San Diego County Sheriff's Department

Three San Diego Sheriff Candidates Talk Top Priorities Ahead of June Primary

Seven candidates are vying to fill the role of San Diego County Sheriff after Bill Gore retired in early 2022

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The San Diego County Sheriff is responsible for county courts, jails, 4,600 employees, a $1 billion budget and the public safety of nearly a million residents.

The challenges the next sheriff faces include trust within the community, hiring and jail safety.

Dave Myers is a retired sheriff’s commander with more than 30 years of experience. His top priority is building trust within the community.

“I got into law enforcement to help people, to make a difference; to create an environment where law-enforcement is trusted, accountable and people are not afraid to call for help,” Myers said.

Acting sheriff Kelly Martinez has been with the department for 37 years and currently serves as Undersheriff. If she wins, she'll be the first woman to lead the department. She is endorsed by San Diego’s most high-profile politicians and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Her top priority is hiring.

“We are critically understaffed in our department -- like most law-enforcement agencies in the country -- and in addition we need nurses,” Martinez said. “We need people to work in our jails for the safety and the care of individuals in our custody and then the jails themselves, we need to make them safer.”

John Hemmerling -- a former Marine and San Diego Police officer -- is now the chief criminal prosecutor for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. His top priority is creating safer jails. He believes his experience running jails in Iraq makes him the best candidate.

“My intent is to set a higher standard,” Hemmerling said. “We’ve got deputies right now that are there, that are working long hours, their working overtime because there’s understaffing and they’re being asked to do jobs that really isn’t within their, their skill set.”

This year, a scathing report by the California State Auditor said the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department failed to prevent jail deaths because of inadequate safety checks and timely medical and mental health care.

“Hopefully we can get on top of this thing and prevent jail deaths,” Martinez said.

To improve transparency, a recent memorandum was signed by every local law enforcement leader to ensure no agency investigates their own use of force deaths. Myers calls the move a charade.

“Releasing heavily-edited body-worn camera footage in response to a major use of force -- mostly shooting incident -- is not transparency, nor accountability. It doesn’t matter who investigates it,” Myers said.

On the topic of ghost guns, Myers said the same process to purchase a functioning firearm in California should be applied to the purchase of parts which should also be serialized.

Martinez believes the department should concentrate on criminals.

“I don’t know if we can get them off the streets and what we really need to do is focus on the criminals that are using them,” Martinez said. “Getting guns away from criminals is what’s important whether it’s a ghost gun or a gun that’s serialized.”

With a recent rise in violence — some carried out using ghost guns -- safety is a top concern for Hemmerling who said a community that is under policed is just as bad as one that is over-policed.

“We need to move away a little bit from the, only focusing on the social Justice back to criminal justice and really concentrating on how that impacts our community because I do think victims are being left behind,” Hemmerling said.

Lately, the department has lost more officers than they’ve been able to hire. Part of the concern -- Martinez said -- is officers feeling demoralized.

“We worked through a pandemic in a couple of years and civil unrest and a lot of people who are sort of lashing out at law enforcement, so to speak and that’s been frustrating for people doing this job,” Martinez said. “That has changed, we’re getting a lot more support for our deputies and a lot more support for law enforcement in our country which I’m really grateful for."

All three candidates weighed in on the Rebecca Zahau cases. In 2011, she was found hanging at a Coronado mansion. Her death was ruled a suicide in two separate sheriffs’ investigations. But a civil suit found her boyfriend’s brother responsible for her death.

The Zahau family has requested the case be re-examined. Myers and Hemmerling are willing to reopen the case. Martinez is open to an outside agency investigating.

NBC 7 asked the candidates, "If you were not running, which of your opponents would you rather see in the position?"

All three candidates said they couldn’t see anyone else in this role.

In this race, even if a candidate gets 50% plus 1 vote, the top two vote-getters must still face off in the November election.

Also, on the ballot are Charles Battle, John Gunderson, Juan Carlos Mercado and Jonathan Peck.

The primary election will be held on June 7.

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