San Diego County Sheriff William Gore recently announced that his deputies would be joining county code compliance teams to ensure compliance with public health orders, including enforcement actions when necessary. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Sheriff Gore about why his agency is increasing enforcement and how the changes have been received.

Chuck Wexler: How long have you been sheriff?

Sheriff Gore: 11 years; since 2009.

Wexler: And your father was in law enforcement as well, correct?

Sheriff Gore:  Yes, in fact my dad was the mentor to my predecessor as sheriff, Bill Kolander.  Back then, my dad and Kolander were with the San Diego Police Department. When my dad retired as the deputy chief, Kolander took his place, then went on to be chief of police in San Diego.

I came back here in 1997 as the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s San Diego Field Division. By that time, Bill Kolander, whom I had known since I was 13 or 14 years old, was sheriff of San Diego County.

Wexler: How was the transition from the FBI to being a sheriff?

Sheriff Gore: There are pluses and minuses. I loved my career in the FBI. It’s a great, great organization, and I really enjoyed it.

This is just different. I never thought I would run for political office, which is the distasteful part of the job. But once you get the job, it’s great. Your boss is the public, and there’s a lot of independence as an elected sheriff.

Wexler: How is COVID-19 impacting San Diego County?

Sheriff Gore: We went through a serious outbreak at the beginning of the summer. The region implemented a lot of restrictions – social distancing, mask wearing – much of it coming from the governor’s office. Public health officers in individual counties would implement the state health orders. That’s when we really got involved in doing citations.

Our approach, like that of most local law enforcement agencies in the area, is to try to get voluntary compliance through education. We’ve handed out a lot of masks. But when we met resistance and it was necessary, we would issue citations. We only issued about 150 citations in a county of 3.3 million people. So we were getting good compliance.

Sadly, in my opinion, it became more and more political. One of the biggest disappointments I’ve seen in my career is how a scientific health issue could be so political.

Wexler: Describe your approach to enforcing COVID restrictions.

California is broken into four different color codes. The most restrictive is purple, then below that are red, orange, and yellow. We were in the red and orange level for quite a while. Over the last 3 to 4 weeks, the numbers starting ticking up here, as they have nationwide. Our cases and hospitalizations went up, and we went back to purple, the most restrictive. That means no more indoor dining, no large gatherings, and no movie theaters. Obviously that impacts a lot of industries and small businesses.

San Diego County formed compliance teams made up of county code enforcement employees who went out and inspected businesses. They would try  to get compliance and mitigate the situation if they could. When they couldn’t do that, they would issue cease-and-desist orders. If those were ignored, they could issue a closure order.

Officials asked for a greater enforcement effort from law enforcement agencies. So I took six deputies, put them into three two-person teams, and assigned them to these compliance teams.  Again, our mission was to educate the business owners, try to get voluntary compliance, and if they ignored the cease-and-desist orders and the closure orders, we would either prepare a case for submission to the district attorney or write a citation.

We started that last week, and so far it’s been received pretty well in the county. There are some people who don’t like it.

I think a lot of the impact is symbolic. There’s a stick that goes along with these requests from the county code officers. They know that there could be enforcement action. We are trying to get that voluntary compliance and, by and large, we have.

These teams did 59 inspections this past week. Out of those 59, 31 were in compliance, 18 of the businesses had closed, and only 10 were out of compliance and couldn’t be mitigated or refused to stop. For those 10, we will probably write up reports and submit them to the district attorney’s office. But that’s another issue, because of the low number of cases that are actually going to the courts right now.

Wexler: What kinds of businesses are the code compliance teams inspecting?

Sheriff Gore: The two main kinds of businesses we’re dealing with are physical fitness centers and restaurants. A lot of the fitness centers have moved their operations outside, but some are not able to do that, and some have refused to close. Those are the ones the county code compliance officers deal with.

Fortunately, San Diego has a climate that is conducive to outdoor dining, so a lot of restaurants moved their operations outside. But some just can’t accommodate that and have refused to close their operations.

Those are the two main types of businesses we’ve been challenged with.

Wexler: How is this being received by the public?

Sheriff Gore: We’ve seen significant civil unrest in the U.S. this year. I don’t want to put my deputies in a position that leads to more public outrage against law enforcement. That’s why we rely on the good judgment of the six specific hand-picked deputies who work these details.

By and large, the public’s response has been positive. When I talk about it in the media and press conferences, I try to stress that this is a public health issue. The sooner we pull together, wear masks, socially distance, and use hand sanitizer, the sooner we’re all going to get through this. But the frustrating part to me is how this has all become political. This should not be a political issue.  It’s a scientific and a health issue.

I get frustrated when people say, “That’s not constitutional.” I don’t think that’s my call. There’s no shortage of lawyers in California who are suing in court, and all the court cases in California have upheld the legitimacy of the governor’s orders and the county’s public health orders.

You’re not going to please everyone, and my position is that this is the right thing for the public safety and health of this county.

Wexler: Have you received any pushback from others in law enforcement?

Sheriff Gore: Some sheriffs in California have said they felt these public health orders are unconstitutional and they’re not going to enforce them. Chiefs of police are at the direction of their mayor or city manager, while the sheriffs have a lot more independence.

Our county has eight incorporated cities where our agency doesn’t police. Five of those have said that they want to work with us if we’re taking action in their city. A couple have said that we have the right to be there, but they’re not going to participate. It comes down to the political makeup of the individual cities. I have that independence and am elected and have jurisdiction county-wide. I think we’re always better, more professional, and stronger when we work collaboratively, which we have done here in San Diego County.

Wexler: What pushed you to make these decisions?

Sheriff Gore: I was concerned about putting my deputies in an untenable situation. But it’s a public health decision, and what made up my mind is that nobody can deny the COVID numbers we’re seeing. We see the hospitalizations go up, and we know it may be that way for a few more months. If the political backlash falls on me, so be it. I’m not going to worry about that, because I think that it’s the right thing to do from a public safety and public health standpoint.

Having said that, I would certainly like to see some relief packages coming out of Washington, D.C. to target some of these businesses that have been hit so hard by this pandemic, like the restaurants and fitness centers. I hope that comes sooner rather than later.

Wexler: Has the pandemic impacted crime in San Diego County?

Sheriff Gore: Our crime has remained pretty stable, with a few upticks. We’re concerned about decreases in reports of some crimes, like child abuse, because kids aren’t in school, so we’re afraid the crimes may be happening but we’re not getting reports from the mandatory reporters. But overall, we haven’t seen a major jump in any crime area.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.