The two candidates for Inyo County Sheriff, Eric Pritchard and Stephanie Rennie, faced off last Thursday at a candidate forum hosted by the Independence Civic Club. The following is an abbreviated version of the well-attended event.
Current Sheriff Eric Pritchard started the formal question segment with a run-down on his 23- year career with the Sheriff’s Department. Pritchard was promoted to Undersheriff in 2018 and
then formally appointed to the sheriff’s position earlier this year following the retirement of Sheriff Jeff Hollowell. Pritchard worked his way up the ranks including service on the SWAT team for 10 years. “I have the skills to run the agency,” he said, noting that he either hired or had a hand in hiring the department’s current staff.
“There are now more deputies on the streets, new deputies and I’ve doubled the canine unit,” he said.
Pritchard said he’s running for the office because the department and staff matter to him. “When I was appointed, I knew I could lose this job, but I was willing to take that risk.”
Stephanie Rennie is currently the chief investigator for the District Attorney’s office. She had attended the academy, graduating third in a class of 68 and started her career in Inyo County in 2003 as a correctional officer for the Department. Rennie also served on the
Department’s sexual assault response team, then in 2010 started working as an investigator in the DA’s office and now is the chief investigator.
Her goals include bringing everyone together. “I want everyone to succeed,” she added “and to bring youth into law enforcement.
Question: What would you do to prepare deputies to deal with mental health issues?
Pritchard explained that officers are currently trained in mental health issues. “Our best tool is our head,” he said stressing the importance of training, communicating, empathy, de-escalation
and the ability to recognize those in the middle of a mental crisis. “COVID has exacerbated the situation,” he added.
Rennie said mental health training for law enforcement is required. She has worked with the Continuum of Care and crisis response teams and said drug abuse needs to be treated as a mental health issue. “We have to be aware of our (law enforcement staff) own mental health needs,” she added.
Question two focused on respect for tribal sovereignty
“Community engagement and outreach has expanded 10-fold,” Pritchard said. “I want to engage with all communities.” He added that tribal departments enforce tribal laws. He attends tribal councils meetings and his staff has been invited to tribal events. “It’s being noticed,” he said adding that he has been told “it seems like a different agency.”
Rennie noted that, historically, the relationship hasn’t been good. “We need to be aware of tribal laws and traditions,” referencing all five tribes within the county. Her daughter is a member of the Lone Pine tribe and Rennie has participated in the tribe’s recent pow wow.
Question three: How would you implement AB109, prisoner development?
“We already do,” Pritchard said but the department faces the lack of resources, particularly staffing, especially since COVID. AA and substance abuse, parenting classes, mental health counseling, and religious services are available through collaboration with the County. He added that crews were sent out to help with the wind even this past winter.
Rennie ran through the programs that currently exist including GED (general education development) and vocational training. She noted the current Grand Jury was concerned with the lack of programs available to inmates. Following a public records request, Rennie found that of the $500,000 allocated for such programs in the 2021-22 budget, $208,000 was never used. Pritchard explained the department can’t provide services without staffing and one answer is to provide tablets in the jails so inmates can get on-line education.
Next, questions from the public. What experience would you draw from in natural disasters and critical incidents?
Rennie admitted not having experiences in that area. “The goal is the safety of citizens,” she said. She would work with the Office of Emergency Services and other agencies.
Pritchard had to face the Airport Fire right after assuming the Sheriff’s position. In the past, “I’ve been the guy doing it,” he said, noting the evacuation during the Complex Fire in 2013.
Why aren’t there any animal control officers in Death Valley?
Rennie explained there are three officers, but all in north county. “Am not sure why, but I can look into it.”
Pritchard said they did have one who lived in Lone Pine, but now they all live in the north part of the county and are stationed at the shelter in Big Pine. He said officers respond to all calls.
What is your experience in personnel management and budgeting?
Rennie currently manages a three-person staff as well as witness advocates. Her department has a $1.8 million budget and has the same personnel and budget issues as other County departments. She has also prepared grants for additional funding.
Pritchard explained 70-percent of his $3 million budget is for personnel with 37 sworn personnel and a total of 80 people on staff.
What is your position on concealed carry?
Rennie supports the Second Amendment and feels concealed carry does deter crime. “The exceptions are loose cannons,” she explained.
Pritchard agreed, citing the recent Supreme Court ruling that strengthened concealed carry. “We seldom reject concealed carry permits,” he said. “It’s a constitutional right.”
In light of the increase in school shootings, what would you do to keep schools safe?
Rennie stressed training, citing the current grant funding for school resource officers in schools.
Pritchard and Bishop Police Chief Rick Standridge have meet with Katie Kolker, the Bishop District Superintendent regarding staff training. The Department’s rapid response teams “will run to the schools and take action,” he said.
What about the abandoned juvenile center?
Rennie cited programs for inmates that should be started up again.
Pritchard said, pre COVID, that was the plan. One use was for inmates or people going through de-tox, Pritchard noted there was no room for that in the jail.
What about inmates released in Independence and can’t get back to Bishop?
Both candidates noted there were bus passes available on request.