Doug Northington knows two things very well: ranching and law enforcement. Northington, who’s running for the second time against Rick Scholl in the race for Mono County Sheriff, grew up in San Diego County in a little town called Potrero, spending the first 21 years of his life on a ranch before joining the California Highway Patrol. He’s since logged 28 years of active duty, which will conclude when he retires Nov. 30.
A public service career in law enforcement probably wasn’t on his mind as teenager, but the stage was set when he got a ticket from a CHP officer at 16. “Our high school library had a magazine called ‘California Highway Patrolman,’ and I read it to find out about the guys who wrote me a ticket,” he recalled. In college, Northington studied Administration Justice. His instructor, it turns out, was a former CHP and got him on a ride-along. (The officer, Dean Beatty, was killed in an on-duty accident several years later.) “I had an application in with both the San Diego Police Department and CHP, but the tests were within a week of each other. I had to make choice and decided that with CHP I could go statewide and work anywhere. I like to travel, so it fit in with my plans.”
His first assignment: not just Los Angeles, but East L.A. “That was a BIG change from a ranch in Potrero, buddy,” Northington quipped. “It was culture shock to say the least, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I learned more there than you could anywhere else.”
After two years in L.A., following the Olympics in 1984, he served four years in El Cajon near San Diego. “It was closer to home. Then I got married in 1986 and a friend was promoted to Sergeant in the Bridgeport station. I asked him, ‘What’s it like up there?’ He said, ‘It’s great. You’ll love it!’ I’d skied Mammoth for years, but hadn’t been in the north county yet. I told the wife, there are lots of trees … it’s beautiful. She said fine, put in your transfer. I figured I’d have to sit on my hands and wait a few years for the transfer to happen.” Only 90 days later, the transfer was approved.
“We rolled into Bridgeport in March 1988; everything was either snow-covered or brown, there’s a wind chill of 20 degrees. My wife said, ‘Uh, honey, where are the trees you promised me?’ Anyway, after our children were a year or so old, she stopped making me take her to San Diego every weekend! She now loves it as much as I do.”
Northington ran for Sheriff four years ago, but said he started thinking about running for the job even before previous Sheriff Dan Paranick decided to retire. “I had a lot of community members and deputies ask me to run,” he said. “It was a harder decision then. I wasn’t at CHP retirement age. If I’d won, it may have had an impact on my retirement, but I decided the department was in rough shape a few years ago, and I could make it better for the deputies and the public. I thought they deserved it.”
This time, he said it’s even more difficult running against an incumbent [Scholl], though his campaign for Sheriff actually started out as one for the District 4 Supervisor seat vacated by the passing of Bill Reid. The CHP, however, considered that a conflict of interest, mostly due to the overlap between the June election and his November retirement). “So, I decided to run for Sheriff. My wife gave me permission. She knows the type of job I can do.”
“From what I hear and what I know, [Scholl] has been an effective manager,” he said, “but not as strong a leader as I would be.” The department, he thinks, “lacks focus” and is “a bit dysfunctional.”
“You’ve got a Sheriff, an Undersheriff, two Lieutenants and so on. You have to be strong to move your agenda forward when it has to go through so many people. When you set your agenda, it has to make it down to the deputies. They have to know where you’re going.”
When it comes to the concept of “community-oriented policing,” Northington suggests the two candidates have differing views on what that means. “My take truly focuses on policing and all that it entails,” he said, as opposed to what he terms ‘community-oriented public relations.” Scholl, he said, wants the Sheriff’s Department to be “open and friendly, viewed as very ‘Mayberry.’”
“He’s added three new deputy positions, which is outstanding, but [the policy] is reactive, not proactive on everything form traffic stops to identifying criminal elements.” Northington said he’s recently heard the department described as not even “reactive,” but “inactive.”
“Going into businesses and fostering tourism [doesn’t mean] you can leave the enforcement component out.”
How would he handle a staff of more than 60 and a multimillion-dollar budget? “CHP has always asked [us] to do more with less. Studies show the CHP should be three times its current size, but that’s not going to happen. The Sheriff’s job isn’t to be a daily hands-on manager of deputies. Establishing policies, directives, goals … that can be met by the staff working for you,” he replied. “We can drive down the crime rate farther and faster than it has been, stop more drugs from entering our county.” Drugs, he said, get here almost exclusively by car. “We need to have more of an interdiction effort amongst our other duties. Drugs are still a major challenge. They lead to other problems, social program issues; they’re building blocks for lots of other bad things that happen.”
He’s particularly concerned about backcountry growing and manufacturing. “The cartels aren’t taking busts lying down anymore. Mules are being told, ‘You may do time if you surrender, but we’ll kill you.’ They’re being forced to take on the police and ambush innocent bystanders who happen on growing sites accidentally.” Northington wants to see the MONET task force have a greater presence when it comes to helping the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on drug busts.
The other big issue is, of course, the budget. Whoever is Sheriff will have their hands full,” he said. “Will grants be unfunded? If the state doesn’t take more from counties, will they end up giving less back? Personnel makes up 85 percent of the budget. If you need to make cuts, how many do you make and who gets cut? I’m going to prioritize things so the public feels the least impact from it, and that doesn’t mean starting at the bottom,” Northington stated firmly.
He also clarified a comment he made during a recent candidates forum about how he’d like people to feel if they see a patrol car in their rear view mirror. “The power of the law is in the enforcement of it. In order to be motivated to follow the law, you have to have a certain fear of what happens if you break it,” he explained. “You should know they are there. It can make you feel more secure, but if you’re stepping over the line, it should remind you that they’re doing a job.” Each contact, he said, is an educational opportunity … for the deputy as well as the citizen.
Assuming he’s able to persuade enough voters to switch horses in mid-stream, what can they expect if he’s elected? “Expect tremendous leadership, professional, respectful department that meets and exceeds their needs, that’s focused on a three-pronge approach: service, safety and fiscal management,” Northingon said.
Due to space limitations, Mono County Sheriff Rick Scholl’s profile will run next week.