Among Inyo County’s options for sheriff on the ballot coming this June, Eric Pritchard has the most experience. That’s because he’s actually been the sheriff for more than two months, ever since the Inyo County Board of Supervisors chose him to replace Jeff Hollowell, who retired in December before his term ended.
The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office dates back to 1866 and is responsible for all of Inyo, from Bishop to Tecopa and Olancha. That’s an area larger than several U.S. states. Only the City of Bishop has its own police department. Sheriff of Inyo County is the most powerful law enforcement position locally, responsible for enforcing laws, providing security for the courts, and running the county jail.
“I didn’t decide to run just because the top spot in the sheriff’s office was open,” Pritchard said in an interview from his home in Bishop. He feels that being the sheriff is an opportunity to steer the department in a direction that’s best for its members and the community. “When I retire, I’m staying in this community; these are my friends, my neighbors, my family.”
Pritchard has lived in Bishop since he was five, and he’s raised two kids in Bishop, coaching soccer and volunteering at school. “My children are my greatest accomplishment,” he said without hesitation. His wife Randi, a Bishop native, spearheaded an effort to give last year’s Bronco seniors a prom, albeit an outdoor one, after a very tough pandemic year. They borrowed the jail bus to get the kids to the venue.
Before taking over for Hollowell, Pritchard served as undersheriff for three years. He has also worked every job classification within the sheriff’s office in his nearly 23 years of service. He began as an officer and then deputy in the field and has since managed court security, bailiffs, extraditions, jail volunteers, medical staff, training, and policy. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2014 when he was the jail commander. As undersheriff, Pritchard was in charge of personnel matters and oversaw all three divisional commanders, including operations, support services and custody.
“All these experiences have allowed me to have an extensive understanding of the department from the bottom up,” he wrote in an email.
As a lieutenant he was in charge of modernizing the agency’s custody and operations policy manuals, including the body camera policy. “This technology is critical, not only to protect the public, but also our officers,” according to Pritchard.
Pritchard says that the first policy he ever wrote for the manual allowed officers in corrections to carry pepper spray in the jail. “At the time the only tools deputies had on their belts were handcuffs and a radio,” he explained.
When asked, Pritchard said that he did not believe the sheriff’s office needed civilian oversight, since the agency has had “an unblemished record in investigating and sustaining employee discipline when personnel step out of bounds.” He noted that the agency already operates under oversight from the district attorney, the attorney general, grand jury, and regulatory entities like the Board of State and Community Corrections.
Pritchard feels that one of the biggest issues the sheriff has to face – an issue for agencies nationwide – is recruiting and retaining quality people.
He said he pushed his public information officer to put out recruitment ads, and that the agency just hired a new deputy. Inyo County is a tough place to find housing, being a remote county that is 98 percent public lands. “That creates a housing market that’s difficult to afford,” he said, and can make recruiting harder. Retaining quality employees involves making the work environment “feel like it’s family,” where members “have a voice.” He listed a few people who have left for a variety of reasons, none of them related to working conditions. “At the end of the day, people aren’t leaving because they don’t enjoy working for our office.”
On transparency, Pritchard pointed to Inyo as being the first agency locally to use Citizen RIMS, an interactive crime map that educates the public about recent incidents.
He mentioned mental health becoming one of the more predominant issues that law enforcement has to manage, both in jail and in the field. In large cities with more resources, agencies are pairing law enforcement directly with a mental health professional in the field. “Our office has been in talks with Health and Human Services (HHS) concerning how to better utilize our resources and if clinicians can be available to respond to calls involving people in crisis to avoid unnecessary arrests when treatment is more appropriate,” Pritchard wrote in an email. Nonetheless, he believes that it is up to the community, not just law enforcement, to come up with better ways to address mental health, alcoholism, and addiction. “We are only one facet of it.”
Pritchard said that while California Prop 47 may have been “well-intended,” it is “clearly missing the mark in keeping our communities safe.” The state proposition, which voters passed in 2014, downgraded several felony theft offenses to misdemeanors. Pritchard noted that funding streams for fighting drug crimes have dried up, and the Eastern Sierra no longer has a multi-agency drug crime task force.
Theft and other property crimes are the most common nonviolent crimes in Inyo County, and most of those crimes are valued at under $400. Prop 47 raised the threshold of what makes a crime a felony to $950, and it reclassifies drug possession as misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail. The reclassifications do not apply to people who have previous convictions.
Pritchard feels that he has changed over his years in law enforcement. Today, he has to consider everything, from the budget and personnel matters, to reallocating services for the whole county. Now as the sheriff, he has “that 30,000 foot view.”