Top 10 stories of 2011: No. 10 — Parkinson brings change to county Sheriff’s Office

Editor’s note: This is the first of The Tribune’s Top 10 Stories of 2011 as chosen by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day, we will count down to the top story of the year.

Over the past year since he was sworn into office, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson has been ticking through a list of campaign promises.

Re-establish an internal affairs unit to handle community complaints. Check.

Start a youth program to counter early recruitment of gang members. Check.

Provide rural crime training for all sworn patrol deputies. Check. Other promises, such as developing a plan that lays out his long-term goals and strategies, and auditing and moving the property evidence room — which Parkinson once referred to as a “disaster” — will take more time.

Parkinson, 47, was elected in November 2010 after a lengthy, sometimes contentious campaign against former Pismo Beach police Chief Joe Cortez.

They advanced to a runoff because neither had received enough votes in the June 2010 primary to win outright.

Parkinson replaced former Sheriff Pat Hedges, who retired after 12 years as the agency’s leader.A few current employees said that Parkinson’s election brought a fresh attitude to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, improved employees’ morale and opened up communication between the agency and county supervisors.

“Dealing with Parkinson is just a very positive experience,” said Correctional Sgt. Mike Thompson, president of the San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs Association, one of two groups representing agency employees. “It’s not like he does everything we want, but if you don’t get it your way, you’ll understand why he couldn’t do it. It’s just an open line of communication.”

However, challenges still lay ahead. In the new year, Parkinson might face another round of budget cuts — he had to trim about $700,000 last year from the agency’s $57 million annual budget — and a continued influx of inmates into the already overcrowded County Jail.

The latter issue is the result of a new state law designed to help California reduce its prison population by allowing some low-level inmates to serve their sentences in county jails instead of prison.

Since October, the jail has added 77 such inmates, and correctional deputies have added beds to both the men’s and women’s sides of the jail. But recently, about 40 men and 18 women were sleeping on plastic shells on the floor.

Sixteen correctional deputies are being hired with state funds as part of the new policy to reduce overtime costs and effectively staff the jail, and a modular unit is being readied to house additional female inmates.

When asked about morale, Thompson said it’s “pretty good in the grand scheme of things, because they (correctional deputies) see the light at the end of the tunnel; they see the effort to hire more people.”

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors approved plans for a new women’s jail earlier this year, but it won’t be constructed for some time.

Parkinson is also hiring six patrol deputies and has found a few other ways to increase the number of marked vehicles on county roads, in part by switching some of his commanders’ and sergeants’ responsibilities.

“We feel like we’re starting to get some more bodies on the street,” said Senior Deputy Neil Clayton, president of the Association of San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs.

Clayton said he also helped organize a committee at Parkinson’s direction to study whether to put in place a new policy that would give employees a chance to rotate into different investigative positions. (Clayton is not a member of the committee, which currently includes two deputies and two senior deputies.)

Parkinson will focus on other ongoing issues in the new year, including trying to decrease response times and forming a multiagency narcotics and gang task force.

This past year saw an uptick in gang-related crime, particularly in Paso Robles, though a 17-year-old Arroyo Grande boy was killed in a drive-by shooting in Oceano in mid-November.

Investigators are still trying to find those responsible for Gabriel Salgado’s death. Authorities have said that while Salgado was not involved in a gang, they believe the shooting was gang-related.

The number of calls for service has also increased over last year, to 73,889 as of Dec. 6 from 72,427 in 2010. The reason for the jump is unclear, though Sheriff’s Office spokesman Rob Bryn said it has been a trend.

In an interview this week, Parkinson said he needs to make sure he gives employees time to adjust to the changes he’s put in place this past year.

“I’m a ‘want it yesterday’ kind of guy,” he said. “I have to slow down a bit and let people adjust.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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