After nearly 24 years in law enforcement, Joe Vetter is running for sheriff of Inyo County. The 48-year-old sergeant wants to bring back community policing, put more cops into schools, and hopes that he can support his deputies by being the kind of sheriff who gets out of the office and onto the street whenever possible. “There’s nothing like the morale boost when you see the top dog making a traffic stop or writing a ticket or pulling up to back you up on a call,” he said.
He has worked for five agencies in four counties: Sonoma, San Luis Obispo, Inyo, and Mono. He is passionate about protecting citizens from encroachment on their Constitutional rights, which he sees as under threat from government overreach, such as pandemic-related mandates.
He grew up in San Juan Capistrano, and his father served his entire career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff.
“I got the bug from dad,” he said. “The uniform, and the stories, and bringing the patrol car home.”
Vetter paid his own way through police academy and graduated first out of a class of 30. He went straight to Sonoma County Sheriff and worked patrol, then did six months in the courthouse, and then went back out to patrol, where he was promoted to detective with crime scene investigations. After 6 years there, he transferred to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, but divorce derailed his plans for a life in San Luis Obispo; he left for the Mono County Sheriff’s Office in July 2005, where he was placed as a residential deputy in Lee Vining and then Mono City.
Moving to the quiet, northern end of Mono County in one of its heavier snow years was a big change from work at a busy agency like Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, where there are more than 200 deputies in the field, covering a population of almost half a million.
“I literally didn’t have a call for one month,” he said of the 2005-2006 winter. “I thought something was wrong with my radio.” There wasn’t.
Vetter remarried, had two daughters, moved to Bishop, and finally switched to working at the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office in 2012. Vetter spent much of his four years at Inyo working in the jail and then in the court as bailiff, an assignment he had had in Sonoma years earlier.
“I had 16 years on with all this experience, and there was no movement for promotion,” Vetter said. Thus, when a sergeant position opened at the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, he jumped on it. Today, he is the senior sergeant there.
Vetter’s current job is day-shift watch commander. He reviews reports, meets with the chief, takes complaints from the public, and does walk-in counter reports, and goes out in the field. “I’m in the car, I’m in the office, I’m in the car,” he describes his workday. Mammoth Lakes used to have a lieutenant position, which is an administrative post above sergeant. The town eliminated it, so now the department’s four sergeants have to do the paperwork.
The pandemic brought what Vetter sees as one of the worst encroachments on his Constitutional rights, limiting his church’s ability to congregate. He believes that Covid-19 exists, he had covid himself, and he lost his father to the disease in 2021. Nonetheless, he feels that the government has no business tampering with people’s ability to attend church together. “If I was the sheriff, there’s no way on Earth I would have ever gone into a house of worship where people were exercising their freedom of religion and made an arrest,” he said. When asked if anyone was ever arrested, he mentioned a case in Florida. Pastor Rodney Howard-Brown was arrested in 2020, and held briefly on $500 bail, for having services when the county health department had limited gatherings to 10 people.
Like the three other candidates for sheriff, Vetter opposes vaccine mandates for law enforcement and the public. “If you’re going to live in California, you have to get a jab in your arm otherwise you can’t work? That’s a frightening possibility,” he said. Covid-19 has been the chief cause of death for law enforcement since the pandemic began: out of 1,114 active law enforcement who died since January 2020, a whopping 754 died of Covid-19, more than gunshots, heart attacks, and car accidents combined, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
During the town hall candidate meeting at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vetter was the sheriff candidate who was most strongly-ooinionated in his answer to the question: Do you believe the Inyo Sheriff has the power to disregard federal agencies and laws if it protects the citizens of Inyo? “100 percent,” Vetter replied. When The Sheet later asked how law enforcement would decide whether to defy the federal government or laws, when the sheriff is not empowered to make or interpret laws, Vetter said that he could find resources to consult in the unusual case that the federal government might overreach. “You’ve got your county counsel – attorneys that work for the county as a resource – you’ve got your common sense, you’ve got your training experience as a sheriff,” he listed. “It’s not that you’re just shooting from the hip like the wild west.”
Vetter offered the Bundy standoff in Oregon as the rare example of a sheriff defending county citizens. “The BLM rangers were coming in to take their cattle, and I believe the sheriff stepped in on that and said you’re not swiping cattle.” In Vetter’s defense, he said he needed to look the story up again; the Bundy standoff in Oregon was unrelated to cattle. Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, resulting in arrests and one person shot and killed. Two years earlier the Bundy family did have an armed confrontation with the BLM, but that was in Nevada, stemming from $1 million in grazing fees that the Bundy family didn’t pay because they think the U.S. Constitution restricts federal land ownership to Washington D.C. Some 400 armed family and friends came to Bundy’s aid in a standoff against roughly 50 FBI and BLM agents trying to confiscate the cattle. The officers backed down, and the cattle were released, according to the Guardian.
Vetter does not seem like a man who thinks the federal government can’t own land. He seems more interested in movie night with his girls, or describing how amazing it was taking them swimming with manatees in Florida this recent spring break. He cares about his neighbors and worries about the uptick in property crimes, noting that he has made two arrests off duty and caught two prowlers in his neighborhood in Bishop in the last year alone, one with the help of 4-H.
One day recently when Vetter was driving home, he saw an unfamiliar man walking down the side of his neighbor’s yard. When he parked, he looked back and the man had disappeared. He knocked on that neighbor’s door. No answer. He looked through the front window and saw the legs of the man in the backyard through the back window. He went around the house, trying to be casual. Upon seeing Vetter, who is well over 6 feet tall, the man tensed up and started walking away. Vetter said he yelled “’hey, hold up,’” and the man walked away faster.
“The next thing I know, I’m in foot pursuit, off duty, and I’m yelling ‘police officer stop!’” Vetter said. He caught up to the man.
“He throws his Big Gulp at me.”
Vetter said he sidestepped the beverage, pulled out his badge and pinned the man to a fence. Before long they were in a fight on the ground. Minutes passed and the street stayed empty until a friend happened by, walking her sheep with her son. She asked if he was okay. Vetter yelled no and asked her to call 911. Within 30 seconds he heard sirens and the police arrived to back him up. “Turns out this guy was a known burglar,” Vetter said.