There's (almost) a new sheriff in town

With decades of public service under his belt and every rank on his resume, Tom Lopez will be given a chance to make his mark on the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department come January.

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said he withdrew from the race because he did not want to create a “contentious campaign within our organization,” saying that such bad blood would “be divisive and ultimately harmful to the department and our mission moving forward.” But he didn’t hesitate to take action against Lopez: The day after his subordinate filed election paperwork, Prieto removed Lopez from his office within the administration building and relocated Lopez to a cubicle inside an inmate classroom at the Cameron Training Center near the county jail. Lopez was stripped of his official duties during the entire campaign, making the position of undersheriff nothing more than a mere title. The day we spoke, Lopez said his only job assignment was overseeing the planned renovation of the Yolo County Jail, a $44 million project that aims to expand capacity and programs for inmates. Lopez was present at the groundbreaking ceremony on June 26, but his name was left out of a press release announcing the start of the project. Lopez was also left out of the planning commission for the upcoming fiscal year’s budget — a budget he will inherit come January. “I had no involvement in creating the budget,” Lopez said, adding that Prieto hadn’t spoken with him since he filed his campaign papers. (On Monday, Lopez clarified that he’d interacted with Prieto in March after the sheriff announced his retirement and had spoken with him at least twice in the last week. He also said his job duties had been recently expanded beyond the jail renovation project, but not to the point that they were before he filed his campaign papers and he still has not had a chance to review the budget. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department said he would not comment on the matter because the issues were “too politically charged.” In an e-mail to the Express on Tuesday, Prieto also declined to comment.) “I’m sorry that had to occur that way,” Lopez continued. “But it is time for change.” Change is the platform Lopez ran on. In his campaign statement, Lopez said that the sheriff’s department’s “reputation is battered, community trust is damaged, and the department doesn’t reflect the values and commitment of our deputies and staff.” When I asked him about his comments, he said one of the things that damaged the department’s morale within the office and reputation with the public were multiple allegations of sexual harassment made against Prieto by former employees. There were three lawsuits, Lopez noted, one of which came with a sizable settlement that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. “I believe that community trust and the perception of the agency starts at the top,” Lopez said. “I would only expect our deputies to go out and represent me to the best they can do. And so, as sheriff, I need to be able to represent our agency as best as I can do. I don’t feel that that is what the current atmosphere has been in the county as far as our agency.” Prieto and Lopez have different communication styles, a different way of doing things, and some of those things will be changing in January, he said. And after meeting with constituents on the campaign trail, Lopez said his eyes were open to other things that also need to change, starting with the public’s understanding of what the sheriff’s department does and does not do. “We look at things in a different way in the office,” Lopez said of his boss. “We communicate with our employees in a different way, and we’ll move on in January.” “When I was on the campaign trail knocking on doors speaking with people, there are a lot of people who don’t know anything about the sheriff’s office,” Lopez said. Those that did know what the office did told Lopez it was time for a change. And he does not plan to disappoint them. One change he wants to make is to bring back reserve deputies, the program where he first cut his teeth in law enforcement more than three decades ago. Lopez knows it won’t look the way it did back then — when he was a reserve, Winters needed some help enforcing the law, but now the city handles most civil and criminal matters on its own and doesn’t need the same level of help it once did. There are still areas, like Esparto and the Capay Valley, that could use a little more law enforcement presence, and that’s one area Lopez has targeted for the revived reserve deputy program (the other is the rural community north of Woodland). “The county administrator’s office has gone out and held public meetings and the citizens have come back and said we want to see our resident deputies back,” Lopez proclaimed. “That hasn’t always been a priority for the current sheriff. And so my feeling is if the citizens that elect you are saying hey this is what we want and we have those capabilities, then we should be providing that.” Another thing Lopez wants? More resource officers assigned to schools, just in case something happens. During our conversation, Lopez noted that some schools in Yolo County are a good distance away from a dispatch center. It could take as long as 10 or 20 minutes for any officer to respond to those locations (for security reasons, the Express is not naming the communities Lopez cited as an example). School resource officers would bridge that gap, at an initial startup cost of around $400,000 per community and ongoing costs of around $200,000 every year thereafter. And he’s hoping to restore the sheriff’s department’s relationship with local law enforcement in cities like Winters — a relationship that has been fractured over time. “It’s no longer a resident deputy who works down here,” he said. “We have 24 hour patrol that’s handled out of the Woodland office. And so deputies are assigned to beats. They still have a relationship with the line staff one-on-one but it’s not the way it was before.” Lopez hopes his initiatives will get the ball rolling on restoring some of the public’s trust with what will become his office. “A lot of times we get a bad reputation for things that may happen that might be unique or isolated incidents but that affect us all,” Lopez said. “When I was a resident deputy, I coached little league out of the trunk of my patrol car. There’s no better contact within your community, especially when you’re dealing with younger kids, than establishing those relationships that are going to be with you forever.” When Lopez takes office, he plans on changing a lot of things — for the better, he hopes. But there’s one thing he doesn’t plan on changing, one thing that was started by his current boss and his eventual predecessor: The department’s non-engagement policy with respect to federal immigration enforcement agencies. “We follow the law,” he asserts. “And the law is that we really have no contact with ICE…it’s been very limited in the last 10 years, it’s been very limited in my career.” And anyway, what does it matter? For Lopez, it’s clear that his department is not in the business of rummaging through neighborhoods to tear apart families. “I don’t recall one time asking somebody if you’re legal or illegal,” he said with a tone of conviction in his voice. “We have a job to do, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen or not.” That job come January will look a lot different from any other job he’s held. But he believes he’s wholly qualified for the position after serving under Prieto for two decades — something, he points out, only a small number of other sheriff’s employees can say they’ve done. What he doesn’t want to do is become a career politician. In fact, that’s why he chose to run this year: Because at the end of the day, when he takes off the uniform, he still has to take on the role of a family man. “I’m 56. I want to be able to enjoy my retirement with my family at some point,” Lopez said. “I plan on doing at least two terms, so it’d be eight years, and hopefully at that point I will have my successor groomed and selected and prepared to take office whenever I’m ready to leave.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said three federal lawsuits against Prieto came with a settlement at taxpayer expense. Only one of the lawsuits was settled; the other two were dismissed.]]>

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2 comments
  1. Tom , I’M SO PROUD TO HAVE KNOWN YOU COMING UP IN THE RANKS. You’re an excellent chose for SHERIFF.
    Good luck and God Bless. Janise Simpson

  2. Tom , I’M SO PROUD TO HAVE KNOWN YOU COMING UP IN THE RANKS. You’re an excellent chose for SHERIFF.
    Good luck and God Bless. Janise Simpson

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