Inyo County’s four choices for sheriff sat down together at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall in Bishop Tuesday and answered questions from veterans and the public. It was a disappointing night for listeners trying to distinguish candidates based on their views; the differences were subtle to nonexistent.
Topics ranged from whether it was ever permissible to kick a subdued subject in the head – “it’s not,” said Eric Pritchard – to if a sheriff has the power to disregard federal agencies and laws to protect the county’s citizens. “Absolutely,” said Joe Vetter.
The candidates: Eric Pritchard, Inyo’s undersheriff who has been acting as Sheriff since Jeff Hollowell left; Stephanie Rennie, chief investigator at the district attorney’s office; Joe Vetter, a sergeant with the Mammoth Police Department, and Kelvin Johnston, a seasoned investigator with the Sheriff’s Dept.
Each candidate said they would not enforce health or vaccine mandates. Kelvin Johnston said “they’re mandates, they’re not laws,” but he added that he was vaccinated for his granddaughter’s sake. Rennie said she is vaccinated, and she believes the sheriff should merely educate the public on any health mandates, not enforce them.
All candidates want to add a school resource officer, if budget or grants permitted. “A lot of times kids are exposed to us hauling off one of their parents,” Johnston offered as an example why kids should have more positive experiences with law enforcement. All candidates want officers to get out on the streets and do more community outreach and community policing and regain community trust.
When asked directly about trust, no candidate ever addressed any reason that the public in Inyo might have lost trust. Several candidates said that if the public has lost trust in the police, it’s because of high profile use-of-force cases not necessarily relevant to Inyo County.
All of the candidates answered that they do not cooperate with ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for regular deportations. Vetter noted that is actually against California law, which prohibits the use of law enforcement resources to investigate immigration violations. The candidates did agree that if they had a violent felon in custody, they might release them to ICE. There is a proposed assembly bill, AB937, which would bar law enforcement from releasing prisoners to ICE after their sentences are fulfilled. Candidates did not discuss that.
When asked directly if the sheriff has the power to disregard federal agencies and laws to protect its citizens, all the candidates agreed, but each had a different shade of yes.
“We could,” Johnston said tentatively. “Marijuana is illegal by federal standards and yet we have them growing and we have them selling it right here in our county, so yeah we could,” he said, in a tone that was mulling it over as he spoke. “I would not allow it,” he added, presumably meaning disregard other federal laws, but then on second thought said, “If it’s to protect the citizens of this county, yes I would definitely protect them.”
Pritchard was bolder in reply. “The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county and the federal government can’t even come in and serve a federal warrant without first approaching the sheriff and getting his authorization,” he explained. “Ultimately if it’s to protect the citizens of this county, which is what our oath is, I believe we could ignore laws, depending on what it is, obviously, because it is a blanket statement,” he said, softening his reply momentarily, before concluding, “we are the chief law enforcement of the county, and we are the ultimate authority within our county.”
Rennie said she agreed with Pritchard and Johnston, but her words were milder. “What we have in law enforcement we call the ‘spirit of the law’ and the ‘letter of the law.’ In order to protect the citizens, we can work in the spirit of the law, instead of following that to a ‘T’ federally.”
Vetter’s reply was unwavering. “One hundred percent, the sheriff of all 58 counties as well as the sheriffs of every county in the United States has that authority and power to protect the constitutional rights of every citizen in that county,” he said. “The sheriff’s primary job is to protect, defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. If that is the federal government coming in law enforcement-wise and trying to infringe upon those rights, absolutely.”
In a strange coincidence, three of the four candidates have 23 years of law enforcement experience. All the candidates served as deputy sheriffs, which is a introductory rank within the department. A sergeant is a first-line supervisor, and a lieutenant is the first senior officer position.
Johnston served 10 years in the marine corps and was stationed in South Korea and Japan. He has 23 years in law enforcement, mostly as an investigator of narcotics and other felonies for the Inyo Sheriff. He began his law enforcement career as a police officer in Lewistown, Montana in 1992 and returned to California in 1996.
Eric Pritchard, a Bishop resident since age 5, also has 23 years in law enforcement, under three different Inyo sheriffs. Fourteen of these years were as a supervisor and administrator. He served in every job classification with the Inyo Sheriff’s office, including lieutenant, undersheriff, and currently serves as sheriff since the previous sheriff left early.
Rennie, a Lone Pine graduate, started as a correctional officer in 2003 for Inyo Sheriff. In 2010, she transferred to the district attorney because she “wanted to better know the justice system ins and outs.” She has been devoted to fighting sexual assault and domestic violence, which is Inyo County’s most common violent crime. She spent six years as chief investigator, a position that carries administrative responsibilities.
Joe Vetter has been in law enforcement for 23 years and is currently “second in command at Mammoth Police Department as senior sergeant.” Vetter began his law enforcement career at Sonoma County Sheriff in 1999, then transferred to San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Department, then Mono County Sheriff, then Inyo Sheriff Department from 2012 to 2016, when he left for the Mammoth Lakes Police Department.
Polls open June 7, 2022. Details about the election can be viewed at elections.inyocounty.us.