Correction: In our recounting of past sheriff elections we originally reported the 2006 process and procedure incorrectly. The article has been updated to reflection the accurate information.
Democracy is alive and well in Mendocino County. On Monday afternoon, in the eleventh hour, former Mendocino County law enforcement officer Trent James formally registered as a write-in candidate for the sheriff of Mendocino County, challenging incumbent Matt Kendall.
With just two weeks before the June 7th California primary elections, James heeded the callings of Mendocino County supporters moved by his YouTube channel entitled “Confessions of an Ex-Cop” and stepped into the race driven by an agenda focused on scrubbing the corruption he sees as endemic to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
James’s claims of corruption lie within a mix of facts, rumors, and gossip. James’s accusations aimed at MCSO’s command staff generally consist of alleging misconduct from their pasts as proof of current corruption. To date, claims of MCSO’s purported corruption have not been proven in a court of law.
Less than a month ago a U.S. District judge dismissed a RICO civil case filed by multiple parties implicating MCSO and the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office in cannabis robbery and extortion schemes. The judge called the case “larded with conclusory and speculative allegations.”
Even Write-In Candidates Have to Register
In Mendocino County, Assessor-County Clerk-Recorder Katrina Bartolomie stands as the facilitator of free and fair elections. She told us that since her election in 2005, this is the first write-in candidate for a county-wide leadership position she has navigated. Bartolomie said that she had to contact a representative of California’s Secretary of State for the formal procedures she needed to follow.
Bartolomie told us that despite the spontaneous connotations of the term “write-in candidate”, the State of California requires a formal process to be followed if someone wants to actually run as a write-in candidate. The ultimate goal of that process is to ensure that a write-in candidate is a permanent resident of the area they are running to represent. This requirement comes from the expectation that any candidate running for an office be a voter in the county so they could cast a ballot for the race they are actively running in.
Trent James Books It to Submit His Papers
James contacted Bartolomie last Friday, May 20, and learned that he had to sign all documents in person, as set out by the State of California. Determined to register, James started a GoFundMe over this last weekend, raised nearly $3,000, and hopped on a plane to sign the documents so the write-in votes could officially be tabulated.
Along with his registration documentation, James had to collect forty signatures from Mendocino County residents who would support his candidacy. He told us he flew into SFO on Monday and drove directly to the Perkins Street Starbucks in Ukiah where he said nearly eighty residents met him to support his bid for Sheriff.
Why Trent James Is Running for Sheriff
James has not long sought the role of sheriff but told us he was stirred to run by supporters of his efforts to expose presumed corruption within MCSO. “It wasn’t something I had thought about doing until I was inundated with messages from people taking pictures of my name written on the ballot,” he said. He thought to himself, “I can keep posting YouTube videos or I can at least put myself in as a write-in candidate and make a positive change..”
What Trent James Would Change as Sheriff
James has spent the last seven months using his YouTube channel to recount what he characterizes as the corruption within the command staff of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the Willits Police Department. He explained his priority as sheriff would be purging “toxic leaders” that he says “have no business in those positions.” He says current MCSO personnel have told James they are dissatisfied with the agency’s leadership culture.
If James were to become Sheriff, it is worth considering the tenor of a workplace in which the newly elected administrator actively disparaged the command staff as an election strategy.
According to James, MCSO’s recruiting and retention issues are a product of the staff’s lack of trust in MCSO’s command staff.
However, staffing shortages are not unique to MCSO. A diverse array of media outlets including CNN, Fox News, and Newsweek have reported at length about agencies across the United State struggling to recruit and retain personnel. The National Police Association estimates that in 2020, 86% of the nation’s law enforcement agencies were experiencing staffing shortages.
Two trends are converging to create this staffing crisis: there are fewer young people interested in serving in law enforcement and a phenomenon known as “The Great Resignation” where law enforcement has seen a 44% increase in retirements and 18% increase in resignations in recent years. These two trends have left agencies around the country unable to fill the gaps left by those that leave the profession behind.
James, a former resident deputy in Covelo, learned of the importance of community policing while getting to know Round Valley. He believes getting out of his patrol car, talking to people, and getting to know the community helped build trust in a community often distrustful of law enforcement. If he was elected to serve as sheriff, James said he would emphasize relationship building and community policing to restore the community’s trust in the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department.
James’s framing implies that most Mendocino County residents do not trust MCSO. A review of MCSO’s Facebook page will show the agency playing an active role in fires, power outages, telecommunication disruptions, and more. Recent posts about a power outage on the coast, for instance, show many residents expressing appreciation for the department and its work getting out information.
