Last week, Mark Essick, the white sheriff of liberal, bucolic Sonoma County, California, took to his office’s Facebook page to publicly call out a “racist” attack against a high-ranking officer. The post caught many of Essick’s critics by surprise and has them questioning his motives.
Sent to over 100,000 followers in the county, the post lambasted a white, former county police watchdog, Jerry Threet, who’d criticized assistant sheriff Eddie Engram, who is Black.
Essick, who is retiring next year, screenshotted a post in September that Threet shared on his personal Facebook page, accusing Engram—who is running to replace Essick as sheriff in 2022—of being a pawn to curry favor with liberal residents following the murder of George Floyd and give the appearance of reforms on the horizon. “DON’T FALL FOR THE RUSE. NOT ALL SKIN FOLK ARE KINFOLK,” wrote Threet.
Essick, whose tenure as sheriff started in 2019, said Threet’s post came at a moment when the county should be examining “how we can support and encourage people of color to become leaders in Sonoma County, not tear them down.”
The seemingly progressive stance by the sheriff is a far cry from the way other top law enforcement officials have used social media following Floyd’s murder. Across the country, many have come under fire for racially insensitive posts, or, more often, being silent on matters of race and off-color comments.
But Black residents of Sonoma County, who are both critics of Essick and the Sheriff’s Office and supportive of Threet, told The Daily Beast that Essick’s public call-out has less to do with his passion for defending people of color and more to do with attacking political enemies and influencing the upcoming sheriff’s race.
“It’s a sick joke,” said Jason Anglero-Wyrick, a Black man who was tased by sheriff’s deputies and mauled by a K9 during an incident in his home in Sonoma County in April 2020. Anglero-Wyrick, accused of pointing a gun at someone and charged with resisting arrest when no weapons were found at his home, later saw his charges dropped after video of the incident went viral. He has an ongoing lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.
Anglero-Wyrick said he did not believe Threet’s post about Engram was racist but rather “factual.” He said Essick’s public post to the county was “PR spin” empty of real conviction. “It’s insulting to the community for them to even attempt to do that and then at the same time to disgrace Jerry Threet. It’s beyond belittlement. It’s offensive.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Essick denied his post had anything to do with politics, personal animosity toward Threet, or the upcoming sheriff’s race, though he noted that he and the police union back Engram’s candidacy.
“It’s about a man who is a current leader in our community and this organization and he felt that he was being attacked racially,” Essick said. He also pushed back against claims by Threet and others that it is unfair to use a government social media page to call out a private citizen.
“This is a man who has chosen to take very public positions,” he said of Threet. “For Mr. Threet or anyone else to say I’m a private citizen you can’t talk about me in this way is really a bunch of malarkey. He engages in public debate on Facebook routinely.”
Engram told The Daily Beast that Threet’s post was a “racially insensitive” and “condescending” thing for a white person to say to a Black person. But he stopped short of calling it racist like Essick had.
Over his long career in law enforcement, Engram said he’s been called a “sellout”, an “Uncle Tom” and many other things he’s learned to look past. Knowing Threet—and what Engram said is Threet’s belief that everyone in the department is racist—Engram said the Facebook comment wasn’t all that shocking. “It wasn’t surprising to me that he made those comments but it was certainly disappointing that that was the path he chose to attack me.”
Threet, an attorney with roots in San Francisco, said he came to Sonoma County in 2015 and soon was appointed be the first director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO), a department established in the wake of the police shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sheriff’s Deputy in 2013. Lopez at the time was carrying an airsoft gun that resembled an AK-47.
The office was charged with conducting independent reviews of misconduct investigations and engaging the community to make recommendations on policy to the Sheriff’s Office. But Threet said that from the beginning of his tenure there, getting buy-in from the Sheriff’s Office was difficult at times. He also said that he’s been a thorn in the sheriff’s side since Essick took over in 2019, because of what he said is a lack of transparency about critical incidents, opposition to public health orders during the pandemic, and alleged instances of harassment of public officials.
Threet, who moved to Canada in July after his leadership of IOLERO and later the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights, said he only made his September post about Engram because he knew the prospect of a Black sheriff would appeal to a lot of people—particularly liberal white people—in the county who might imagine Engram would serve the interests of the minority community. But he said through his deep ties to minority communities, and in particular the Black community, he knew there was concern by many that Engram would not address their longstanding concerns about racial profiling and discipline for misconduct.
“Simply the fact that Eddie Engram is a Black man does not mean he’s going to be a change agent and reform the Sheriff’s Office in the way people might want that to happen,” Threet told the Daily Beast. “The BIPOC community has been very clear and vocal about what they want to see when it comes to the criminal justice system, and Eddie Engram is not going to deliver that.”
Threet told The Daily Beast he doesn’t believe his comment was racist, though he would have preferred a Black voice in the county to have said it. “I thought I might take some heat for it, but I didn’t think this was going to be what happened,” he said of Essick’s post and the blowback he’s received.
Kirstyne Lange, a Black former member of a civilian review board that is part of IOLERO, said she also did not believe Threet’s post was racist. She also agreed that Engram is not “super visible” in the Black community. “I didn’t see him as somebody that was like, alright, there’s a brother in there. It was just like, OK, he’s a Black deputy.”
Katrina Phillips, the chair of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission, said she took no issue with Threet’s assessment of Engram. “What he’s saying is that just because Engram is Black doesn’t mean that he’s the best person for the job,” said Phillips, who is Black. “And I agree with that.”
