Longtime Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims is retiring after 16 years in office. Two candidates have stepped up seeking to replace her: Fresno Deputy Police Chief Mark Salazar and Assistant Sheriff John Zanoni.
The two will face off in the June 7 primary. The Sun contacted both candidates for a longform Q&A to provide voters better insights into their philosophy on policing the Valley’s largest county.
Below is our interview with Salazar about the upcoming election and his plans if elected as Fresno County’s next sheriff.
Daniel Gligich: You’ve served in law enforcement for many years. Why do you feel you have the necessary experience to take the jump and be Fresno County’s next Sheriff?
Mark Salazar: I have a 25-year career with the Fresno Police Department. The Fresno Police Department’s the largest law enforcement agency in the Valley with over 800 officers, and at different times its been less than that because of the economy or recruiting crises. But during that time, I spent 16 years as a commander out of my 25-year career, and so just having that experience of being hands on with our crime issues. For many many years I’ve been at the forefront as far as handling crime, specifically violent crime, because that’s what plagues Fresno so much. And during that time I developed our Compstat system, which is what Bill Bratton developed in New York City many many years ago. Then Chief [Jerry] Dyer asked me to – I was a brand new lieutenant, and he goes, ‘Bring Compstat to Fresno.’ And I did. I learned from Bratton’s people in LA, and I brought that system of data and analytics. And essentially it’s a focus of crime at the highest levels of an organization, because you would think at the highest levels of an organization everyone is focused on crime or preventing crime, and often the case it’s not. There’s a small percentage that focus on that daily. So the system is set up where we have meetings, we look at dots on maps and go into the analytics part of it. And the questions are asked, and I’ve talked about this to different farmers and different community leaders in the last 60 days. I go, ‘Picture a table with me as sheriff, assistant sheriff, captains, lieutenants, and I’m asking about red dots about ranches in east county and I’m asking the captain lieutenant what are those, and they’ll have an answer, and what are you doing about it. And that’s the accountability piece. So I developed that for Dyer 16 years ago, and we’ve had it still in place. It’s called Crime View, but it’s essentially the Compstat system. So having that experience, I also was the street violence bureau’s homicide commander for seven years, and that’s a job where you’re focused on crime, gang crime, 24/7. I did that for seven years. I did that for seven years. The average time a commander spends in there is two years, and through that time we’ve had significant crime reductions in the city. I was tasked when the chief told me, ‘Hey I’m leaving out of town Wednesday. I’m coming back Tuesday.’ That was my cue to have a press conference for him on Wednesday when he came back Tuesday. We did that for seven years plus when I was in that assignment. Then I got promoted to captain. We hadn’t had a captain test in over a decade because we had the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program) Program in the City of Fresno, so I was promoted, got No. 1, promoted to captain. And my best assignment I’ve had so far in my career has been the three years that I spent in southwest Fresno. I was a captain there. In southwest Fresno, no commander in Fresno likes going there because it’s so demanding. There’s a strong faith-based community. The pastors are strong. The community’s strong, and if they don’t like you they’ll tell everyone. They’ll directly call the mayor, they’ll call city council. And so we’ve had commanders that have struggled in southwest Fresno. I was in southeast Fresno having an incredible time. I was there only for a few months, and the chief called me and said, ‘I need you in southwest.’ And this was a time when trust was low in those communities, when crime was high. But for me as a rookie that’s where I started 25 years ago. I went back there and I tell you what, those connections and relationships that were there were incredible. You’ll still see me sometimes in church on a Sunday in southwest Fresno. But we cut shootings in half. We cut violent crime in half. We cut murders in half. It was just not us. Typically law enforcement will say, ‘Because of this operation, that operation.’ And I’ve done those for two decades now, but essentially we worked on prevention. So my philosophy as a deputy chief, my philosophy as a sheriff will be and has been prevention, intervention and enforcement. And you’ve got to do those things at the same time to have a safe community. We really invested in prevention. I’ve been on the Fresno Police Activities League Board for seven years now. And we raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. We get no funding from the city or the department, and we’ve made incredible programs impacting hundreds of youth specifically in southwest, southeast Fresno because that was the greatest need – the poverty, the economic challenges, the educational challenges, the crime. So we developed a community center, and we have Joby Jones, who’s a pastor, to lead that effort. We’re about to reopen Romain playground in the next 30 days. Right when we had trust issues we developed a pathway program four years ago at Gaston Middle School to about 30 kids that want to be cops. Half of them are African American. The other half are Hispanic or southeast Asian, and they want to be officers. Each year we would expose them to a leadership book. We took them to trips like Tools for Tolerance in L.A., college tours as well. They still want to be cops. Some of those kids now are sophomores and juniors, and the only reason I see them a lot because my son goes to Edison as a junior, and they still want to be officers. We’ve invested in them. I know prevention works. Same thing with the Sweet Potato Program with the West Fresno Family Resource Center. We have programs where, I’ll be honest with you, we put kids in our police cars and take them to the field so they can cultivate that sweet potato, they can learn business principals at Fresno State, and then they market those sweet potatoes in the fall at different festivals from Livingston to Fresno. My heart’s always with the youth. If you know my background as a kid you’ll kind of understand why. As I’m talking to rural communities right now, and I’m in those rural communities daily, the one thing that comes out strongly in the rural communities is, ‘What can the sheriff’s department do with our youth? How can you engage them? How can you help us?’ Because there’s not too many opportunities out here. And so that’s kind of been one of my strengths, and that’s where I lead with my heart. And I told them, and this is one of my platforms, is I’m going to put a heartbeat back in the Sheriff’s Activities League and have a center where it’s in west county, it’s in east county, and probably one in the middle in Malaga/Calwa where we can impact youth, where we can make a difference. Because I grew up in Bakersfield, California. I lived with a single mom. She did the best she could, and then my grandparents took over in middle school and high school. It’s like going from Calwa to Bullard. I went to a middle school in a nice neighborhood. My grandfather ran local D20 in Bakersfield, so I had a structure. I didn’t have violence. I didn’t have the things that came to my neighborhood. I did well in school, but my grandparents knew something about me to keep me busy, and that’s what we’ve got to do with our youth is keep them busy. I worked in the fields – grapes, garlic, watermelon, oranges, and also worked at different restaurants there. I’ve been working since I’ve been in sixth grade, so that work ethic is in me. But again it’s about keeping the kids busy. So when we can work on prevention, that way we don’t have to do the biggest wire tap investigation in the county and state’s history, which we did four weeks ago. That was something that we did in the Fresno Police Department through MAGEC (Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium). We took down the most violent gang three and a half weeks ago. And we did that also seven years ago when we took down the Dogpound Gang on the biggest investigation. So naturally I love investigation and enforcement, but man if we’re going to break this cycle, we’ve really got to invest in the prevention. I bring that leadership. When people see you as sheriff, see you as a chief doing those things, they know it’s important. You’d be surprised at how many people come on board. What’s more important though is it’s just not me, not me as the deputy chief or not me as sheriff. How can I bring others up with me so they’re exposed to it, so there’s succession planning? I’m big about developing people, training, mentoring, coaching people. I’ve helped over 80 people in the Fresno Police Department promote from sergeant to lieutenant to captain to deputy chief. I want to bring that focus, that wellness to the sheriff’s department. How do we invest in our deputies, our professional staff, and bring them along with me. I’ll share a quick story. We had two years ago crime out of control. I’m in northeast Fresno where I purposely didn’t listen to Andy Hall, and I told him this respectfully, I go, ‘We can’t de-police. I need to keep on focusing on crime, even in northeast Fresno.’ Northeast was the only district that had crime reductions in 2020, and I was there for nine months. During that time he brought me in and said, ‘Mark, I need your help on the rest of the city because we’re having problems.’ So I came to lead a city-wide effort. But before I did that I met with 27 leaders at Westside Church of God, Pastor [Paul] Binion’s church, and I brought nine commanders with me, captains and lieutenants. And I told them, ‘I’m bringing you with me so you can learn, because one day you’re going to be doing this. One day you’re going to be leading the charge.’ And they did. They had good questions. They learned. We were there for three hours. It was the first time in the department’s history, and I’ve been here for 25 years, that we had input from them on how we did our tactical plan and thus how we impacted crime in their neighborhoods, and they told us loudly, ‘We want to be policed, but we don’t want to be over policed.’ That’s the same message I’m hearing in the rural communities on that issue. It goes back to getting input from the communities you police. How do they want to be policed. And having an input into the community safety plan, and that’s what I’m going to do as sheriff. I’m known for being out in the community, but I’m not going to force anyone to do that. I think the connection part is big. I live in northwest Fresno in the San Joaquin area, and it’s a beautiful community. I love my home, I love my neighborhood. Before that I lived off Van Ness Extension, Barstow and Van Ness, and then I lived in Old Fig, our first home. For the last 18 years I’ve lived in county islands. And I would ask a commander, I’m not going to name him that retired in the sheriff’s department, I go, ‘Why don’t I know any of the commanders out here?’ And he explained that that’s not their focus. They’re not known to be visible. In Fresno where we’re at, people know who their captains are. They know who their lieutenants are. So that’s something that I want to bring to the sheriff’s department. If you’re in San Joaquin or Malaga, you know who your captain or lieutenant are. If you’re out in the west county in San Joaquin or Mendota, you know who your captain and lieutenant are. To have that focus, because one thing I’ve talked to people, leaders in the rural communities and the county islands, outside of the current sheriff they can’t name you a person in the executive staff. In Fresno that’s not the case, because we push our people out front and center, and that’s what I want to do as sheriff.
