By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER, Editor-in-Chief

On December 16, 2022, Jim Cooper gets sworn in as Sacramento County’s first Black sheriff and only the second in California’s 172-year history, following Siskiyou County Sheriff Charlie Byrd in 1986.

Cooper, 58, brings a long résumé to the job: assistant majority floor leader and a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus after being elected to the Assembly in 2014 (the first African American ever in the region — along with Kevin McCarty); mayor of Elk Grove (the first African American mayor in the city’s history); 30 years’ experience with the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office (where he served as the department’s first-ever African American spokesperson); father of four.

In a wide-ranging interview with OBSERVER President and Publisher Larry Lee and Editor-in-Chief Stephen Magagnini, Cooper offered a holistic view of policing, identifying the homeless crisis, the spike in violent crime and hate crimes, the need for youth programs and new jails and methods of treatment — all of which disproportionately affect African Americans — as his top priorities. The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Q & A with Jim Cooper, Sacramento County's First Black Sheriff

Q: You’ve lived a life of firsts. What goes through your mind when you are the first and/or only African American stepping into these spaces of power and influence?

A: As a Black man, it’s always on your mind. One thing my mom told me: “Life is not fair. You have to work twice as hard as the other guy.” And it isn’t fair. Sometimes you’re out there by yourself and you’ve got to persevere when it would be so easy sometimes just to roll over and acquiesce. But you really can’t do that if you’re standing up for what’s right. My experience, and the things I’ve seen, has been invaluable. It’s been a tough road, but a good ride that’s made me a much better, well-rounded person.

Q: What does the job entail and how has it evolved since you last wore a sheriff’s uniform?

A: Sacramento County’s over 700 square miles and 1.8 million people. As the county’s chief law enforcement officer, I’ve got about 2,000 employees in the sheriff’s department and 1,200 sworn officers. We’ve got patrol deputies, detectives, two jails, the courts, registered sex offenders, civil actions, evictions, etc. It’s an all-encompassing job. Because I’m constitutionally elected, not appointed like the police chief, I have much more autonomy.

Q: What can you do to make the sheriff’s office more transparent, particularly to communities of color? What role will recruitment play?

A: What I’ve learned from eight years in the legislature is how to work with people, to compromise, to be transparent without being adversarial. We can disagree on things, but we can be cordial. I’m going to sit down, have a discussion with anybody and not close anybody out or lock anybody out. Transparency is not a bad thing. Like I said, we can agree to disagree, but it doesn’t have to go beyond that. We’re going to meet with community groups and ethnic groups and talk about how we can be better partners.

We’re down about 200 positions. We want to hire folks and really represent the community. Right now, it’s really tough to hire people because people saw what’s transpired in the last several years nationwide.

We see a lot of young men and women of the military that are getting out that want a job. It’s a very well-paying job, about $80,000 a year starting out. We need full-time recruiters to go out there and recruit quality candidates. I want to go out there myself and also recruit. … I know what the sheriff’s department can do to enhance your career.

Q: Throughout the nation, we have seen sad examples of law enforcement abuse. The officer convicted of murdering George Floyd had a whole jacket full of prior complaints. At what point do you tell someone with a record of overpolicing or abuse they’ve got to step away?

A: Our officers in California are much better trained. Ultimately, it comes down to good supervision. The key is those sergeants, those first-line supervisors, really doing their job and being engaged with the troops. And as the department’s leader, I’ll tell them my expectations and hear what they expect from me. You have people that are trained to talk about those issues. I think everyone’s trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. So we’re still charting that path and that course. But it’s difficult. I mean, obviously crime’s up, especially violent crime right now.

Q: African Americans are overrepresented as victims and perpetrators of violent crime. What can the sheriff’s office do to curb violent crime and proliferation of guns, their accessibility and how to get them off the streets?

A: We have a problem with guns. Guns have always been around, they’re going to continue to be around. The issue is folks that are prohibited from owning guns; not legal gun owners. We haven’t had problems with permit holders. The problem is with folks that are felons that shouldn’t be carrying guns. In the case of the downtown shootout, those folks were prohibited from carrying guns yet they carry them.

California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. It hasn’t stopped gun violence. A lot of folks are carrying guns these days that shouldn’t be carrying guns, but if you try and enhance penalties, the legislature does not want to, even for ghost guns. … The legislature right now is in the mode that it will not sign into law anything that puts anybody in jail or prison, even if it’s for that.

And there’s a school-to-prison pipeline. The poorest neighborhoods have been that way for 30, 40, 50 years. The same issues then are present now. We’ve never changed that: underperforming schools, no banks, no supermarkets, no sports programs or arts programs for kids. So until we invest in those communities, we can’t change that narrative.

