack of willingness to ride in the antique police car in the annual Butterfly Parade.”
While all three candidates took shots at each other in the weeks leading up to the primary, Fred Garcia, the third candidate in the race, says he was appalled by Kanalakis’ choice to go after Miller so hard. “It was ugly – I never expected that from a law enforcement campaign.”
The candidates’ spending since the end of June won’t be revealed until the next campaign expenditure reports are due Oct. 5. But by July, Miller’s campaign had spent $80,000, while the sheriff’s camp had plunked down more than $200,000. Kanalakis’ highest contributions include $20,000 from Gonzales Pro Ag and Desert Best Farming, which are listed at the same Gonzales address, and $12,500 from Monterey-based Laser Devices, a manufacturer of firearm accessories.
Kanalakis also received more than $5,000 from two employees of the Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group, a healthcare provider for jail inmates. According to the company’s website, Monterey County has held a contract with the company since 1984.
Meanwhile, Miller has reported only two gifts over $500. The Monterey County Prosecutors Association donated $2,500, and attorney David Brown, who is running for a Marina City Council slot, gave $1,000.
Kanalakis’ contributions from special interests is one of the areas in which Miller likes to needle his opponent. Miller alleges that Kanalakis has proven untrustworthy, as indicated by the fact that he pushed the county to invest in a helicopter without disclosing that the deal would financially benefit one of his campaign donors, and proposed building a new jail on land partly owned by his campaign treasurer’s family.
When Kanalakis is asked about his campaign’s attacks on Miller, he expresses a change of heart. Now he declines to slam his opponent: “I am not going to go there. I think the voters will decide for themselves.”
The sheriff says he agrees with much of Miller’s platform, which focuses on community policing, a multilateral approach to gangs and trimming the fat from department spending. Kanalakis may not speak Spanish, but he’s countered Miller’s bilingual edge by proposing a new taskforce on Latino issues. He also says he wants to create a youth board that will meet with his administration regularly. He prides himself on balancing the budget and founding new programs during his tenure, such as the Agricultural Crime Task Force.
But the incumbent does see a primary difference between himself and Miller. “I have a plan, and he doesn’t,” Kanalakis says. “I know where the department needs to go, and he doesn’t.”
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While Miller has the requisite mustache to go along with the county sheriff’s wide-brimmed hat, he seems more cerebral than macho. That’s not to say Miller’s a total softie, but he has a more cosmopolitan approach and less tough-guy swagger than the traditional law-and-order candidate. He expounds on how public libraries and musical instruments can help prevent kids from winding up in prison. He talks about how a smart public safety approach means providing sex offenders coming out of prison with housing options, while acknowledging the view to be politically unpopular. And he’s not embarrassed to speak in platitudes about his love for all people of the world.
But he’s not all kumbaya. Miller can come off as slick, self-congratulatory, and if he is talking about Kanalakis’ campaign tactics, downright irritated.
He sees the sheriff in the role of father to Monterey County law enforcement – a paternal force that brings together local police departments to work cooperatively and nurtures them with federal and state grant money and shared resources. His vision extends to community groups as well, particularly programs that work with youth to provide alternatives to gang life.
“You have to have the holistic approach of looking at the whole county as your family,” he says. “The people, the community-based organizations that are part of the fabric of our county – the sheriff should be the person to bring all this together.”
In unincorporated Monterey County, the sheriff’s office patrols and responds to 9-1-1 calls. The sheriff is also the chief administrator of the county jail and the coroner’s office. Compared to Pacific Grove, where Miller was responsible for 32 officers and a $3.4 million budget when he left the police department in 2003, the county sheriff oversees 332 officers and a $72.9 million budget.
While it’s not typical for a former small-town police chief to rise up to be sheriff, Miller says his experience leading PGPD and his years with Salinas PD are relevant to his goal of better coordinating the various law enforcement agencies in Monterey County. He says police agencies can make do with less if they commit to sharing resources, like armored S.W.A.T. vehicles and officers with unusual expertise.
AS PACIFIC GROVE CHIEF, MILLER WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR 32 OFFICERS AND A $3.4 MILLION BUDGET. THE COUNTY SHERIFF OVERSEES 332 OFFICERS AND A $72.9 MILLION BUDGET.
