It’s a real horse race for Sacramento sheriff

Corrections reformer Milo Fitch mounts credible challenge to incumbent Scott Jones’ reign

Milo Fitch announced this week that he will challenge Jones.

Milo Fitch announced this week that he will challenge Jones.

Photo courtesy of CalPIA

Sheriff candidate Milo Fitch says it was Christmastime at Sunrise Mall when the woman ran up screaming that her car had been stolen.

This was back in the mid-1990s, Fitch recalled. Then a sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, Fitch was splitting his time as part of a grant-funded program that put cops on horseback in socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods. Fitch, a steady hand with bridle straps, loved the program. He’d meet people who had never touched or seen a colt before. Sometimes they’d cry. Sometimes they’d bring their kids. Then, after a while, they would start telling him things—about the dope houses and the guns and the things that made them feel afraid.

That was happening here, with the lady, just in a much quicker fashion.

Sitting high in his saddle, Fitch spotted the victim’s car slinking onto Sunrise Boulevard and clicked his teeth in its direction. Normally, one horsepower is no match for something with 150, but the suspects got mired in rush hour traffic. Fitch trotted up behind the car and provided onlookers with a real-life display of what it would look like if a 19th century lawman conducted a 20th century felony stop. As the two suspects knelt down with their hands raised, Fitch noticed the driver glance back at another car stalled in traffic. Fitch asked whether that vehicle was stolen, too. The man nodded.

“Ultimately, I got four bad guys and two stolen cars,” Fitch chuckled.

Two decades later, Fitch is again in an unlikely pursuit. On Monday, he announced that he is challenging Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to run one of the largest law enforcement agencies in California. Along with providing police services across a broad swath of unincorporated county territory, as well as in the cities of Rancho Cordova and Isleton, the Sheriff’s Department is responsible for operating two county jails bursting at the seams.

Fitch’s entry adds intrigue to what was shaping up to be a race between Jones and two upstarts lacking name recognition and money. Fitch’s supporters say he has the one and can raise the other. But Jones is still the man with the badge, and he won’t give it up easily.

There was a time last fall when Jones had no political vines left to grab.

Nearly a year had passed since the sheriff came up agonizingly short in his first congressional race in November 2016. The 2-point loss to Rep. Ami Bera—the Coke Zero of Democrats—signaled that Jones wasn’t the Great Red Hope the GOP establishment had groomed him to be. Some 10 months later, Jones announced he wouldn’t pursue a third term as Sacramento’s most protested politician.

His once-ascendant political career within the Republican Party had contorted into a question mark. Then the door behind him reopened. In January, Jones’ chosen one dropped out of the sheriff’s race.

“The reality is Kris Palmer was my guy. I was happy to retire,” Jones said of the chief deputy he endorsed as his successor. “For the first time, I really had to self-reflect.”

That period didn’t last long. On February 23, Jones filed his candidate’s statement with the county’s elections office. In a brief phone interview, Jones told SN&R that he didn’t like the pall of uncertainty hanging over his department or who would run it. He’d heard rumors about who might try to fill the vacuum he was creating.

“Was I really willing to leave it to chance?” he said. “And the bottom line was no. … It was a pretty easy decision.”

Now things are complicated again.

Fitch is Jones’ onetime mentor. Now overseeing career technical education at the California Prison Industry Authority, a quasi-independent agency that connects prison parolees with competitive jobs, Fitch is known as a quiet-yet-formidable force who brought innovative rehabilitative programs to Sacramento County’s jails before he retired in 2013.

The lawman-turned-reformer didn’t jump into this race lightly.

“I had been struggling with it for a long time,” Fitch acknowledged on Tuesday. “I’m a private person. I enjoy what I do.”

But Fitch says he got some sage advice from Jed Scully, a law professor who has had his ear bent by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“He really made me realize that it’s bigger than the individual,” Fitch said of the sheriff’s office. “It’s about giving voice to the people and making sure they have a choice.”

Fitch, who will formally kick off his candidacy 11 a.m., March 8, at Cesar Chavez Plaza, knows unseating Jones won’t be easy.

Sheriff Scott Jones tells an advisory committee that he’s running for a third term.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

Jones’ incumbency brings a windfall of expected benefits. He’s collected $120,000 in contributions since reentering the race in late January—including a $20,000 takeback check from Palmer’s campaign and $50,000 from the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, whose endorsement usually obliges surrounding law enforcement unions to back the home team’s pick.

But Jones is not without his vulnerabilities.

