‘Extraordinary times’: Sheriff Bill Gore speaks to La Jolla Rotary on policing during a pandemic, police reform

San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore speaks to La Jolla Rotary via Zoom July 14.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore spoke about the challenges to law enforcement in an era marked by pandemic and movements for racial justice at the July 14 meeting of the La Jolla Rotary Club.

Gore summarized his work as Sheriff to a group of about 40 Rotarians on Zoom, before detailing his efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Gore, elected Sheriff in 2009 after 33 years with the FBI, said the San Diego Sheriff’s Department is the third largest local law enforcement agency in California, after the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

“We police one million people,” Gore said, “including all of unincorporated San Diego County, as well as for nine incorporated cities that choose to contract with San Diego for police services.”

Gore said his department also oversees all the county jails – there are no San Diego city jails – and provides security for all the courthouses in San Diego County. The Sheriff’s Department has 4,300 employees total; 2,600 of those are deputies.

“It’s an interesting time we live in,” Gore, who graduated from San Diego’s Crawford High School and University of San Diego, said of the current state of policing. The coronavirus pandemic, he said, severely impacted jail operations.

To slow the “spread of the disease, we had to dramatically downsize our operations,” he said. Gore also implemented changes to booking criteria in an attempt to limit the number of people who went to jail and released inmates in the last 30-60 days of their sentence.

To create more space for quarantine in his facilities, Gore said he enhanced the medical screening process during jail intake. By the end of April, he said the jails went from 5,600 inmates to 4,200, which allowed Gore space for isolation cells to “try to control the number of COIVD [positive] inmates.”

“We’ve been very successful in our approach so far,” Gore said, with a total of 28 cases of diagnosed COVID cases in the jails and no deaths or hospitalizations.

Gore said that there has also been a decrease in reported crime in the county since pandemic due to stay at home measures, although he is starting now to see an increase. “We’re watching that very closely.”

Gore then turned to the subject of the death of black man George Floyd while in police custody May 28 in Minneapolis, an event that set off global protests of police brutality and calls for racial equality. “Anybody that watched that is appalled by what we saw,” Gore said. “These are extraordinary times.”

“My biggest frustration,” he said, “is how everybody so quickly painted everybody in law enforcement with the same brush. Do we have racists in law enforcement? I’m sure we do, just like we do in every other profession in this country. We’ve got a long way to go in overcoming systemic racist policies in this country.”

Calling on his FBI work all over the country, Gore said, “law enforcement in San Diego County is one of the best in the United States, as far as being progressive and professional.”

What happened to George Floyd, Gore said, is “inexcusable, but let’s not paint everybody with the same brush.”

Referring to the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which pushes for police reform through eight concrete policies, such as banning choke-holds and requiring a warning before shooting, Gore added the “demands have already been met in San Diego County.”

He said the Sheriff’s Department has “never authorized a choke-hold,” and said that a choke-hold is different from the carotid restraint technique, in which an officer places pressure to a detainee’s carotid arteries on either side of the neck.

“When it’s taught and executed right, [the carotid restraint is] a safe technique,” Gore said, and that “in this county, we’ve never had serious injury” from it. The Monday after George Floyd was killed, the San Diego Police Department outlawed the carotid restraint, a move Gore said was “widely applauded,” despite the method being an “important technique” for his Sheriff’s jail deputies who don’t have guns, tasers or other forms of restraint.

The news media, Gore said, “continued to call [the carotid restraint] a choke-hold,” and said he’s concerned “people won’t even listen unless we do away with this technique. It’s so intertwined with the inappropriate handling of George Floyd. [Doing away with it] was the right thing to do. I put it off the table so we could move on and talk about other issues.”

Gore said his department is now “in a listening mode” with community activists, and that he plans to “go back and do a presentation” for the community, explaining current practices and the reasoning behind them. “I want to explain why we’re not like Minneapolis.”

That’s “not to say we don’t make mistakes,” Gore said, “[but] we think we hold ourselves accountable.” He said 90 percent of investigations into deputy practices are initiated internally.

“There’s no way to explain some of these things we’ve seen,” Gore said, referring to the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death. “Now we’ve got a narrative where ‘police are bad; let’s do away with them’ and it’s a sad commentary. It’s very disconcerting because I don’t know what the alternative is.”

The La Jolla Rotary Club, which seeks to make a difference in the community it serves, meets noon every Tuesday (currently via Zoom). For more information, visit◆