One of Miller’s signature issues is improving service to local non-English speakers. He says speaking the language is a key part of effectively policing Spanish-speaking communities.
“There is a bonding that takes place when you speak the language – it goes beyond just the words,” he says. “To the degree that you can improve interpersonal relationships between police and community, you should be able to see a multiplying effect in your ability to solve crimes and your ability to get witness statements from people who might otherwise remain mute.”
It’s a topic he’s thought a lot about. In the mid-1990s he wrote a master’s thesis entitled, “How will law enforcement communicate with non-English speaking populations in the year 2015?” So if Miller is victorious in November, his first term as sheriff will conclude just in time to inform the very research question he set out to answer 20 years earlier.
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While the sheriff candidates presented at the LULAC meeting, each made it clear that combating gangs is a priority. Both candidates believe that prevention, intervention and suppression are needed components of an anti-gang strategy. But Miller sold the approach as if it differentiated him from the sheriff.
He told the group that Monterey County should prioritize effective ways to prevent kids from becoming gangsters. “If we don’t have that, we will never get anywhere,” he said. “We will just be filling our state prisons.” He voiced support for initiatives such as the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, and has pledged to attend CASP’s meetings, something he says the sheriff has rarely done.
Kanalakis said he believed the key to combating gang violence is to share criminal intelligence information. He spoke about COPLINK, a new program he plans to introduce in the county, which allows officers to access other agencies’ databases.
Miller’s dismissed the sheriff’s technology strategy. “These things have been around for decades,” he said. “I prefer to share information at the people level, developing bonds with families.”
Miller’s message resonated with Armando Cortes, 22, who was born in Mexico, grew up in Castroville and is a CSUMB math major. He says the sheriff’s deputies routinely stop and question young Latino men in Castroville, who no longer think of the deputies as their protectors.
Cortes wouldn’t say who he supports for sheriff, but he did admit: “Right now we don’t feel trust with police.”
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During an interview in the cozy living room of Miller’s P.G. home, a text message from a deputy sheriff he’s never met pops up on his iPhone.
“I am willing to do whatever it takes to get you elected,” the text reads.
Although the unionized employees at the sheriff’s department firmly backed former commander Garcia in June, they’re now divided about the runoff. Garcia’s Sept. 1 endorsement of Miller didn’t bring the union into the challenger’s camp.
“There’s a great fear that he is an outsider,” Garcia says.
Earlier this month, the Deputy Sheriff Association, the union that represents the county’s deputies, sergeants and captains, voted to endorse Kanalakis in the runoff. Out of 315 members, Kanalakis received 83 votes and Miller 47. Almost 60 percent of the membership abstained. Nontheless, Kanalakis is stumping on the DSA’s support.
Garcia takes issue with the validity of the endorsement. “If the sheriff has been in office eight years and only 26 percent [of the deputies] take time to support him, I think it is a ringing non-endorsement of what he has done,” he says.
But union member Matt Luther feels the vote should be respected. The sheriff had lost touch with his employees, he says, but had gotten better recently. “It’s not that we aren’t willing to take a gamble on a new guy,” he says, “but there’s no reason to replace the current guy.”
If the bulk of Garcia’s 31 percent of the June primary vote throws its support to Miller, it could well be his ticket to victory. But what remains unknown is how the larger turnout for a November election will impact this race.
Miller, who won endorsements from three local newspaper editorial boards (including this one) in June, says he’s not actively trying to get law enforcement officers to side with him – politics can be counter-productive to teamwork. The Monterey County Prosecutors Association is behind Miller, and Kanalakis has the support of some former sheriffs and local police chiefs, and the National Latino Peace Officers Association. But some of Kanalakis’ most adamant supporters refuse to criticize Miller on the record.
Salinas Police Chief Louis Fetherolf appears on Kanalakis’ list of endorsers but insists on being even-handed. “It’s gratifying to know we have two seasoned law enforcement veterans vying for the position,” he says.
After all, this race is too unpredictable to risk badmouthing the man who could be the next sheriff.