Care About Policing? You Should Be Watching These Sheriff Races.

Around the country, policing is on the ballot, from use-of-force policies to law enforcement spending.
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks at a press conference  in Lakewood on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

When voters go to the polls today, they’ll be deciding not just who gets to make policy but also who gets to enforce it. In many states, sheriffs—who oversee law enforcement offices that police local counties—are elected positions. And while these down-ballot races often fly under the radar, this time around these local races have high stakes for the people who live in the county as well as for the future of police reform in the U.S.

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Around the country, policing is on the ballot, from use-of-force policies and law enforcement spending, to the unraveling of old discriminatory policies targeting minorities, and even the nationwide shortage of police officers. Voters will ultimately decide whether the “law and order first” approach to policing, supported and popularized by former President Donald Trump, will remain in place, or if a more nuanced slant to criminal justice and police reform, which gained some traction after protests against racist policing in 2020, will become the new strategy in their communities.

“These elections will be a test of the strength of both of these movements,” Tamara Agins, a spokeswoman for Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, told VICE News.

From California to North Carolina, here’s what’s on the ballot and in the balance in six counties to watch.

Columbus County, North Carolina

In late September, audio was published of now former Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene calling his Black colleagues untrustworthy “Black bastards” and planning to fire them all. Greene made the comments in February 2019, as he was in the midst of a hotly-contested race for the seat he’d eventually win by just 34 votes.

The audio has stirred weeks of controversy in Columbus County, where the population is one-third Black. Calls for his resignation from residents and local civil rights organizations like the Columbus County NAACP resulted in his forced removal by the Columbus district attorney, and a state investigation. He eventually resigned just before a petition to remove him from office was being heard in a county courtroom.

But that wasn’t the end of Greene’s story. While his resignation put an end to the county leaders’ ability to remove him from office, it allowed him to stay on the ballot free of consequence. And with the backing of the Columbus County Republican Party, Greene hopes to win another term, despite his racism being put on full display.

“We feel the voters in Columbus County will support the sheriff in this race and he will suffice as will the party support him,” Columbus County Republican Party Chairman Sammy Hinson told VICE News. “It is our contention that the voters in Columbus County should decide, not outside special interest groups motivated by partisan politics, which is exactly what is driving this.”

On Tuesday’s ballot, Greene will face the person who recorded and released the recording, former Columbus County interim Sheriff Jason Soles. Soles is running a platform that would bring back neighborhood community-watch programs, hire more officers to cover more of the county, and improve the office’s relationship with the community.


Albany County, Wyoming

Though Albany County, which covers the city of Laramie, is a relatively small town, incumbent Sheriff Aaron Appelhans made national headlines for becoming the state’s first Black sheriff in its 131-year history. While this fact alone made Appelhans’ ascent to the county’s top cop noteworthy, his appointment also happened against the backdrop of other controversies regarding the sheriff’s office.

In 2018, an Albany County deputy shot and killed Robbie Ramirez, an unarmed man who’d been diagnosed with a mental illness, during a traffic stop. The shooting kicked off the county’s movement for police accountability, and with input from the community, culminated in the resignation of his predecessor and the appointment of Appelhans in December 2020. Appelhans wasted little time making change. As he told VICE News earlier this year, he’s focused on diversifying his ranks by hiring more women and non-white deputies, and reforming how his department interacts with the mentally ill.

Appelhans has also created a no-tolerance policy for misconduct. Under that policy, he fired a white officer who’d been accused of bullying and using racial slurs against a Black officer who quit in 2017.

Despite an active two years, he is facing a challenger in Republican Joel Senior. Senior is an experienced officer in his own right, with 19 years working as a patrol and school resource officer, child abuse investigator, and more. In his candidacy announcement, he said his opponent is in office because “of a political agenda,” not because he was the most qualified, positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate. This week voters will decide if Appelhans will get a shot at finishing the reform work he’s started, or revert to a more traditional alternative.


Alamance County, North Carolina

This year marks 20 years in office for Republican Sheriff Terry Johnson, and those two decades have been marred by controversy.

Johnson has been widely criticized for his treatment of his Hispanic constituents. In 2012, he was one of the earliest sheriff’s to participate in ICE’s 287(g) program, a federal program that allows local and state law enforcement agencies to begin the deportation process before handing it over to the feds. He was a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice after being accused of detaining and arresting Latino people without probable cause as early as 2007. The DOJ found that deputies in Johnson’s county were four to ten times more likely to stop Latino drivers—he infamously told his deputies to “go out there and get me some of those taco eaters.” The case was eventually dropped in 2016.

Johnson was seemingly emboldened during the Trump era, echoing the former president’s remarks on immigrants, calling them “criminal,” and saying they are “raping our citizens in many, many ways.” He’d also ordered his deputies to use pepper spray to clear out a peaceful pro-voting protest in the city of Graham just days before the 2020 election.

