Kelvin Johnston has seen a lot of Inyo County, from living in a double-wide trailer in Shoshone as the residential sheriff’s deputy, to being short-hauled from helicopters into canyons to look for illegal marijuana gardens.
Now he is running for sheriff.
“I actually enjoy doing investigations,” he said about his current position with the Inyo County Sheriff. “I’m not stuck managing people.” Yet, he is pursuing this management position because he sees a “need for change in the way we currently serve residents” to a “community-oriented approach to gain back the trust.”
The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office dates back to 1866 and is responsible for all of Inyo, from Bishop to Tecopa and Olancha. Bishop is the only city in Inyo with a 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.
Johnston, 60, grew up in Montana and is Cherokee, Sioux, and Assiniboine, a Canadian Sioux tribe. “Back then, being native born was not cool,” he said of his childhood. He served ten years in the Marine Corps, including managing a $2 million ammunition account and having the security clearance to guard Trident nuclear missiles.
He’s been working for the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office since 1999, mostly as an investigator. He was appointed as a sergeant to head a narcotics team here, but when the state got rid of its bureau supporting that effort, he went back to investigations. “The Inyo Narcotics Enforcement Team was the best thing, because they kept drugs in check,” Johnston said. Petty theft, the most frequent crime in Inyo County, is mostly committed by drug users, he said. “They’re trying to get their next fix.” Most property crime here is valued under $400, and that makes it a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
“I don’t know how many fentanyl deaths we’ve had,” Johnston said of 2022. “Thank god we have the Narcan,” he said of the medicine that law enforcement and emergency responders carry to reverse opioid overdoses. “Sometimes it takes three doses.”
Inyo sheriff has four investigators to work on all kinds of crime, from arson and homicide to drugs. If Johnston becomes sheriff, he would like to see a team of three investigators devoted to narcotics only, particularly to go after those on probation. Property crimes, sexual assault, and crimes against people take precedent over any drug crime.
Johnston thinks that if he could take sheriff staff out of the jail to “work dope,” Inyo could “cut our property crimes down by half.” He explained that currently, if a deputy who was out working patrol gets promoted to corporal, he or she gets pulled off patrol to work corrections. “That’s usually the people who are the hardworking ones,” he said. “They go sit at the jail.” Instead, he would like to place a rank structure among the correctional officers within the jail itself so they have something to work forward to.
Johnston currently manages the sheriff’s office’s response to illegal marijuana cultivation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Domestic Marijuana Eradication and Suppression Program, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. They have discovered pot growing in places as inhospitable as Saline Valley. “I don’t know how they’re finding the water,” he said.
The illegal growing often involves pesticides and herbicides that poison wildlife. Johnston described one operation above the Alabama Hills that was discovered because “people came upon a dead bear that’d been poisoned, six or seven coyotes, I don’t know how many dead mice, dead foxes…they get into that stuff and it wipes out the whole area,” he said. “Not to mention the stuff they put into the water that runs downhill.”
Johnston feels mental health is another major problem the county is facing, and that the sheriff’s office and the county lack the resources to do much about it. “We have hardly any facilities to house [those with mental illness] around here,” Johnston said. “They have to be hauled to Lancaster or San Bernardino.” The mental health issues dovetail with homelessness, or those living in vehicles. “These people go unnoticed until there’s a fire or burglary.” Johnston wishes the county could provide more shelter and work toward gaining the trust of those who may also need mental health services to “get them back into society.”
Johnston feels that to retain and recruit staff, he would focus on hiring locally. He mentioned that the Bishop Chief of Police was able to make new hires from within Inyo County. “There’s people that are qualified in this county.”
Related to this goal, he wondered if money could be saved by having fewer staff living out of the county. Many sheriff’s office staff commute from Ridgecrest in official vehicles, and fuel and vehicle maintenance related to this travel comes from taxpayer funds.
He wishes the sheriff’s office would provide more frequent updates to the community about crime trends. “Lock your cars,” he tells the people who want to believe that they can leave their purses and wallets in their cars with the keys in the ignition.
He has worked with tribal police and looks forward to continuing to do so, but he noted that tribal police can change when councils change, so developing long-term relationships can be complex. He said he’d like to work with the various tribal councils to develop a neighborhood watch in each reservation.
When Johnston isn’t working, he enjoys spending time with his four kids and three grandkids, fishing, hunting, or riding his daughter’s horses. While Johnston has devoted his life to law enforcement, he used to own a law-breaking mare named Tinkerbell, who let herself out of her own corral, walked into the house through the front door, and liked to pick pockets. “She’d come up and pull my wallet out of the back of my pants and run around with it.”
His favorite part of the job? “When I get people’s property back and they’re like, ‘I thought I’d never see that again.’”