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Q&A: New county sheriff on her plans for the department

San Diego Sheriff Kelly Martinez is just a few weeks into the job as the county’s top law enforcement leader.

The San Diego native began her work for the department in 1985 as a deputy in the county jails, and as the department’s 31st sheriff, she is tasked with bringing change to a jail system with some of the highest numbers of in-custody deaths in the state.

Sheriff Martinez spoke with Midday Edition on Thursday about her plans for the department. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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The San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced another in-custody death this week of a man held at a jail in Otay Mesa. It's one of more than a dozen similar deaths this year as the law enforcement agency overseeing local jails awaits a change in leadership.

There have been more jail deaths in San Diego County than almost anywhere else in the state — how are you committed to changing this?

Martinez: We've already made a lot of changes in the last year. I welcomed the audit from the state auditors that was directed by the JLAC last year, and we've really taken all of those recommendations to heart. Today we came out with a press release which you might have seen with a lot of the improvements we made while I was undersheriff last year. We still have more work to do. I think one of the things we did that has helped is the better medical and mental health screening at intake. Doing the urine screening at intake, which helps us identify what drugs someone might have in their system to help them with their withdrawal symptoms and what we should prescribe as part of the medicated assistant treatment, and some of those things helped. Having more naloxone in the jail and available in the jails has helped certainly reverse some of the overdoses and things that are happening.

How does the sheriff's department take on that kind of responsibility? The jail is not a mental health facility — how do you manage that?

Martinez: Well, you know, you hit on a good point. The jails were built — a lot of them — 40 and 50 years ago. They were built with a different idea in mind about how we incarcerate people and also a different population that might not have been as, had as many mental health issues, medical issues as some of the people that are coming into our custody today, but it is my responsibility as the sheriff to keep people safe and to provide them the health care that they need while they're in our custody. So we're looking at best practices around the country to see if there's things we can do differently. We're enhancing the medical and mental health care that we're providing right now, and we're looking to renovate and change some of our jails in coming years.

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What do you say to people whose loved ones have died while incarcerated and are looking for answers?

Martinez: First off, I sympathize with anyone who's had that experience. I think it must be terrible to have a loved one in a jail, and you don't have access to that person. You don't know what happened. We instituted last year a more robust family liaison protocol where we have people assigned specifically to work with the families and to help them understand what happened when we can. One of the things that takes a long time, and it's really because of workload, is the medical examiner can't give us answers right away as well. It takes a while for them to get the toxicology reports back and to get us the answers to what was really happening with the individual, and that's just really nothing the medical examiner can help. It's just his workload is also increased, particularly with the fentanyl overdoses and the deaths in the county.

Drug overdoses within the jails have also been a major problem. What do you know about how drugs are getting into county jails in the first place?

Martinez: They're coming in a lot of different ways. People at intake we're taking, we're recovering a lot of drugs that are on people when they come into intake. We're also recovering some when people swallow it, they body pack. They do a lot of different things. Drugs are granular. The drugs are granular in nature, and so it's very difficult to find. But we have body scanners that help us sometimes when we see anomalies. We can investigate if the person has drugs in their system or bulk drugs in their system. We're finding it in the mail. People mail it in. So we have changed the way that we process our mail now so that we're more efficient in finding drugs that come in through the mail system. People go to court, and they get drugs passed to them in court. So we have to have a robust system of searching people when they come back from court. We're adding more body scanners, which will help, but the body scanners aren't perfect. They break down, they don't work, they don't always pick up the drugs. And so we have a lot of investigative techniques. We have more canines. So we're doing a lot to try to prevent the drugs.

Are deputies or jail employees bringing these drugs in?

Martinez: We don't have any evidence of that. If we get any idea — and we have a lot of ways to find out if they are — I mean, all of our people will tell us a lot of times, and so we would investigate that if it happened, and we haven't seen any evidence of that.

Last year, the department rejected a recommendation from the County Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) to have all jail personnel scanned upon entry. If employees are not scanned or checked, how can you be sure that's not how drugs are getting into the jails?

Martinez: So the body scanning that people suggest, as I said before, it's not a perfect system. It's not going to catch all the drugs that are coming in, but we can't body scan our employees several times a day. It's just not healthy. It's not safe, and it's not really an effective way to find drugs that are coming in the jail all the time. We can't ever be 100% sure. But right now, with the resources we have, we're going to focus where we know the drugs are coming in and work on that, and if we find evidence otherwise, then we'll look at that.

CLERB has made several recommendations for the Sheriff's Department in recent years. As sheriff, are you committed to accepting independent oversight of the department?

