Law enforcement stance could shape Contra Costa County supervisor race

Voters in a largely suburban swath of Contra Costa County will pick their next supervisor this November between two candidates whose resumes boast longstanding ties to Bay Area police agencies.

Pleasant Hill City Councilman Ken Carlson, who led all candidates in the June primary election, was a police officer in Concord for three decades. His opponent, BART Director Debora Allen, has won powerful political support from law enforcement by advocating for robust police staffing on the transit agency’s trains.

Both would feel right at home in the county’s District 4, where retiring Supervisor Karen Mitchoff once worked as executive secretary to a previous county sheriff and has steadfastly supported the sheriff’s office over her three terms.

Carlson has struck a politically moderate stance on policing that’s grown in popularity among elected officials in Contra Costa’s central region, which includes much of Walnut Creek and Concord, as well as Clayton and Pleasant Hill: Keep law enforcement well-funded and thoroughly staffed, but task someone other than armed officers with responding to mental health crises.

“We continue to tax our law enforcement officers with just about everything, it feels like at times,” Carlson said. “My focus is on finding weaknesses and areas for improvement — how do we deliver mental health services to the community?”

Allen, meanwhile, wants to keep police a core part of all kinds of emergency response. And she has advocated fiercely for bolstering police and security on BART trains, once describing the agency’s community safety alternative as “toothless.”

“I have a track record of supporting public safety and increasing our presence in the BART system,” Allen said.

Whoever is elected will represent a district of  relatively quiet suburbs that experience significantly less crime than the region’s bigger cities.

But debates around law enforcement have flared up at times, including after the Walnut Creek police killing of Miles Hall in 2017, or last year’s organized mass theft of the local Broadway Plaza Nordstrom store that prompted Walnut Creek city officials to order more police officers.

As with other Bay Area locales, conflicts in Contra Costa County between law enforcement and residents have forced voters and officials to figure out what the future of criminal justice should look like.

Earlier this year, Sheriff David Livingston drew sharp backlash for publicly backing one of his deputies, Andrew Hall, following Hall’s conviction for the on-duty killing of Laudemer Arboleda in Danville in 2018 and after Hall had fatally shot another man in 2021.

Despite all that, Livingston was handily re-elected in June. And earlier this month, the county Board of Supervisors decided not to set up an oversight body or inspector general that could force the release of sheriff’s office documents.

Carlson wants an inspector general position, but maintains that “working collaboratively in a diplomatic process” with law enforcement gets better results.

“I’m cautious and leery of citizen oversight, just because of the nature of (police) work,” he said. “It can easily become politicized, where you have residents who are pushing an agenda… but an inspector general, someone who understands the job, as opposed to politics, might get to the heart of the matter in investigations.”

The Pleasant Hill councilman, who in past interviews has called for more sheriff’s office patrols, received a $2,500 donation from the Concord Police Association before the June primary.

Allen, meanwhile, also expressed support for an inspector general but one that oversees all county departments and not the sheriff’s office alone. It’s unclear if there’s a mechanism for counties to create such a wide-ranging role; inspector general positions for sheriff’s offices are made possible by a state law approved in 2020.

Over in Antioch, calls from the public for more police oversight were intensified this week when Mayor Lamar Thorpe announced that eight of the city’s police officers — 10% of the overall force — were being investigated for “crimes of moral turpitude,” providing no other details.

Carlson called the Antioch investigation “shocking.” Such a large scale of bad behavior was unheard of during his 29 years with Concord police, he said, including a year that he spent overseeing internal-affairs investigations just before his retirement in 2017.

Ken Carlson candidate for Contra Costa County Supervisor, District 4. (Photo courtesy of Ken Carlson)
Ken Carlson candidate for Contra Costa County Supervisor, District 4. (Photo courtesy of Ken Carlson) 

Allen declined to comment on the Antioch investigation, saying she hadn’t yet read about it.

BART Director Debora Allen is photographed in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
BART Director Debora Allen is photographed in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

As a transit official, Allen has fostered strong ties to law enforcement, winning the Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs Association’s support and amassing $7,500 from law enforcement groups for her supervisor campaign.

She has at least one ally on the county board: Supervisor Candace Andersen, who represents the Tri-Valley cities Danville, San Ramon and Alamo further south.

“She’s a smart woman who understands the complexity of financial issues,” Andersen said of Allen. “I want someone who can take the deep-dive on all our budgets and grants with her fiscal acumen.”

Allen ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for a state Assembly seat in 2016, but has since disassociated herself from the GOP and now identifies as no party preference.

Carlson, meanwhile, formally won Mitchoff’s endorsement just ahead of the June election. He has also received the support of Concord City Councilwoman Carlyn Obringer, who finished just 1 point behind Allen in that election with 24% of the vote.

In a county that consistently votes blue, Mitchoff speculates Carlson will have the edge.

“Debora will run on law and order and fiscal conservatism and her record at BART, all of which is fair and she has every right to run on,” Mitchoff said. “But I think it comes down to who is more conservative, and I think Ken is by no means a liberal, but he’s moderate.”

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