Over nearly two terms, he’s cost the county tens of millions of dollars in adverse legal decisions and developed an eclectic enemies list, spanning everyone from Black Lives Matter’s Sacramento chapter to California’s bookish state auditor. The Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office sued Jones over his use of cellphone-tracking spy tech. He’s also drawn condemnation from state lawmakers and local politicians for siding with the Trump administration against California’s sanctuary status. And Jones’ administration is far less transparent about officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths than the neighboring Sacramento Police Department.

“It’s on the wrong side of legacy,” said Ryan McClinton, a community organizer with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, which has clashed with Jones on immigration enforcement and his office’s unwillingness to share information with families of use-of-force victims. “It echoes sentiments of the current commander-in-chief—a mini-Trump if you will.”

That’s not a good look, says retired political consultant Jeff Raimundo.

“California and Sacramento are not nearly as conservative as Jones is,” opined Raimundo, who has offered to assist Fitch’s campaign in a consulting capacity. “This is not a good time to be a supporter of Donald Trump.”

Raimundo may be right.

When Jones faced Bera in 2016, he drew just over 145,000 votes as a registered Republican. Compare that to 2010, when Jones edged opponent Jim Cooper by collecting nearly 182,000 votes—40,000 more than Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg did that year in his final state Senate bid.

Jones believes that challenging Bera as a Republican in the age of Trump put a target on his back that didn’t disappear when he went back to being a nonpartisan sheriff.

“I have a lot of people who are antagonistic toward me,” he said.

Jones said the list includes Steinberg, “who has a particular hatred against me,” state Sen. Kevin de Leon, “who I couldn’t pick out of a lineup,” Elaine Howle, California’s “politically appointed” auditor who investigated Jones’ dispensation of concealed weapons permits and accused him of breaking the law when he leaked his responses to the audit, as well as others.

Jones says he isn’t initiating any of these attacks; he’s simply responding to them.

“I truly don’t pick fights,” Jones said. “I never start it. Never.”

Jones isn’t quick to resolve them, either.

In the spring of 2016, a Sacramento County jury awarded $6.9 million in damages and attorneys’ fees to four female Sheriff’s Department employees who said they had been repeated victims of workplace harassment and discrimination. Three of the plaintiffs—Tracie Keillor, Jodi Medonca and Dawn Douglas—said they were demoted or passed over for promotions shortly after reporting an inappropriate relationship between then-Capt. Eric Maness and a subordinate.

Jones later promoted Maness to be his undersheriff.

Jones insists the lawsuit, filed in 2010, had nothing to do with him. Referring to it as “the unfortunate vestige of a prior time,” before he was elected sheriff, Jones stressed that none of the misconduct allegations centered on him. But because he was running for Congress at the time, the scandal is “forever attached to me,” he said.

Asked what changes he’s made to ensure such discrimination doesn’t happen again, Jones says he believes he already made them during his first term. Jones said he reformed the internal promotions process to be more merit-based, “rather than based on who knows who.” He says he also developed a strategy to find, recruit and mentor talent from underrepresented groups. “You don’t hear those complaints anymore,” he said.

Retired sheriff’s Sgt. Donna Cox, another candidate for office, begs to disagree.

Cox, 49, says she retired in August 2016 because she grew tired of the unequal treatment of men and women within the department. She put in her papers just a few months after the jury’s decision in the female employees’ case.

“It runs rampant through the department,” Cox said. “A lot of women in their 40s got tired and just retired.”

This is a race where the lower-tier candidates could impact the results.

Citrus Heights Councilman Bret Daniels, who was fired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2000, leans right of Jones on concealed firearm permits and immigration, and could siphon votes from the sheriff’s more conservative base. Meanwhile, Cox’s candidacy could keep the attention on sexual harassment issues Jones prefers to move past.

Jones says his accomplishments are regularly coming in under budget and the roll-out of an intelligence-led policing patrol strategy, designed to cut response times. He points to dropping crime rates and claims pride in his department’s developing youth services division, which engages with underserved youth.

“We never had that, historically, and it’s hard to believe,” he said. “It’s why many of us go into law enforcement.”

As for the taxpayer-funded payouts his department has been responsible for—including a $6.5 million wrongful death judgment in the fall—Jones described them as “sensational aberrations.”

“That’s the cost of doing business,” he said. “We do things that affect people’s constitutional rights.”

That is not an OK answer for community organizer McClinton.

“Our tax dollars are paying for it,” he said. “Lawsuits aren’t ’protect and serve,’ especially of that magnitude.”