Phillips said she is aware of Engram, while working as a liaison to the IOLERO office in the past, blocking the release of public records crucial to misconduct investigations—a criticism that Threet also echoed to The Daily Beast.
Phillips and Threet also cited what they interpreted as Engram’s opposition to a ballot measure in 2020 that sought to give the IOLERO office more authority to investigate wrongdoing, post critical body-worn camera video and make discipline recommendations. The measure passed in Nov. 2020, but was quickly taken to court by the Deputies Sheriffs’ Association and has remained unimplemented due to litigation.
Engram told The Daily Beast that if he wins the sheriff’s race he is looking forward to engaging the community in conversations about reform and would like to see changes implemented like having fewer officers responding to mental health emergencies. The veteran assistant sheriff also pushed back on the idea that he hasn’t already tried to create changes in the Sheriff’s Office.
“Have I protested or have I marched? Absolutely not,” he said. “Do I belong to different community groups or other things? No I don’t. But I have advocated for reforms from inside of the department.” Among the changes he cited include advocating for opioid addiction treatment in the jail and stronger body-worn camera policies.
Engram said his decision not to support the 2020 ballot measure had nothing to do with his opposition to reform, but rather the fact that Threet and others behind the measure had not done the necessary bargaining with the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association before getting it on the ballot, which he said destined it to be tied up in the courts. “It was flawed from the beginning.” Engram said any decisions he made to deny records during his time working with the IOLERO department as a liaison were made because he was ordered to do so.
He said Threet’s suggestion that the endorsement of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA) in the upcoming race means “I will sell my soul” is ridiculous.
“The sheriff is an elected position and the sheriff is not beholden to the union,” Engram said. “The sheriff is beholden to the people of Sonoma County. That’s where my loyalties would lie.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, DSA President Mike Vail denied the suggestion that their support of Engram has anything to do with race or their ability to “control” him. Vail took aim at Threet and said his comments “only serve to divide people” and make Engram’s candidacy about race.
Engram suggested that the criticisms of him by Threet and others were an attempt to “obfuscate” the blowback Threet is receiving. “He can criticize me anyway that he wants to, but now that he’s being criticized for the awful language that he used, and now he’s being called on the carpet for it, he’s throwing everything against the wall to try and make it stick.”
Sheriff Essick echoed this while defending his own record, which Threet and others discussed in interviews with The Daily Beast. Among the critics’ concerns was a lack of data collection from the Sheriff’s Office about the race of people stopped by police, a lack of discipline for officers who engage in misconduct, and an August 2020 harassment complaint from Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who accused Essick of bullying her on a phone call amid a fire consuming the county, according to the The Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
After the outlet made a public records request of the complaint and investigation into it, Essick recently sued to block the release of the records. The issue is still being litigated and the records have not been released.
Hopkins told The Daily Beast she was particularly surprised by the lofty rhetoric in Essick’s recent Facebook post about Threet, given their history. “Whenever someone with a history of incivility suddenly turns into the civility police, it raises questions,” she said.
Essick denied being a “bully” to Hopkins: “She and I had a disagreement over evacuations.” In response to concerns about racial profiling, he told The Daily Beast that prior to a state law passed in 2016, most agencies were not collecting racial data on stops, but that his office will be required to start reporting that data in January and that it is already being collected. “For someone to say that there is a persistent issue with racial profiling, they don’t know that. It’s anecdotal,” he said. “We don’t have any empirical evidence yet.”
In response to concerns about disciplining officers, Essick defended his actions after two of the most high-profile incidents during his tenure: the arrest of Anglero-Wyrick and the in-custody death of David Ward, a white man who was beaten and killed by a deputy during a 2019 traffic stop. Previously Ward had reported his car stolen, but after finding it on his own and driving it home he was stopped by deputies.
Essick said after the death of Ward in July 2019, he took the main deputy involved, Charles Blount, off the streets and moved to fire him. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Blount retired before he could be fired. He was later criminally charged with involuntary manslaughter. Harry Stern, an attorney representing Blount, told CNN that Ward’s death was the fault of his own “bizarre actions” that made deputies believe he was an armed carjacker instead of a victim.
Blount’s trial is scheduled to begin in December.
Essick said that following Anglero-Wyrick’s incident, three deputies were disciplined after internal reviews. Two of them were disciplined for not turning on their body cameras and another was disciplined for not releasing the K9 from Anglero-Wyrick’s leg after it was clear he was no longer a threat, KSRO, a local radio station, reported.
Anglero-Wyrick, who said he still suffers from pain and is paying medical bills because of the vicious bite to his leg, said he was hoping for the officers to be fired and criminal charges to be brought against them. “They disfigured me. They mutilated my leg,” he said. “If I had a dog and did that, I would be in custody right now.”
Ultimately, Essick told The Daily Beast he was frustrated to relitigate the merits of his short tenure as sheriff when he said the real issue at hand was Threet’s attack on his friend and longtime colleague, Engram. “Mr. Threet is trying to defend the indefensible. He made a racist comment. Instead of being accountable,” he said, “he’s bringing up all these other things.”
Threet said he doesn’t regret his post, even if he said he knows it will likely follow him around. “I work in a field where objectivity and integrity are very important,” he said. “The sheriff has launched a broadside in the media against me that everyone is going to see now. Anytime I apply to something, I’m going to have to be addressing this from now on in my professional career. And he knows that.”