Trent James, Where Do You Live?
Over the last seven months’ worth of videos, James has told his viewers he was in Florida, Texas, on the East Coast, and at points visiting Ukiah.
Katrina Bartolomie, Mendocino County’s Clerk-Assessor-Record told us one of the requirements for a legitimate candidate, write-in or not, is to have permanent residence in Mendocino County.
This issue of candidate residency reared its head this year in Del Norte County when Randy Watz was forced to resign after winning a sheriff’s race and investigators found that he was renting a place in Del Norte but his permanent residency was in fact across the state border in Oregon.
We asked James to walk us through moving to several different states in his videos while at the same time being a resident of Mendocino County?
He told us that when he was fired from the Willits Police Department, he moved to Florida in October 2021 with his then-girlfriend. He eventually came back to Ukiah and rented a room at a friend’s home, which is the address he is currently registered to vote from. He stayed in that rental for approximately two months and says he still maintains it as his home base.
James also has a residence in South Texas, where he told us he is exploring “business opportunities” doing private investigator work which he said makes him a resident of two separate states.
Some accuse James of being a permanent resident of Virginia, which he said is not true
A search of Whitepages.com, a database that combs through public records and ties phones and addresses to individuals, does indicate that an address in Seaford, Virginia was recently associated with his name.
Despite his recent movement, he told us growing up in Mendocino County, and graduating from Ukiah High, he sees the county as his home and intends to make it his full-time residence if he was to become sheriff.
Trent James and Law Enforcement Transparency
According to James, one of his core philosophies is law enforcement transparency. Throughout his videos, he attributes a culture of secret-keeping to the Mendocino County law enforcement and, when he spoke to us, vowed to stamp it out and cultivate communication with the public.
He expressed support for body cams on Mendocino County Sheriff’s deputies emphasizing that utilizing these body cams can help determine if complaints against law enforcement officers have merit.
James also supports California Senate Bill 1421, passed in 2018, which makes police records related to use of force incidents, sexual assault, and acts of dishonesty accessible under the California Public Records Act.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall has stated that James is being provided information about an active investigation by deputies within his organization which is a breach of protocol, and potentially illegal. James resolutely denies this.
We asked James if he were sheriff, how would he handle someone in his organization talking about an active investigation, even if it were for the sake of transparency. He said, “If I had documented proof, they would be fired.”
During James’s videos, on multiple occasions, he cited information he said he gained from active law enforcement officers and human resources documentation not available for the public, even if requested with a public records act request.
Crisis Workers, Use of Force, and the Public Safety Advisory Board
Addressing the Defunding the Police movement and the call to redirect some funding to mental health services, James was all for it. He asserted law enforcement should not be in the business of psychiatry or counseling. “We’re peacekeepers and we enforce the laws.”
Former Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman and the current sheriff, Matt Kendall, have both worked for mental health funding. Measure B, an initiative pushed by Sheriff Allman, has led to growing resources and awareness of the partnerships required to provide mental health treatment instead of just law enforcement.
Regarding the use of force practices in Mendocino County law enforcement agencies, James said he did not see or experience much unnecessary use of force during his tenure as an MCSO deputy and WPD officer.
He argued a police officer’s best tool is communication. “You have to treat people with respect. The ones who have to use force are the ones that don’t talk to people.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minnesota policeman, the national conversation about police use of force came home to roost in Mendocino County with the establishment of the Public Safety Advisory Board, a group designed to bring law enforcement and the community together to reflect on the use of force incidents in Mendocino County.
James spoke favorably of this concept because it emulated his philosophy of transparency. He did note that a civilian’s perception of the use of force is considerably different than a trained law enforcement officer and thought civilians participating in the process should be given a “citizen’s academy” or required to do a ride-along to understand the realities facing law enforcement.
Is Trent James Anti-Law Enforcement?
Trent James’s campaign to expose corruption in the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has been used as fodder online for those that are anti-law enforcement.
A cursory review of his Youtube channel’s comment section will show a fan base bringing frustration with law enforcement to the table and having their preconceived notions of corruption validated by a narrator with the persuasive narrative framing of “I was once one of them.”
James told us that those that use his stories as proof of their anti-law enforcement beliefs “misunderstand my message” and he said unequivocally, “I am not anti-law enforcement. Some of my friends… best friends are law enforcement. I’m anti-corruption, lies, and not being transparent.”
