The two candidates running for San Luis Obispo County's top law enforcement position, incumbent Sheriff Ian Parkinson and challenger Greg Clayton, exchanged verbal punches Wednesday in a live televised debate hosted by KSBY.
Both launched accusations against each other in an hour of heated — and sometimes aggressive — debate, where Clayton continued to hammer Parkinson on the details of Andrew Holland's in-custody death at the County Jail and Parkinson worked to portray Clayton as an inexperienced leader who is unqualified to hold the position of sheriff.
Throughout the event, Parkinson displayed his understanding of recent changes in the criminal justice system, while Clayton sometimes struggled with details, saying incorrectly, for example, that marijuana rules in the county fall under an urgency ordinance.
At one point, Clayton accused Parkinson of never graduating high school. The sheriff responded by saying Clayton was spreading false information and "trying to run a campaign throwing stones."
Things stayed testy as the candidates compared experience and discussed sanctuary laws, gun control and the effects of recent criminal justice reform laws.
Jail death takes center stage
Immediately out of the gate, news anchor and moderator Carina Corral asked Parkinson why he just hours earlier directed San Luis Obispo County to release cell phone records showingwhen he learned about Holland's death and the 46 hours he was held in a restraint chair.
Parkinson called the death a tragedy and said, "I have bit my tongue because I truly have felt I did not want the family hurt more than they already are." He continued, "I want these records released because now I'm being accused by my opponent and by other members that I have lied. And that is not fair to do."
Clayton called the newly released records unsubstantiated and "an election gimmick," and directed a question to Parkinson himself: "I think it's important that we get an answer from my opponent (if) he had any knowledge that Andrew Holland was placed in a restraint chair that evening. If he did know, he needs to tell us tonight."
"I have repeatedly said, I have said to him, he has made the accusation that I ordered it, and he knows that not to be true because I have said it and now I produced the records to prove it," Parkinson said.
"Clayton is running his campaign on criticism. He has no history of management or supervision to even support that he has knowledge of any of this stuff. He has been removed for 25 years on medical disability, and he has forgotten the fact that people need to be retrained at times," Parkinson said.
When asked what led to Holland's death, Clayton said it was "complete failure of Andrew Holland by the jail staff."
He said he has reviewed the medical records and learned that Holland was given a sedative one hour after he was placed in the chair and became calm. "My question was, why was he left in the chair after two hours?" Clayton asked, adding that anyone left in a restraint like that for more than 8 hours is a violation of Title 15, the state crime prevention and corrections code.
Parkinson said that "the system failed Andrew that weekend," including the county health agency, behavioral health agency and his agency.
He replied that Clayton hasn't read any of the investigative reports about Holland's death that were written by mental health officials or doctors responding to necessary protocols. He added that Clayton "has based his opinions, his accusations, purely on what he has heard."
"In order to make decisions, he needs to make it on fact. And certainly as the sheriff, you need to get the facts before you start making accusations, particularly as serious as he has made," Parkinson said.
When pressed on the sedative question by news anchor Richard Gearhart, Parkinson said, "I have no knowledge of an injection."
Parkinson said he has long been an advocate for the mentally ill and that even before Holland's death, he was learning about the Stepping Up Initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates at the jail. Then he put together a task force and implemented many changes "before Clayton chose to run for sheriff."
Clayton fired back, "It was a little too late to save Andrew Holland." He added, "There is progress being made and that's to be applauded," but then called Parkinson's work to create a mental health facility at the jail "an election gimmick."
Fights over experience
Parkinson, who "rose through the ranks" of law enforcement over his 34-year career, criticized Clayton's lack of experience, saying, "the reality is, he has lacked for 25 years, this experience. I think the truth is, he could not qualify to be a basic police officer right now because of it."
Clayton, who holds a degree in political science and public administration from Cal Poly and said he does meet the requirements to become sheriff, listed the assignments he held with the San Luis Obispo Police Department during his 13-year career as a police officer before he took early medical retirement in the early 1990s. He worked as a private investigator for the last 25 years.
"He wants to step into a management role, a supervision role that he has had zero law enforcement experience doing. That is a critical role when you're talking about a $72 million budget and having that experience of actually supervising people and managing people. It's a huge organization with a lot more than just a jail," Parkinson said.
Clayton responded by alleging, "my opponent did not graduate from high school," that Parkinson has a GED and no college degree. "I find that problematic," he said.
He piled on, saying that Parkinson "has difficulty writing reports" and then alleged that Parkinson had his brother write his report when he applied for the captain's position at SLO PD.
"Once again, Mr. Clayton does not have his facts right," Parkinson said. "First of all, I did graduate high school, from Mammoth High School, as a matter of fact."
He said he didn't complete his college degree, but that he does have more than 100 college credits. And, "his accusation that my brother wrote a document is ridiculous, unsupported and flat-out accusatory without any support."
"He is trying to run a campaign throwing stones," Parkinson said.
Candidates respond to "sanctuary state" law
The candidates also debated the merits of California Senate Bill 54, which prevents sheriffs from communicating directly with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Parkinson said he had a discussion with the governor about his concerns on two occasions, saying that "we cannot communicate with ICE unless they have a prior conviction for one of (the listed) violent crimes. So, in other words, I have to release that person into the community."
"We have to protect our communities, and when we have violent offenders, it's a completely different story than someone that just comes into the country illegally to try to better their family," Parkinson said.
Clayton said, "I am completely supportive of state law," and "the concerns I have are reflected in my opponent's comments about the individuals that commit violent crimes and are released back into the communities."
"I think it's important to use the discretion of the sheriff to release the name and the individual's date of release as public information and then if ICE is paying attention, then they can do what they have to do without any assistance from us," Clayton said.
Parkinson responded, "we already do that."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Parkinson's response to questions about whether Andrew Holland was given a sedative.