DG: The Fresno County Jail has been a target of criticism, specifically with overcrowding. How do you plan to deal with the jail and improve its operations?
MS: I’m in charge of 139 detectives at the Fresno Police Department. I’m in charge of investigations, which includes MAGEC, homicide, robbery, vice, major narcotics, and we’re very proactive in what we do. In the past year, I want to say it was October 2020 to October 2021, we examined how many people did we book in the jail. And we booked 1,016 gang members, many of them for being armed gang members. Out of that 1,016, over 900 were released. The No. 1 reason why they were released was overcrowding. It wasn’t no bail, it was overcrowding. Out of that number, 433 recommitted other property and violent crime offenses. As sheriff, the first thing I’m going to do is say, ‘Yeah, Sacramento is part of the problem. Some of the laws are part of the problem, but you know what? You have a jail crisis, and that’s part of the problem too.’ I’m going to raise my hand and say that’s part of the problem and how do we fix it. There’s a couple of issues. One’s a capacity issue. For the past decade Sacramento’s been telling everyone that’s listening they’re getting out of the prison business. And right or wrong, that’s what they’re telling people. You could see how that’s playing out in the adult prisons. In the youth prisons, they’re going to be gone come next summer. They’re telling the counties, the local jurisdictions, ‘You’re going to be handling this issue.’ We’ve got to understand those trends and not fight it. When we build a jail, build a jail that has more beds. Build a jail that has another wing or two wings, and not build a jail that has the same amount of beds as the one that you have now. So it’s a capacity issue, it’s also a policy issue. I was told recently by my parole agent friends that some of the people that stay in the jail – because it’s kind of a running joke in law enforcement about people that we book in the jail that they’re released within minutes – that they’re staying a little bit longer. I don’t know if it’s campaign focused or not, but we need people in jail, especially the ones that are wreaking havoc in our community. It’s not all violent crimes either. It’s property crimes. When I was in charge of downtown Fresno, we had people that were breaking into cars – 40, 50, 60 cars. And the reason why we cut crime downtown in half during those years was because we started focusing on the people, we started putting cases together, and what happened, and I didn’t expect this, people went away to prison for two to three years in a day when no one goes to prison anymore for property crimes. But we put cases together, we sent them to the district attorney’s office, and that’s what happened. That can happen as well here. The same thing with property crimes, ag crimes, those people that are stealing in west county in the farms, they’re not from downtown Fresno. They’re very territorial. So it’s someone there that’s a habitual offender, and how do we focus on those habitual offenders and put cases, and there’s consequences for their actions. People are tired. This is one where I’m seeing for the first time people that are wealthy, people that are in the toughest parts of town, there’s a feeling of not feeling safe, and I haven’t seen that in my 25-year career where I’m hearing more and more, ‘I don’t feel safe.’ So law enforcement has a big job. What I want to do as sheriff, coming from Fresno PD, is how do we work together, the two biggest agencies, work together collaboratively to prevent crime and then focus on crime? When they get released from the jail and then take a right or left on M St. that they go out and break into buildings, break into cars, steal cars, that there’s some ownership. We should feel that pain of Fresno too. I think we could do some things never been done before from that perspective, from the sheriff’s department, from the police department, and all the law enforcement agencies and the smaller ones in the surrounding areas. I think with a fresh set of eyes, and that’s what I bring, I’m the outsider. Even though I’m here in Fresno, I’m the outsider in the issue and think how we look at the jail population. How do we move certain gang members and other gang members not to fight? We’ve seen instances of correctional officers being assaulted, nurses being assaulted, medical staff. And you have a group that feels in the jail, on top of the jail issues, the morale. I’ve been told by jail staff that morale’s at the lowest it’s ever been. I was recently endorsed by the Fresno County Correctional Officer Association, the sergeants, and they recently endorsed me a week ago. But there’s issues there. Essentially the Fresno County Jail has turned into a prison because of what’s happened in Sacramento. When you have a prison in downtown Fresno, and soon the juvenile justice campus over there on American, when those prisons shut down next summer, we’re going to have some significant issues in the city and county. So how do we work together? I love working collaboratively. These wire investigations that I told you about, it was not all us. We had to have the district attorney’s office, the United States Attorney’s Office, I was personally reaching out to the Department of Justice for that to happen, because it doesn’t happen by ourselves.
DG: State law – Senate Bill 54 – prohibits county cooperation with ICE in many cases. The ACLU leveled allegations that Fresno County violated SB 54 with its contacts with ICE. As our next Sheriff, what is your view on the handling of violent criminals with immigration concerns and will you maintain a cooperative posture with ICE?