James’s critique of law enforcement is more specific, he said. “I’m not talking about patrol guys. I’m talking about the specific people I’ve addressed in my videos.”
James said he could empathize with those that have grown an anti-law enforcement bias having experienced negative interactions with the police himself.
How Trent James Would Clean House
Considering James’ focus on removing four members of MCSO’s command staff specified on his YouTube channel, we spoke to him about how he would go about implementing that goal.
James recognized that those members of the command staff are protected by the Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights affording them due process, in addition, there are also labor unions designed to protect the rights of employees. He also acknowledged the complexity of disciplining an employee for misconduct committed at a separate agency, a sort of double jeopardy if there are no other offenses to point towards.
James proposed that running these employees through a modern background check, more robust and comprehensive than when they were initially hired, could give cause to terminate their employment.
To both of these issues, James simply said, “There’s an answer to every problem. I have plans.”
A police chief wrote an opinion article in the Washington Post entitled “I used to be a police chief. This is why it’s so hard to fire bad cops” that lined out the challenges law enforcement leaders have in weeding out bad actors. Internal affairs investigations become delayed due to legal contracts. If the administrator finds enough to fire the employee, often an appeal process occurs that is “staggeringly favorable to bad cops.” An arbiter or panel, or civil service commission would then get involved.
When asked how this sort of cleaning of the house could exacerbate MCSO’s staffing shortage, James said the command staff he would target are not the “guys who go to calls”. He gave ground that the employees’ absences would make the agency “hectic for the first year or so,” but predicted the move would be “beneficial as a whole” to MCSO’s day-to-day operations.
Trent James, Restorative Justice, and the Depopulation of California’s State Prisons
As California’s homelessness and open-air drug markets become fodder for conservative media, James argued the state is “reaping the repercussions” of the redefinition of criminal sentencing such as what occurred when Proposition 47 passed. He described these dynamics contributing to the rise in crime and expressed concern that a minimal-punishment approach flies in the face of victims of crime.
He spoke critically of current Governor Gavin Newsom and told us he voted to recall him in 2021. From James’s view, Newsom is running California as he had run San Francisco— lax on crime at the expense of victims.
James proved traditional, nearly conservative when it came to California’s efforts to depopulate the state prison system, describing it as a “failure on the part of the state.”
Trent James and Mental Health Services
James argued that mental health support was the answer to California’s growing drug addiction issues. “You can sometimes punish, but it is an education issue, increasing resources towards mental health,” he said.
He recognized Mendocino County’s Measure B, but characterized its substance as lacking. Despite promises of crisis workers working alongside law enforcement, he remembered when he was working as a deputy requesting the backup of a mental health professional who would then refuse to respond.
Trent James on Cannabis Enforcement
Considering cannabis’s outsized influence on Mendocino County law enforcement’s work, we asked James about his approach to the cannabis industry and if he agreed with the current sheriff’s approach. Sheriff Kendall currently focuses his agency’s efforts on trespass grows plagued by violence or environmental damage. James told us he agrees with Kendall’s approach. “It is a disservice to allow those illegal operations to continue when legal growers are trying to do what is right.”
Trent James and Rebuilding Trust with Other Local Law Enforcement Leaders
Trent James has spoken at length on his YouTube channel about the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, Willits Police Department, and the Ukiah Police Department. We asked him if he was to become sheriff, how could his videos affect the collaboration with law enforcement entities around Mendocino County.
Mendocino County’s law enforcement and emergency responders are constantly providing mutual aid to other agencies whether it be crime, fire, or traffic accidents. Collaboration and trust are essential in a rural county.
He assured voters that despite his critiques of these agencies, when it came down to it, “in law enforcement we’re going to have the same goal. We should be able to be adults, be mature, and deal with the situation.”
James also pointed out that he has never met most Mendocino County law enforcement officers. With that, he saw no reason his YouTube content would get in the way of collaborating with other agencies.
James did note that he specifically did not like Willits Police Chief Fabian Lizarraga, but said he promised to help WPD in an emergency situation, but beyond that would tell Chief Lizarraga, “Don’t ever call me.”
If Trent James Becomes Sheriff, Will He Turn Into the Thing He Hates?
Many leaders talk of change and “draining the swamp, but as the realities of a position come to fruition they find themselves slotted into the same behaviors and issues they disparaged when running for the office. We asked James how he will remain steadfast to his goals if he was to actually be at the helm of MCSO.
