This week, we break down the intriguing Sheriff’s race between current Sheriff Ralph Obenberger and retired LAPD Supervisor Ingrid Braun.
Given the controversy in recent months over traffic enforcement during the Burning Man festival, and a perception of more rigorous (some might say more aggressive) policing under Obenberger (criminal arrests were up 89% in 2013 over 2012), the race sets up perhaps as a referendum on the type of policing local citizens want.
What follows are the interviews with the two candidates.
One thing for sure. If you sit down to speak with Mono County Sheriff Ralph Obenberger, you’re gonna hear a few stories.
The stories are Obenberger’s homespun way of giving insight into how he sees things, how he approaches things.
But as roundabout as the stories may appear, Obenberger is anything but roundabout when it comes to what he thinks. He is refreshingly direct, clearly very smart, and doesn’t shy away from politically sensitive topics.
Obenberger, 53, has served as Sheriff since December, 2012, when he replaced the retiring Rick Scholl.
Prior to that, Obenberger had served as Scholl’s Undersheriff for five years. He began his career in Mono County as a resident deputy in June Lake in 2000.
For Obenberger, who grew up in Whittier and had his first law enforcement job with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. in 1985, the key difference between the two candidates for Sheriff this year is experience, both in handling the elements required for the job, and in each candidate’s familiarity with Mono County.
Obenberger cites his experience with jail management, budgets, search and rescue, grants, courts … “how much of this does my opponent know how to do?” he asked rhetorically.
He also pointed out that he has resided and worked in Mono County for 14 years, and has had three children graduate from the local schools. Two were valedictorians at Mammoth High School. A son now works at Facebook.
By contrast, his opponent has lived in the area fullt-ime for approximately four years, serving one year as a Sheriff’s Deputy. Ms. Braun was dismissed from the department at the end of her probationary period.
On his opponent, he added: “Her agenda appears to be focused on simply getting rid of the Sheriff (Obenberger) and Undersheriff (Robert Weber), yet she doesn’t say the patrol style should change.”
Except, it appears, in regard to community presence. Braun, said Obenberger, claims the department is not connected with the communities it serves, a claim Obenberger strongly disputes.
He says department statistics indicate an increase in foot patrols of 67% in 2013 over 2012.
“Law enforcement is about helping people, not just putting people in jail,” says Obenberger. “I don’t care about the [patrol] statistics,” he says. “I told the guys, ‘my administration doesn’t routinely monitor the stats. You can write a ticket, you can give a warning. That’s up to you … But get into your communities. We tell ‘em to talk to people.’”
While Obenberger says he doesn’t care about the stats, an increase in criminal arrests since he took office is among the items Obenberger lists in the one-page handout he provides at “meet-and-greets.”
Criminal arrests were up 89% in 2013 over 2012.
But as Obenberger says, “we will not break the law to enforce it.”
He adds that employee issues are rare, and that the department received no citizen complaints last year.
Sheet: What are your thoughts about the much-publicized Boulaalam case [in which Superior Court Judge Magit essentially threw out a traffic stop arrest by Sheriff’s deputies earlier this year]?
Obenberger: It was a judgment call [by Deputy Torres and Sgt. Hahn]. I thought the stop was legit. Would I have stopped him? Maybe. Would every single officer stop him? No … I don’t believe they were out there to deliberately mess with that guy.
In regard to the now-infamous “saturation patrols” conducted by the Sheriff’s Dept. leading up to the “Burning Man” festival last August in the Nevada desert [patrols which fostered negative publicity among festival-goers who have advised their cohorts not to travel through Mono County in the future], Obenberger said frankly, “My job is to ensure public safety. My job is not to worry about a possible loss of T.O.T. [room tax] revenue.”
He then offered this observation. “What’s the greater impact? People not coming to Mono County because of possible traffic enforcement, or people coming to Mono County because they feel safer?”
Fundamentally, says Obenberger, there is always going to be a fine line between the perception that you’re not doing enough (they’ll call you lazy) or doing too much (they’ll call you overzealous).
But if you don’t think Obenberger understands compromise or knows how to reach a middle ground, consider this: He has been married to his wife Ellen for more than 31 years.
If you’d like to learn more about Obenberger from Obenberger, you can visit his website or attend his next meet the candidate event at the Bridgeport Memorial Hall on April 22.
When it comes to political races, most candidates run on the platform of change. Perhaps more than any other candidate campaigning for office this coming June, Ingrid Braun, for Mono County Sheriff, is focused on changing the community’s perception of and interaction with the department she is hoping to lead.
“What I’m seeing is the disconnect between the Sheriff’s department and the county it serves,” Braun said. “The Sheriff is the leader of that team and the people who live, visit, and work in the county are part of that team. There’s no team concept right now.”
In an interview earlier this week, Braun said she would get the deputies off Highway 395 and into the communities, encouraging them to talk with people, drive around with their windows down and build trust with the community. “When you get to know people and they start to trust you that’s when they will start to tell you things,” she said. “And that trust doesn’t seem to be there in a lot of communities. That’s what I would go after.”
“The Sheriff’s Department could involve the community in how the department is run,” Braun said. “There is no interaction at a command staff level with the community.” Braun suggested building an advisory board of community members to interact directly with the Sheriff’s department.
Collaborating with other county departments is also high on Braun’s list. About the relationship between the Sheriff’s department and the county, Braun said: “Right now it seems antagonistic. If someone comes to you, like a Supervisor, their job is to relay the concerns of their constituents. So when they do that, don’t take it as a personal attack. It should be more of a team effort—all the department heads working together in a budget crunch.”
