I’m not the sheriff
But former Sacramento County Main Jail commander Jim Cooper wants to be
Jim Cooper wants to be Sacramento County’s next sheriff. He announced his candidacy within hours of current Sheriff John McGinness’ making public his decision not to run for another term. Cooper says the department is in crisis—racked by devastating budget cuts that led to 130 layoffs—and he’s the guy to fix it.
“This whole race to me is about leadership,” he said. “The last three years have been a failure. We’re in a huge crisis right now, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. There are definitely going to be more layoffs. Officers are losing homes, losing their vehicles. I can’t sit by and let it go on.”
Although the election is 10 months away, the race for sheriff is fast narrowing to just two horses, both captains in the department.
There’s bookish Scott Jones, an assistant to the sheriff and attorney who wants to outdo current Sheriff John McGinness—who recently endorsed him—on department reforms. “I want to be even more transparent, more accountable,” Jones said. “Until people are sick of it.”
And then there’s Cooper, who won the endorsement of former Sheriff Lou Blanas, who was Cooper’s supervisor during what was arguably the most tumultuous period in the department’s recent history, when a rapid succession of inmate suicides racked the county jail, when Cooper served as the jail’s commander.
Nor is that the only controversy dogging Cooper. In 2005, a blistering report from Sacramento grand jury’s identified 20 instances in which Cooper, who also serves on Elk Grove’s city council, allegedly voted on sheriff’s contract matters despite repeated warnings to recuse himself. The report also detailed numerous instances when Cooper allegedly intimidated his colleagues and verbally abused city officials who told him to stop voting.
“I’m a very passionate person,” Cooper told SN&R. “It comes out sometimes. Being a cop is being blunt. In a political world, that sometimes hurts people’s feelings.”
Despite the controversies, Cooper would bring a considerable amount of experience to the job should he be elected. He currently runs the department’s high-tech crimes division and has held virtually every other command in the department.
Cooper says he wanted to wear a uniform ever since childhood. He graduated from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Academy in 1984 and never looked back. After just four years in the department, Cooper transferred to the shadowy but grueling world of undercover narcotics.
“You can’t get any more front line than narcotics and gangs,” he said. “It’s a pretty dangerous job, but you knew you were doing something for the community. You saw instant results—putting bad guys in jail, getting them out of the neighborhoods. Kids don’t have a chance to grow up in that crap.”
Alone among the announced sheriff candidates, Jim Cooper has been an elected official since 2000. He was easily elected to the Elk Grove City Council the same year the city was incorporated, and won re-election despite the grand jury’s scathing report.
“It’s been fun, and I’ve made a difference,” Cooper says about his time in office. “Elk Grove has a first-rate police department, second to none in the region.”
But back in 2004, Cooper found himself in a real mess. That’s when the grand jury began investigating allegations that Cooper had, since June 2001, illegally voted on the contact between the city and the sheriff’s department for police services. Because Cooper was a high-ranking member of the sheriff’s department, both the Elk Grove city attorney and the Sacramento County counsel’s office said he could not legally vote or even take part in any council discussions regarding the contract to hire the sheriff’s department to police Elk Grove.
It was a lucrative contract for the county of Sacramento. In 2000-2001, it brought $7.7 million to the county. By 2001-2002, the cost had jumped to $9.9 million. By the time of the grand jury report, it stood at $16.9 million.
Cooper was told to steer clear of the sheriff’s contract as early as May 9, 2000, in the form of a memo from then-Elk Grove City Attorney Tony Manzanetti. In all, the grand jury found a dozen memos and letters—as well as countless instances of verbal warnings—telling Cooper (as well as Councilman Michael Leary, who was also a sheriff’s deputy) not to vote on any police-contract issues. Yet Cooper repeatedly voted on and discussed the contract, sometimes in an abusive manner.