Despite a tumultuous two decades in office marred by racism, Johnson has remained in his seat with little opposition; in 2010, 2014, and 2018, he ran unopposed. This year will be different, however: Johnson will face off against Kelly White, a Black cop with nearly a quarter century of law enforcement experience. Kelly lead the Elizabeth City State University Police Department and the North Carolina Central University Police Department as interim chief in 2013 and 2020 respectively. Today, he serves as the deputy chief of University Police and Public Safety for the police force at the HBCU Winston-Salem State University.

Bristol County, Massachusetts

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has served as Bristol County’s sheriff since his appointment in 1997. He’s a pro-Trump stalwart serving a Democratic part of town: Joe Biden won Bristol County by more than 12 points in 2020, and Hillary Clinton won it by 9 points in 2016, according to Politico.

Hodgson has managed to stay in office despite his politics aligning with the fringes of the GOP. He’s a founding member of Protect America Now, a radical coalition of election-denying, pro-“law and order,” pro-Second Amendment, anti-immigration sheriffs from around the country with close ties to the far-right anti-government group the Oathkeepers. The organization has even teamed up with the election-denying organization True The Vote to create several measures to ensure election integrity, including the creation of a National Election Integrity Voter Hotline for citizens to report supposed illegal activity at the polls.

Hodgson is also under investigation for his alleged part in the hospitalization of three ICE detainees during their stay at the Bristol County House of Correction in May 2020. At least one of those detainees says he was assaulted by Hodgson himself, according to local radio station WBUR. Just last week, his campaign received backlash for running a campaign ad featuring an antisemitic dog whistle and claiming his opponent would bring Chicago and New York levels of crime to the county.

“Politicians supported by George Soros and his followers don’t believe that criminals should be in jail,” he says in the ad. “These groups support my opponent. They have their sights set on our way of life in Bristol County.”

On Tuesday Hodgson will face Democratic challenger Paul Heroux. Heroux, the current mayor of Attleboro and a former state representative and jail administrator in Philadelphia and Massachusetts, hopes to reform the county’s jails, which have a dismal reputation. The jails account for 25 percent of inmate suicides in Massachusetts, despite making up just 13 percent of its incarcerated population, according to the Boston Globe. Heroux is also running on reforming the county’s efforts to prevent recidivism.


Frederick County, Maryland

Republican incumbent Sheriff Chuck Jenkins has embraced much of what the far-right has peddled in the last half-decade: He’s an anti-immigration sheriff who’s garnered some national acclaim for being tough on immigration, thanks to regular appearances on Fox News and his support of the 287(g) federal immigration program. He’s even called DACA recipients “hardcore gangbangers,” according to the Maryland ACLU, despite clear evidence of the contrary. He is also a member of the radical coalition of sheriffs, Protect America Now.

Perhaps the most damning incident involving the sheriff’s office under Jenkins’ leadership is the 2018 traffic stop of Sara Medrano. Medrano, an El Salvador-born resident of the county, said that she was detained for more than an hour with her daughter and two grandchildren after a deputy pulled her over for a burned-out taillight. During the long wait, deputies contacted ICE about her immigration status, before finally letting her go.

Medrano, along with local immigrant advocacy group RISE Coalition, filed a lawsuit accusing the office of targeting Hispanic residents. She’d eventually win a $125,000 settlement in 2021, forcing the county to cover her legal expenses. She also received an apology from Jenkins.

Jenkins is challenged on Tuesday by Karl Bickel, in what will be the Democrat’s third attempt to unseat Jenkins. Bickel is a former detective for the Washington D.C. metro police, a former law enforcement specialist for the National Institute of Justice, and even had a spell at the Department of Justice as a senior policy analyst before his retirement in 2014. He’s running as an anti-MAGA, progressive alternative focused on ending the sheriff's office’s cooperation with the 287 (g) federal immigration program, as well as modernizing it to make it more attractive to new recruits.

Los Angeles County, California

Few sheriffs have made headlines as often as Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s Alex Villanueva. Since his election in 2018, an election he won on the promise of bringing reform to the department, he’s jumped from scandal to scandal, making more than a few enemies in government and among his constituents.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the largest sheriff’s department in the country, has been the subject of a civil rights investigation by California’s Department of Justice over allegations of excessive force and other misconduct by its deputies. Villanueva has refused to cooperate with queries into the existence of gangs within his department. He’s allegedly directed deputies to target his biggest critics and ordered early morning raids on their homes. He’s openly berated and opened investigations into journalists, and killed ongoing investigations into deputy misconduct, all while the jails in his county have languished under mismanagement.

Villanueva’s opponent on Tuesday is Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna. The 36-year law enforcement veteran, who is running to restore a sense of normalcy to the department, has pretty easily picked up crucial support from Democrats who backed Villanueva during his 2018 bid for office.

Voters won’t just be deciding on whether Villanueva will stay in office. They’ll also be deciding on the introduction of a new county measure that would allow the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to vote for the removal of an elected sheriff from office. If voters vote in favor of the measure, the Board would have grounds to vote for removal on the grounds of misappropriating funds, obstructing justice, lying, and neglecting the duties of the job. Measure A is basically a safety measure against another four years under Villanueva if the incumbent somehow manages to pull off a victory on Tuesday.

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