Bill Brown and Juan Camarena
Incumbent Bill Brown, left, and Lt. Juan Camarena will be facing off in the June 7 election for Santa Barbara County sheriff. (Noozhawk file photos)

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown faces a new challenger this election season, a man he promoted twice, sheriff’s Lt. Juan Camarena.

Brown, a former Lompoc police chief, was elected sheriff in 2006, and has served four terms as the county’s top cop. Camarena joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1998 as a corrections officer.

It’s a one-on-one showdown between two candidates who respect each other, but both believe they are best qualified to serve as sheriff.

“The Sheriff’s Office has been stagnant and reactive,” Camarena told Noozhawk. “When you are stagnant and reactive, it makes it very difficult to change.”

Brown maintains now is not a good time for change.

“I believe seasoned leadership, and proven leadership, is really essential in getting through the tumultuous issues we are facing,” he told Noozhawk.

The sheriff’s race comes at a time of immense scrutiny, change and conversation around law enforcement. The 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked worldwide protests — including in Santa Barbara County — against police brutality and racism.

Floyd, who was black, died while in police custody after he allegedly tried to pass counterfeit currency at a neighborhood grocery store. He was handcuffed and in a prone position on the street as police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. A bystander’s video showed Floyd repeating “I can’t breathe” before he lost concsiousness.

Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal murder charges and was sentenced to 22½ years in prison.

Neither Brown nor Camarena supports a civilian review system for the Sheriff’s Department, a direction the City of Santa Barbara is headed for its Police Department under the pressure of community activists.

Both candidates have said they want to focus on the opioid crisis and ways law enforcement can combat a rash of suicides.

Camarena said he has three pillars that he is building his campaign on: community, vision and accountability.

He wants to take a proactive approach to law enforcement. Among his ideas is to create a “community engagement board,” which will meet monthly to talk about issues such as fentanyl and opioid abuse, theft at agriculture sites, gang violence and overall crime.

“The community has to be involved and part of the solution for these long-term problems,” he said.

Pointing out the need for his vision pillar, Camarena noted that violent crime is up 10% and property crime has risen 14%. Opiate overdose deaths are up 8%.

“Once you start being proactive you are going to start slowing down the uptick in crime,” he said.

That requires changing the department staffing model to create a “community-oriented” policing report.

In one example, he said farmers aren’t even reporting thefts of fertilizer, tools, hoses or even tractors because of a perception that sheriff’s deputies won’t respond in time.

“A lot of farmers don’t even call us anymore,” Camarena said. “I want to build their trust.”

He said he wants to work with other law enforcement agencies because everyone’s connected.

“Crime has no borders,”Camarena said “If we know there’s an uptick in crime in Santa Maria it can spill over to Orcutt.”

Camarena, a former U.S. Marine, has raised about $26,000, according to campaign finance statements for the last six months of 2021. He said he has a fundraising goal of about $350,000.

If elected, he said, he wants to create a strategic plan for the department.

“We have never had a strategic plan in my 23 years with the Sheriff’s Office,” Camerena said. “By not having a strategic plan, it makes you reactive and not proactive.”

Under his accountability pillar, Camarena said he wants to create a dashboard so the public can have real-time access to crime data. He wants to incorporate more data-gathering programs so that deputies can access reports and information anytime.

Camarena, a No Party Preference candidate who was registered as a Republican up until about a year ago, said he told Brown both times he was promoted that he planned to run for sheriff one day.

“I respect him,” Camarena said. “I like him. I have had no negative interactions with him. But at this point, I am following my goals, and I want to move the department forward.

“I feel I have the leadership abilities to take the lead of an organization and move it forward beyond the 21st century.”

Brown said he understands the national conversation around law enforcement, but that he is also focused on shining a spotlight on the work of law enforcement.

“It is important that law enforcement leaders have the courage and credibility to stand up and defend the noble profession that we have, particularly in Santa Barbara County and particularly the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

On the issue of a civilian review system, Brown emphasized that what’s happening in other parts of the country is not happening in the county.

“The people of Santa Barbara County are the ultimate oversight,” he said. “They decide whether I keep my job every four years. We have not had the kinds of issues or scandals or problems that have surfaced in some areas. In many ways a civilian oversight commission is incredibly cumbersome, time consuming, expensive, and is really a solution in search of a problem.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the need for law enforcement to be progressive.”

Brown touted the completion of the North County Jail as one of his hallmark accomplishments.

“It is a beautiful facility,” he said.

The new 376-bed jail doesn’t contain any bars — it’s all glass — which allows for better monitoring of inmates. A custody deputy always has a clear line of sight. He noted the facility is also much better for containing COVID-19.

When the jail opened in January, 11 people tested positive for the coronavirus; within 10 days it was a coronavirus-free facility.

Brown said he wants to focus on recruitment and retention of sheriff’s deputies.

“We are still struggling to fill the ranks that were reduced as a result of the great recession,” he said. “We are working to try to fill our positions and regain our positions. We are doing much better than most agencies with respect to our recruitment and retention.”

Brown said he has a major plan for halting deaths related to opioid use, which took the lives of 133 people in 2021, up from 114 in 2020, 90 in 2019.

“The opioid crisis is a national crisis, and it is out of control,” he said. “It is an incredible tragedy that has caused a lot of heartache.”

He plans to launch Project Opioid, a program through which faith-based, business, law enforcement, government, health-care and other organizations work together to reverse the trends.

The problem is widespread, he said, affecting everyone from chronic heroin addicts to people addicted to prescription drugs.

“We have to do more about this,” he said.

He said he wants to continue to focus on mental health services for inmates, diversion and the capturing of better data through improved technology.

Brown, a registered Republican, raised about $114,000 for his campaign during the last six months of 2021, and said he has about $200,000 now in the bank.

“I am excited about the next four years,” he said.

Brown called Camarena “a good man” who has long aspired to serve as sheriff.

“It is not my office,” he said. “It is the people’s office. You always have people who think they can do something better. Juan is pursuing his ambition. He is certainly entitled to do that.

“I am not ready to retire. I have served honorably as sheriff.”

The candidate filing deadline for the June 7 election is March 11.

If only two candidates file, the race will be decided in June. In a multicandidate field, if no one gets more than 50% of the June vote, the top two vote-getters would go to a Nov. 8 runoff.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.