I live in Elk Grove. Now, it’s a normal community. But Elk Grove does have 15,000 kids playing sports, the largest youth soccer registration in the country. In Meadowview, just two miles away from Laguna Boulevard, kids need free breakfast, free lunch; it’s a tough environment to grow up in. I would argue that when most kids have the same opportunities, it’d be very different. If you’re not reading at third-grade level by third grade, there’s a good chance you’re gonna fail. In the downtown jail and the jail in Elk Grove, all the inmates have tablets, iPads. There are kids that don’t have connectivity at all. I don’t think any kid desires to be involved in gangs or drug lifestyle. Unfortunately, for many, that’s normal to them. We’ve got to change that narrative and save those kids.

Q: As sheriff, can you be a megaphone to issues like that?

A: In the Assembly, I helped create an academic improvement program for schools such as Burbank, Valley High and Florin High where if you improve your citizenship, your GPA and attendance, if you understand the school’s STEM program, we’re going to put you in a drawing to go to Facebook, Google and the 49ers’ stadium. It creates a buzz about going to college and exposes those kids to something they hadn’t seen before. So you’re trying to make a difference and trying to really impact their lives.

Q: How can the sheriff and the county address the growing homeless population? About 40% of the homeless are African American, even higher along the bike trail.

A: It’s not a crime to be homeless if they don’t commit crimes against people. We don’t know how many are folks that want help, folks who are too mentally ill to make a decision to get help, and folks that just don’t want help because of substance abuse. There are a pretty significant number of folks who don’t want help for whatever reason. So, you know, how do we change that? For the homeless camps, we’ve got about a dozen murders, homeless on homeless … a lot of sexual assaults happen in the homeless camps, a lot of drug dealing.

There’s been a kind of a hands-off approach with law enforcement. They’ve left the homeless camps alone. You can still enforce laws in a homeless camp. But you must have a place to go. … It comes down to the underlying problems: mental illness and substance abuse.

As a state we spent $20 billion on homelessness. And it’s gotten worse because they don’t want to address the mental illness part.

We’ve got to do something because what we’ve been doing has not worked. There’s no way to force them into treatment. Before you had drug court and the judge had a hammer. For a lot of folks, it may take two or three times to get rehabilitation for it to be effective.

Part of the solution is mandatory treatment. Jails should not be mental health hospitals. And that’s what the jails are right now. If you’re having a mental health crisis, right now, the county, there’s nowhere to go, you go to the emergency room, doctors want to get you out of there as fast as possible. Because you’re in a bad space, you’re in a hallway somewhere, you have a substance abuse problem, unless you have benefits, there are no treatment programs for substance abuse.

Also, if you say anything against the homeless, or you want to do something out of the box, you’re anti-homeless. There are advocates who say we can’t put them in conservancy (making them wards of the court and compel them to get into treatment). Well, where else do they go? The status quo is not OK. We’ve got to change that narrative and try and give them help. And some may never be able to get stable. So the alternative is, leave them out there vs. giving them someplace that’s got shelter and food and they’re taken care of. So we will start addressing this issue come January. We’re going to keep track of it, to see if we can go back and tell the public hey, here’s what we found out so far.

Q: You said the jail should not be a rehabilitation facility for mental health. What do you see as a solution to prepare those who are released from jail?

A: The goal was for inmates to spend a year or less in county jail, but because the state prisons got sued for overcrowding, they have now shifted that population to the counties, so you have folks spending 8 or 10 years in county.

In addition to more beds, we’re talking about building a new intake area, to comply with the ADA (American Disabilities Act) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to protect patient confidentiality) and then a tower for medical and psychiatric issues.

The old California Youth Authority Department of Juvenile Justice is closing next year. They had an award-winning program recognized nationally for sex offenders. Those guys go to county now.

I want the building trades to come and talk to these individuals about jobs because, obviously, through the trades you can make a pretty good salary. So we’re just trying to do things differently. But it’s a tough crowd (in jail now).

Q: Communities of color tend to be overpoliced. How can we change the way we do community policing without a militarized response?

A: Some departments do nothing proactive whatsoever. Zero. So it’s allowed some of these things to fester, and the people that are being killed are people that look like Black and Brown people. We’ve got to plug the so-called school to prison pipeline. It’s really a delicate balance, you’re trying to do that dance and not overpolice, but also ensure the safety of residents because I’ve seen the polls: homelessness the number-one issue, and crime is right behind it. And those two are intertwined. People are very concerned, even people of color. There’s no silver bullet at all. But I think we have to have a larger emphasis on those community services and really revitalize those neighborhoods.