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‘An exclamation point in history': Calif. county’s top 2 LE agencies swear in new sheriff, DA

Yesenia Sanchez vowed to reform Santa Rita Jail while inviting greater community input as the county’s new sheriff


Photo/YouTube via KTVU News

By Jakob Rodgers
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND, Calif. — Heralding a groundbreaking new era, Alameda County’s top two law enforcement agencies swore in new leaders Tuesday in a historic moment for Black and Latina women in the East Bay.

Civil rights attorney Pamela Price took office Tuesday as the first Black woman to serve as Alameda County District Attorney, hours before longtime sheriff’s deputy Yesenia Sanchez was sworn in as the first Latina woman to head the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

In taking office, the women signaled a new era for law enforcement in this part of the Bay Area — vowing numerous changes after riding a wave of support from progressive-leaning voters in 2022.

Before a standing room-only crowd, Price stressed that voters gave her a mandate to “create and build and have a better criminal justice system.” She takes over for Nancy O’Malley, a three-term District Attorney who announced in May 2021 she would not seek re-election, ending a 37-year tenure as a county prosecutor.

“This moment is an exclamation point in history for Alameda County,” Price told a gallery of more than 125 people moments after being sworn in at Rene C. Davidson Courthouse. She added that “the system has not been working for the people of Alameda County, and that we can — and must — do better.”

“This is where the campaign ends and the work begins,” Price said. “We will have a District Attorney’s Office that is committed to transparency, equality and accountability to make this system work for all of our residents.”

Standing before hundreds of people inside the Oakland Scottish Rite Center, Yesenia Sanchez echoed that pledge — vowing to reform Santa Rita Jail while inviting greater community input as the county’s new sheriff. The moment capped a stunning upset in the June primary election that saw Sanchez defeat longtime Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who had never faced an election opponent since rising to office 16 years ago.

She was sworn in within a week of Christina Corpus, another reform-minded candidate across the bay in San Mateo County who also unseated an incumbent sheriff. Together, Sanchez and Corpus represent the first two Latina women elected to the position of sheriff in California.

“My focus is on the reforms needed to ensure the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office demonstrates fair and equitable practices in all that we do,” said Sanchez, in remarks given moments after being sworn in. “We’re going to be engaging our community members — you will have a voice in how we provide services.”

Their victories — Sanchez during the June primary, Price in the November election — came as public safety concerns have mounted in recent years amid a pandemic-era surge in homicides and gun violence. While rates of killings and shootings appeared to plateau across much of the East Bay in 2022, they remain far higher than just three years ago, before the coronavirus pandemic reordered society.

Each woman’s ascent signaled a continued appetite for criminal justice reforms among East Bay voters, even after San Francisco voters made national headlines for recalling their own progressive-minded district attorney, Chesa Boudin, last year, political observers have said.

Price drew sizeable support from Oakland, San Leandro and Berkeley in atoning for a loss to O’Malley in the 2018 primary election. Along with Oakland, Sanchez relied on voters from Union City, Newark and parts of Fremont — areas that have traditionally leaned more conservative and had been expected to go in Ahern’s favor.

Exactly what could change in Alameda County over the next several months and years remains unclear.

Sanchez vowed myriad changes, including vast reforms at the troubled Santa Rita Jail — a facility that has routinely been scrutinized for scores of inmate deaths over the last decade and abysmally-poor mental health care. Her transition team is developing a report that will outline the framework for her agency and the changes that she intends to make, Sanchez said Tuesday.

Price, meanwhile, campaigned on a slew of reforms in her battle against longtime Alameda County prosecutor Terry Wiley, including putting a stop to “over-criminalizing” and making better use of jail diversion and restorative justice program for young adults. She also opposed the use of gang enhancements and promised to beef up gun buyback programs, all while funneling money toward housing and job programs.

Price’s 26-person transition team includes only one current Alameda County prosecutor, Jimmie Wilson, and a raft of outsiders. Among them are Barbara Becnel, a death penalty reform advocate; Rashidah Grinage, of the Oakland-based Coalition for Police Accountability; several civil rights attorneys and multiple local nonprofit leaders.

On Tuesday, Price asked for patience from Alameda County residents while she hired new prosecutors and implemented her reforms.

“We have assembled a great team to help fix and repair our brokenness,” Price said. “And we’ll walk into the office today for the first time with pride and purpose.”

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