“City officials and fellow Council members testified that Mr. Cooper and Mr. Leary created an atmosphere of intimidation and used vulgarity on numerous occasions when the issue of their involvement in the law enforcement services agreement was being discussed,” the grand jury reported. “Council members and City employees observed Mr. Cooper and Mr. Leary engaged in ‘shouting matches’ with the City Attorney over disagreements about conflict of interest interpretations.”
Then-Elk Grove Mayor Dan Briggs (who refused to comment for this story) detailed one of the alleged “shouting matches” in his official response to the grand jury report: “[I]t was Mr. Cooper that repeatedly jabbed his finger at me nearly poking me in the chest,” Briggs wrote. “It was Mr. Cooper that pursued me down the hall behind the Council Chambers and called me a name that was sexually demeaning and belittling. And, it was Mr. Cooper that in my presence repeatedly used sexually denigrating language directed at female persons both present and not present.”
At the time, Cooper denied Brigg’s allegation, saying that Briggs “lied.” But in an interview with SN&R, he admitted cursing Briggs. “I told the truth to the grand jury,” he said. “Yeah, I called Briggs a bitch.”
Cooper attributed his troubles to “growing pains.”
“In hindsight, I could have done some things differently, like not being so direct,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve made mistakes in my life, absolutely. I’m not perfect.”
Cooper also said Blanas never told him not to vote on sheriff’s contract issues, though a March 8, 2000, memo from then-Sacramento County Counsel Robert Ryan to Blanas unearthed by the grand jury warned the sheriff that Cooper and Leary should recuse themselves. Cooper also said he got “bad advice” from the city attorney, though the grand jury lauded the city attorney in its report for repeatedly advising Cooper to stay away from the contract.
In the end, the grand jury declined to recommend indicting Cooper (or Leary). In 2008, Cooper overwhelmingly won re-election. But by then, the whole sheriff’s issue was moot; in 2006 Elk Grove formed its own police department—the very same one Cooper now trumpets as one of his greatest successes as council member. Of course, Elk Grove’s decision to go independent came at a price: The department’s budget that year stood at $20 million, considerably more than the contract with the sheriff’s department.
Perhaps the largest obstacle Cooper will have to overcome is his performance as the jail’s commander from 2001 to 2003.
Guards and inmates alike agreed that the jail was rough place back then. Expanded in 1998 from 1,800 inmates to 2,300, the jail had not seen any corresponding increase in guard staff. The greater ratio of inmates to staff meant prisoners were spending more time in cells—which they now had to share—and less time outside.
Up to 2002, the jail averaged one inmate suicide annually, but between January and September of that year, six inmates hanged themselves and a seventh overdosed on medication. It didn’t take long for the rash of suicides to spread into a full-blown crisis.
Cooper, who’d been jail commander since September 2001, had a less-than-novel explanation for the deaths: “media attention.” In other words, the more the local press wrote about the uptick in suicides, the more inmates would try to kill themselves.
“Nobody wants to be in jail,” Cooper told SN&R. “It’s not fun. And some of the inmates [who killed themselves] had mental issues. After a while, you start to get copycats.”
In 2005, Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz deposed Cooper for a lawsuit against the county which alleged that conditions at the main jail in 2002 were so bad that three inmates, Mohammad Reza Abdollahi, Jose Elizar Arambula and Jake Summers, had killed themselves. Cooper was uncompromising in the deposition, insisting that his deputies were blameless and that he’d never investigated any deputy’s actions in a suicide.
Despite that view, reforms began late in Cooper’s term as jail commander. In early 2003, a suicide-prevention task force offered 69 anti-suicide improvements to the county board of supervisors. The county also ultimately agreed to pay $450,000 to settle Katz’s lawsuit (the University of California paid $550,000, as UC Davis Medical Center personnel staffed the main jail’s mental-health services).
Cooper’s only declared opponent, Scott Jones, believes that Cooper’s actions as the jail’s commander, as well as his endorsement from Blanas, are indicative of the type of department he’d run.
“I’m not going to say anything bad about Jim Cooper,” Jones said. “I consider him a friend. But I want to move this department forward. I think people deserve an alternative vision to that I believe Jim Cooper would provide.”