On a recent Saturday night, sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Nix was covering a shift at the main office off Highway 1 in San Luis Obispo when someone unexpected walked in the door.
Sheriff Ian Parkinson.
“I asked him if he typically comes in, in his uniform on a Saturday night, to see what the watch commander is doing,” Nix said.
Parkinson replied that he had been speaking to some citizens in Cambria and decided to stop by on his way home.
“I told him to ‘Get out of here, it’s a Saturday night,’ ” said Nix, who also serves on the executive committee of the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs.
Instead, Parkinson wandered over to the jail and visited with correctional deputies for more than an hour.
“I’ve been here 24 years, and there hasn’t been a sheriff walking around on a Saturday night,” said Correctional Sgt. Mike Thompson, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association. “That’s huge.”
That and other changes — perhaps visible only to Sheriff’s Department employees — are making a difference in the department’s morale, the employees say, though it’s been only nine weeks since Parkinson, 46, was sworn in Jan. 3.
As sheriff, Parkinson oversees 377 employees and a $57 million budget. He earns $182,104 annually.
But employees also acknowledge that the new sheriff has a lot of work ahead, not the least of which will be producing a budget that doesn’t decrease current staff levels and overseeing a $33 million project to build a new women’s jail facility.
Those are two of Parkinson’s four top priorities, all of which he mentioned while campaigning for the job. The other two: re-establishing an internal affairs unit to handle community complaints and any needed discipline, and auditing the property evidence room, which Parkinson has called a “disaster.”
Parkinson appears to be approaching the job in a methodical manner, some department employees said.
Since Jan. 3, he’s overseen plans and preparations for the women’s jail, which was approved Feb. 22 by county supervisors.
He’s hired a former Los Angeles police commander part time to run the internal affairs unit. Cmdr. Jim Voge started Feb. 14.
And he’s held more than three dozen meetings with supervisory-level employees and employee groups, whose suggestions he’ll use to create a list of priorities. Eventually, they’ll become a strategic plan to guide the department for the next three to four years.
“I think people are very optimistic in regard to what’s coming,” said Deputy Neil Clayton, president of the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs. “It’s obvious that he intends to make changes, but he’s taking his time to find out the root of the problems.”
Some of those changes may not be popular, Clayton said, but manageable if people understand the reasoning behind them.
Parkinson said he’ll hold community meetings around the county to share his plans with the public. He’s already started attending meet-and-greets and other public events.
Jerry Lenthall, a member of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Advisory Council, said he appreciates Parkinson’s outreach to the community. He’s also pleased with the work Parkinson and his staff did on the women’s jail.
“The collaboration with the other county departments, in general, has been a long time in coming,” said Lenthall, who ran against Parkinson and four other opponents in the June primary.
Up close at major incidents
In early February, Parkinson agreed to let a Tribune reporter and photographer accompany him throughout one day. Parkinson began working that morning at 7 with a call notifying him that a woman’s body had been found on a roadway in Nipomo.
The cause of death was unknown. And so Parkinson, who says he plans to go the scenes of major incidents, headed down Highway 101 in a black and white SUV with “Sheriff” displayed on the side.
At the scene, Parkinson, who has a background in accident investigations from his time at the San Luis Obispo Police Department, analyzed the physical evidence and met with investigators.
The investigation was later led by the CHP, which determined it was a hit-and-run. So far, no one has been arrested.
Investigating such crimes “is one of the most important things we do, and it’s best to see it firsthand rather than being told,” Parkinson said.
Later that day, Parkinson was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Pismo Beach and toured the department’s Civil Division, which is housed at San Luis Obispo Superior Court and serves civil bench warrants, summons, evictions and other court orders in civil law cases.
“The Sheriff’s Department is an interesting animal,” Parkinson told the Kiwanis club members. “I have three departments in one.”
That means, he said, more to weigh when considering any budget cuts. Parkinson must determine how to balance the needs of keeping patrol cars on the streets and enough correctional deputies at the jail.
Other issues will soon claim Parkinson’s attention — including medical marijuana, brought into focus by the arrest of 15 people in late December after an investigation by the county’s Narcotics Task Force.
Parkinson, who was not yet on the job then, said he wasn’t aware of the investigation. But since taking office, he has become more familiar with the legal arguments surrounding medical marijuana and e-mailed the 57 other sheriffs statewide to see if they have a policy on how to enforce such laws.
He’s now discussing options with the district attorney. He could pursue a procedure by which people acting as primary caregivers or running cooperatives could register with the county. Or, Parkinson said, he could create department guidelines to help his employees and the public know how to enforce and comply with state law.
“I have to make sure we have all the facts together,” he said. “I don’t want to shoot from the hip on this. It’s too important.”
Some community members have urged Parkinson to pay more attention to methamphetamine-related problems. He acknowledged the drug’s damaging effects but noted that in the past two years there have been about 10 reports of home-invasion robberies related to marijuana or medical marijuana — and none related to meth.
“I agree there are people in need,” Parkinson said. “We have two groups. For those who want to comply, we need to help them follow the law. And for those who don’t want to, that’s who I’ll focus on.”
During the months leading up to the November election, Parkinson outlined a number of goals. A few — such as the women’s jail expansion — have been started.
But others will have to be worked into a long-term plan. Those include putting employees through rural crime training, increasing the number of Spanish-speaking patrol and correctional deputies and expanding the rural deputy program by adding volunteer staff.
Parkinson has met with his command staff and detectives to discuss the department’s unsolved homicides. He plans to create a cold-case unit, comprised of a current detective and a part-time reserve officer, to look into them.
But before that is up and running, detectives will start re-analyzing the physical evidence in two unsolved cases: Kristin Smart, who disappeared in 1996 and has never been found, and Jerry Greer, who was found dead in his Templeton home in March 2009.
Parkinson’s current No. 1 challenge is the budget. In the past two years, 25 positions have been cut through attrition, and overtime costs are up because staffing levels are so thin that if a patrol deputy calls in sick, for example, someone has to work overtime or the shift is left unfilled. Seven deputy positions are open; Parkinson hopes to fill two of them.
“There are some hard decisions to be made,” he said. “You cut positions, that means I have areas already staffed pretty thinly and they’re going to be worse. You don’t want to tell people how thin you are, but we’re at the stage where I feel like people need to know.”
The department is so short-staffed that one beat, covering Avila Beach and rural San Luis Obispo, is only staffed by a deputy 50 percent of the time, he said. The rest of the time, deputies covering beats in the Los Osos/rural Morro Bay area, and the Cayucos/ Cambria area, have to cover Avila Beach as well.
Parkinson is putting together a budget proposal with a 2 percent cut — about $1 million — and has been meeting with county staff to debate what positions could be cut.
The department could take an additional hit if a car tax increase put in place in 2009 is not continued. The tax, which expires June 30, means a loss of about $1.2 million that funds programs targeting methamphetamine, crime prevention in rural areas, and checking on the status of registered sex offenders.
“Without it, it’s additional cuts, period,” Parkinson said.