'It's exciting': San Diego County gets first female undersheriff

Undersheriff Kelly Martinez began her career with the department in 1985 as a deputy

By David Hernandez
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — When Kelly Martinez began her career with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department as a deputy in 1985, female deputies and their male counterparts were not always viewed as equally capable of the job.

Martinez and other female deputies got the same assignment out of the academy: the women's Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee. A year later, Martinez was among the first female deputies assigned to a men's jail. She would work as a deputy for 22 years before rising through the ranks to assistant chief.

Now she is poised to make history again. On Friday, the 36-year veteran of the force will become the first woman to serve as the department's undersheriff, the second in command.

"It's exciting, I think, for the women in our department, but also the women in the region," she said in an interview.

Martinez will replace Mike Barnett, who will retire after 29 years with the department.

"Kelly brings to the position exceptional work ethic and commitment to the mission of the department," Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement. "I am confident her wealth of experience and passion for community outreach will keep San Diego the safest urban county in the nation."

One of three assistant sheriffs, Martinez oversees the Law Enforcement Services Bureau, which includes patrol, traffic, crime lab and criminal intelligence operations. As undersheriff, Martinez will manage the day-to-day operations of the department, which has a $978 million budget and about 4,400 employees.

The department provides law enforcement services to nearly 1 million county residents across some 4,500 square miles, including nine cities, each of which don't operate their own police department. The department also runs a network of jails and a crime laboratory, and provides security at seven county court facilities.

Martinez will step into her new role as the department faces various challenges, including a spike in homicides and criticism over the deaths of inmates in county jails. She said that while the department faces challenges, it has a "high-quality workforce that is up for those challenges."

Her top priorities include curbing a spike in gun violence and substance abuse, as well as preventing the deaths of inmates. She said additional medical and mental health care staff, approved tentatively by the county Board of Supervisors, will help improve the care of inmates.

"We take our responsibility to keep people who are in our custody safe and that is utmost as a priority," she said.

As she looked forward to the future, she also looked back. She said the department has come a long way in many respects, including better treatment of women on the force and advancements in the technology deputies use, such as body-worn cameras.

"What's changed is that now women are given the same opportunities as men, and there is equality in the workplace that didn't exist when I started," she said. "That didn't happen overnight. Many talented, smart, professional women came before me and paved the way for those of us who were given opportunities because they proved themselves."

Chula Vista police Chief Roxana Kennedy, who also serves as the president of the San Diego County Police Chiefs' and Sheriff's Association, said law enforcement still is a "male dominated environment," and Martinez's new rank is "huge" for women in the profession.

"It's really important for women to see other women in this type of leadership role, and Kelly is exceptional," Kennedy said.

While Martinez's early experience in the county jails shaped her, one of her most rewarding experiences was her time as a lieutenant at the Valley Center substation. It marked the first time she was in a "true commanding role," she said. The substation serves communities in the rural area, including the La Jolla, Pala, Pauma, Rincon and San Pasqual Indian Reservations.

"I developed an enormous respect for the tribes during that time and a fascination for (the 1953 federal statute) Public Law 280 and the complexity and intermingling of the roles of state, federal and tribal law enforcement," she said.

She also learned from the community of farmers in the area.

"I was incredibly impressed by the ingenuity and strength of our farmers, particularly in the area of crime prevention," she said.

All of her experiences on the job, she said, shaped the way she works with people.

"I believe in leading with kindness, fairness, collaboration and integrity," she said.

A sheriff's spokesman said Martinez's new salary was not yet worked out. Barnett was paid just under $270,000 in base salary in 2019, according to the latest data available in Transparent California's online database of public salaries. Martinez was paid a base salary of about $229,000 in 2019.

Martinez is not the only woman to rise to a higher leadership role in the county. On Tuesday, the county announced that Natalia Bravo will be the new chief of staff for Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer.

Bravo will replace Andrew Strong, who will serve as director of the county's new Office of Equity and Racial Justice.

Bravo has worked for the county for eight years in different positions, including staff officer and project manager for the chief administrative officer. She has helped develop labor policies and revive the Human Relations Commission. Prior to her time with the county, she worked for Mexico's Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare as chief of staff.

"With our region working to tackle some of the most urgent issues that have no borders, her understanding of these current and future issues will be invaluable to all of us," Robbins-Meyer said in a statement.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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