In Braun’s opinion, one of the main issues facing the current Sheriff’s Department is how it treats people: “How do we treat our employees? And how do we treat the people that the Sheriff’s Department deals with? These are both problematic for the Sheriff’s Department right now.”
Referencing the recent court case involving Deputy Jon Madrid, Braun said things would be different under her leadership. “If I were Sheriff, I would have a level playing field. Not just for discipline but for promotions and opportunities like special assignments,” she said. “Discipline would be fair, not disparate. When you get punished for one thing and somebody else gets away with it, it’s not fair.”
As critical as Braun may be about the way the Sheriff’s Department is run, she seemed to support those who work there. “It’s a good mix of background and experience,” she said. “I think that they all have potential to do great things and some of them do great things.”
Braun doesn’t plan on micro-managing the deputies and trusts their discretion to stop people, write tickets, and make arrests. “They are grown-ups. You know, you give them a gun and a car, they should be able to make a decision or two on their own,” she said. “Performance wise, I would just give them different direction than what they’ve got now— to get re-engaged with the community.”
Braun did point out the lack of women in the current Sheriff’s department: “Yes, they are all guys. That may or may not change under me. I’m not going to go out and specifically recruit women,” Braun said. “It’s a special type of person that can live in the Eastern Sierra let alone work law enforcement. I would hire the best candidate regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. It certainly would be nice to have more diversity but I’m looking for the best department that we can get.”
Bottom line, Braun said: “My focus as Sheriff would be to, target those areas that drive crime.” For example, she would go after people selling narcotics not just possessing narcotics. And Braun doesn’t believe in using arrest statistics to measure success. “Sure, arrests are up but statistics can be really misleading in a county this small. It’s not hard to have a huge spike up or down based on just a few numbers,” she said. “It’s not the same as LA when you’re dealing thousands and thousands of crimes. Here, you maybe have 100.”
Braun has served in law enforcement more than 22 years. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Political Science, she joined the LAPD as part of a hiring push in the early 1990s. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be a policeman. It didn’t occur to me. It never occurred to anyone who knew me,” Braun said. “It turns out I am good at it.”
At the LAPD, Braun worked patrols, as an investigator in internal affairs, as a detective, and as a supervisor for 12 years, running a night watch in Central Los Angeles: “I was the big cheese in all of downtown Los Angeles,” Braun said. After retiring from the LAPD, Braun moved to Mammoth and was hired as a Sheriff’s Deputy for Mono County. This experience, Braun believes, gives her the leadership and administrative capabilities to run the Mono County Sheriff’s Department.
“Some of the misinformation I need to dispel is that I actually have a lot of administrative experience in the LAPD,” Braun said. As a supervisor she reviewed casework, projects, grant applications and she led investigations on command staff when they were accused of misconduct. “I’ve been a supervisor since 1999, which is before Sherriff Obenberger even left LA County,” Braun said. “And he was never a supervisor.”
Although Braun has never run a jail, she is confident it is something she could learn quickly. When she ran the night watch at LAPD, there was a jail with as many as 20 people housed there nightly. She oversaw the jail staff and did jail checks. “I’m used to working around a jail and know the protocols for working in a jail,” she said. “Working for the Sheriff’s department for a year, I was in and out of the jail quite a bit. I’m comfortable with the jail and I’m comfortable with how the jail is run right now.”
And as a deputy at the Mono County Sheriff’s Department, Braun went through Coroner’s school and has a post-coroner certificate. “I probably have more recent coroner experience than Sheriff Obenberger, because he hasn’t been on patrol for so long,” she said. Braun was let go from the Sheriff’s Department during her first probationary year as a Sheriff’s deputy, without a clear reason. “I’m sure there is a reason. I just don’t know what it is, she said. “But I wasn’t let go for no reason. That’s a mis-statement.”
At this point, Braun isn’t interested in finding out the reason for her termination. “I’m not going to open my personnel package. I don’t expect Sheriff Obenberger to open up his. That’s not appropriate,” she said. “And I don’t expect him to ever say what the reason was. That opens up the county for more liability and that’s not what the county needs right now. Even I know that.”
“When they let me go, it hurt my feelings and I was angry and mad and sad and all those things. But I found retirement again back with my husband— we ride our bikes, we ski, we do all the things we enjoy doing,” Braun said. Braun and her husband, Mike are also reserves at the Mammoth Lakes Police Department. “We care and we want to be involved in town and that’s a skill set that we have that most people don’t that we can offer.”
If Braun is elected Sheriff, it means coming out of retirement— something she was hesitant about at first. “The more people asked me to [run], and these are people who know County government and knows what could be changed, I realized I am that one person who can do it,” Braun said. “Sometimes the responsibility is more than to just yourself. And my responsibility to the county is to just step up and try. Now that I’ve decided to run, I’m all in. I’m not hesitant about it.”
In coming out of retirement, Braun does acknowledge that there will be double-dipping (collecting a salary and retirement pension simultaneously).
Braun is depending on a community in support of change to win her this campaign. “I’ve heard people in North County might not be that amenable to someone like me— a person from LA. But they’re looking for change too,” she said. “I’m hearing a lot of dissatisfaction. They don’t know their deputies anymore and the ones that they do know … they’re not who they used to think they were.”
Visit braunforsheriff.com for more details about Braun’s campaign.