Martinez: We've had the CLERB board for almost 30 years now. We have a good relationship with them. I have a whole team of sergeants and a lieutenant that are dedicated to working with the CLERB board, to attending their meetings. They listen to the recommendations. They research the recommendations and the viability of us putting them into practice. They've given us some good recommendations, and there's some we've already implemented before they make the recommendation. They just aren't aware we're doing it, and there's some that we don't do for a whole host of reasons.

You will be San Diego County's first woman sheriff, though this was not part of your campaign. Why not?

Martinez: I really wanted to run on a campaign based on my experience and qualifications. I've been with the Sheriff's Department for 37 years. I've worked every rank on this department at every level. I was a detective and deputy for 22 years. I was the undersheriff running the day to day operations since last year. So I really think, and I hope, that the voters focused on that and not my gender.

Do you plan to have more women in leadership roles within the department?

Martinez: We've always had some women in leadership roles. Currently we have an assistant sheriff who's a woman and some two commanders that are women. I think based on qualifications and the ability to do the job is what's really important. But I do also believe in diversity, and I think that women need to have the same opportunities as anyone else on the department.

KPBS has reported about instances of sexual harassment within the department, and in some cases, its failure to address them at the time. How do you plan to address incidents of sexual harassment and really change the culture around that?

Martinez: I hope having a woman in this role will make it easier for people to come forward. We're certainly having a lot of those conversations about how we make it safer or easier for people, anyone, to come forward who believes they're being harassed or there's some sort of bias in the workplace or something that's unfair. We currently have trainings, and we train our supervisors, but that clearly has not been enough to make people feel safe to come forward. So hopefully moving forward, we'll be able to get that message across, and people will do that, you know?

A recent study by the ACLU and Catalyst California that looked at the San Diego County Sheriff's Department found that 80% of patrol time is spent conducting officer initiated stops, while 18% of this time is spent responding to calls from community members. And they found that Black people are more than twice as likely to be subjected to an officer initiated stop than a white person. Do you see this as a problem?

Martinez: Well, I think anytime there's bias in any form, it's a problem. And I hope that people who feel that they've been treated unfairly or wrongly by law enforcement, by the Sheriff's Department, again will come forward and tell us about it.

If you view it as a problem, what do you intend to do about it?

Martinez: As I said, I think getting the word out there, having those conversations, letting our communities know that it's safe to report incidents. And I think we have a lot of mechanisms in place in areas where people can report that something like that is occurring, including not only on our department, but also the CLERB board that you talked about before and other entities. So I think there's a lot of safe places for people to report it. We just need to make sure they're doing it.

What's your response to the criticism that officers are engaging in pretextual stops?

Martinez: Well, I think investigative stops are an important way to keep crime low. I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing to make a car stop and conduct an investigation based on the circumstances. Depending upon what's going on, we solve a lot of crimes that way. We keep our communities safe that way.

Staffing remains a major priority for the department. How do you plan to bring up recruitment during your tenure?

Martinez: You know, we've already done a lot. We have an incredible advertising campaign going on right now. Where we're at right now is not, we're doing really well with our law enforcement numbers, but we have about 174 job classifications in the department. And so we really need to hire more nurses, more mental health clinicians. We need food service workers, dispatchers a lot of other physicians as well, detentions deputies. So hopefully people will come in the door and apply.

You were quoted in a San Diego Union Tribune op-ed as saying you “don’t think Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs)should be standard operating procedure.” Why not?"

Martinez: That's not exactly what I said. I said that we take a lot more guns away from criminals than the use of GVROs. We do use them when they're appropriate, and we know how to use them. It's a civil process where we enforce a lot of criminal laws, which is different, and we've just had more opportunity and success with the criminal law violations.

What are the circumstances where you do support Gun Violence Restraining Orders?

Martinez: Well, we had an incident. I think it was one of the most recent ones that we did where deputies, a man pointed a gun at deputies and threatened them. They weren't able to, they arrested him and charged him with that as a crime. It wasn't filed by the District Attorney. So they sought a GVRO because he was obviously a threat and a danger with his weapon, and they were granted that GVRO.

You are assuming leadership at a really critical time for the Sheriff's Department. What do you say to San Diego County residents to restore more faith and trust in county law enforcement?

Martinez: Just the Sheriff's Department, we're trying to be as open and transparent as we can be and accountable. So meet with your local sheriff if you're in sheriff's jurisdiction, with your local leader at the station. If you have an interest in knowing more about what we do and why we do it and who's patrolling your area.