He conjured current Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. James said one of the chief complaints he hears regarding Kendall is how he changed once he started to work his way up the command structure.
Derek Hendry, former Willits Police Lieutenant, also went through a personality shift as he started to ascend the ranks of WPD, James recalled. He remembered telling Hendery, “You’re becoming the guy you used to hate.”
Personality traits that James says he often associates with law enforcement are insecurity and immaturity. These tendencies contribute to personality shifts as they ascend the command structure, Jame argued.
James is committed to remaining himself despite any pressures he faces. If he were to change, he said, “It would be a disservice to everyone. There is no personality there. You’re making it so the public doesn’t view you. You’re like a robot.”
Trent, Will You Delete Your YouTube Channel If You Become Sheriff?
Considering the incendiary content of James’s YouTube channel and the fact if he was to be sheriff he would have to manage the same personalities he spoke of in his videos, we wondered whether James would delete his YouTube channel if he becomes the Sheriff of Mendocino County.
Initially, James said, “I’m not going to delete it if I become sheriff. I don’t see a need to delete the whole thing.”
He said the videos galvanized his supporters and brought him to this moment where he is now running to be sheriff. “There are going to be sheriffs that might not agree with me, but I’m not going to hide it. I’m not going to conform to make them comfortable.”
Sheriffs from Humboldt, Trinity, Lake, Sonoma, Glenn, and Tehama Counties have proven vital collaborators when dealing with incidents that crossed county lines. We proposed a real-world hypothetical to James if he were to become sheriff: Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal and Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon, who both have a working relationship with Sheriff Kendall coordinating cannabis enforcement, are leery of this new sheriff and talk of his YouTube videos. We wondered what James would do if he sensed his videos were interfering with Mendocino County’s ability to partner with agencies such as these? Is it worth alienating allies to prove a point?
This gave James pause, and he responded by saying, “Mendocino County is my main priority. It’s the reason I want to get this position. To make it a better place, if my videos get in the way of that, I would consider deleting them.” He did add that before removing any video, he would have a strongly worded conversation with anyone distrustful of him simply because of his videos. “Why would they be concerned about exposing dirty cops?”
The Uphill Battle of the Write-In Candidate
There are less than two weeks before the election. When we spoke with Bartolomie on Tuesday, nearly 4,000 ballots had already been collected. Compared to general elections, primary elections like the one on June 7 usually see about 35%-40% of voters turn out. She characterized a political bid like James’, just weeks before election day as an “uphill battle.”
Bartolomie confirmed that James has become an official write-in candidate, but specified he will not physically be on the ballot. Those interested in him as sheriff need to write his name legibly in the space provided.
She also told us that if someone wanted to change their ballot once it had been sent to her office via the mail or dropped in the county’s ballot box, that would not be possible. “Once the ballot is in our possession, it cannot be changed,” she said.
Over the last two decades, the election of Mendocino County Sheriff has most often resulted in the incumbent retaining their role. Incumbent Tony Craver beat challenger Richard Bumpus in 2002 with 78.6% of the vote.
In 2006, Kevin Broin, serving as interim sheriff after Craver retired during his term, defeated Tom Allman and Don Miller with 38.92% of the vote.
In 2006, two elections were held because the June primary was so close with Don Miller receiving 22.43% of the vote, Kevin Broin receiving 38.92%, and Tom Allman receiving 38.56%.
That November, a runoff election was held where Tom Allman beat Kevin Broin with 53.90% of the vote.
Tom Allman was the only formalized candidate in 2010 winning 97.95% of the vote and 2.05% going to write-ins.
In both 2014 and 2018, Tom Allman ran unopposed garnering 98.24% of the vote.in 2014. In 2018, he would earn 98.32% of the vote with 1.68% going to write-ins. Just over a year and a half into his term, Tom Allman would retire early, appointing Matt Kendall sheriff.
The past twenty years of elections suggest write-in candidates are a disadvantage compared to known entities working with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
Trent James and the Weeks Ahead
Ultimately, James says that “if you support Kendall, great. It’s about who you think is the best fit for Mendocino County. I’ve never done this before and I’m figuring it out in a matter of days. If I lose, it is what it is.”
Now that James is back in Mendocino County, he said the next two weeks will be dedicated to campaigning. He told us how amazing the support has been for him entering the race. He told us one of his supporters is making t-shirts, and he intends to take out radio ads, and use social media to message as much as possible between now and Election Day.
For full disclosure, this reporter is a member of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office volunteer Search and Rescue team.