MS: With ICE, I never really dealt with them with the police department. When we had operations, I knew the community, and the community didn’t trust ICE. In fact they didn’t trust us sometimes because they thought we were ICE. Or when ICE agents would go there they would think they were police officers. Knowing that, when we would do big operations we wouldn’t have ICE with us, because I knew how that terrorized different communities that we policed. But for me as sheriff, I’m not going to grandstand on the issue of immigration. If there’s ICE, Homeland Security that has a legal reason, they have warrants for certain people that are not here legally, then they’ve got to do what they have to do, take custody of them, transport them. There won’t be I would say a cozy relationship. There won’t be backdoor access, but if they’re there with a search warrant, with an arrest warrant, with subpoena powers, then we’re going to work with them. Because the bottom line is we’ve got to keep the community safe. But we also should not villainize the whole immigrant community as well, because I remember working in the fields. The people that were working next to me were Mexicans, and many of them were not here legally. And to this day I believe our ag community is worked by people that are not here legally, a good portion of them. But when you violate the law, there’s consequences, here legally or not. Those departments, Homeland Security, we do a lot of work with them, specifically the immigration section of it. When they have a reason to be at the jail, when they have a reason to take a prisoner or transport them, then we’re going to honor that. We’re going to follow the law during that process.
DG: Sheriff Mims has been a strong proponent of issuing concealed carry weapon permits. How will the permitting process be handled under your leadership?
MS: That’s the No. 1 question I get, even from my friends in north Fresno and Clovis. I believe in the CCW process. I believe in the Second Amendment. You have every right to carry a firearm. I’m not going to restrict that at all. In fact, I’ve lost track of the people I’ve sent to the sheriff’s department or the Fresno Police Department in getting a CCW. And the CCW is not what’s hurting our community, it’s these ghost guns. It’s these people that are into this lifestyle of gangs and human trafficking and guns that’s hurting our community. It’s not CCW members our there. They’re there protecting their homes if they need to, so I’m a big proponent of CCWs.
DG: Sheriff Mims was outspoken about the failings of California’s criminal Justice reforms — including Prop 47 and 57 – at the national level, including face-to-face meetings with the President. Do you see yourself undertaking a similar role if elected?
MS: The role I want to take is this: I want to take a role in Sacramento where I’m advocating for resources for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. I want to go in through doors and look at adding more deputies on the streets, adding more correctional officers in the jail so the jail, the nurse staff and the professional staff feel safe. I want to advocate for technology, a license plate reader, a real time crime center, Compstat process. So you’re going to see me advocate in Sacramento and other areas, and [Washington] D.C. as well, to advocate for more resources so this county can feel safe. That’s what I’m going to do. And then I’m going to leave it to the confidence of the talented sheriff’s staff to run the department while I’m advocating at times in Sacramento or in Washington D.C., because there’s opportunities out there. There’s a lot of money out there at the state level and at the federal level to do these things, so that’s what I would be doing.
DG: What achievements or accomplishments has the sheriff’s office had under Sheriff Mims that you would like to continue to build on as sheriff?
MS: I think she was right on with the CCW process. If you did a marketing class or a PR class, that was like bullet No. 1. It was the right thing to do. I think she really had a good feel. And I tell you what, in my neighborhood and neighborhoods around me, they love her. She was there and available. I would hear stories when people called her she would answer. And that’s what kind of sheriff I’m going to be. I’ve worked in this busy city, and my phone is always going off. People could connect with me. But more importantly though I want to help people and other staff members be a sergeant or a lieutenant. The lieutenants that we have in the sheriff’s department, many of them want to be captains. The captains want to be assistant sheriffs. I think she really did a good job with the CCWs, and I’ll continue as sheriff.
DG: Conversely, when you look at the sheriff’s office today, what changes would you like to bring to the table?
MS: First you have to get to know people. So it would be arrogant of me to come in and say, ‘These are all the changes that are going to happen. Now do I have a vision? I do. I’ve met with different groups already, and I answer their questions. I’ll never shy away from any interview no matter if they’re pro or negative for me. I want to go in there and learn people’s first names. I want to learn where they’re at, what they want to do. And that’s going to take some time. But it won’t take a lot of time. I have an incredible work ethic. I trust my instincts, and I want to first do. And then what I want to do is bring the leaders together of the sheriff’s department, do a one or two day retreat after we get to know each other, and then I want their input on how the sheriff’s department looks for the next decade. And that’s what we do heavily in our police department, is that we ask our lieutenants, we ask our captains, we ask our sergeants, how should we look like in the next one year, two years, three years. And then I’m going to have a 60-day plan, a 90-day plan, a six month plan, a one year plan on the different focuses that I’ll have. But it’s going to be meeting a lot of new people. I’m doing that now, but there’s more. And then just respecting the culture that’s there now. Once we get to that point of we know each other’s first name, once we get to the point where we know each other as an agency, we’re moving along together, and we huddle up and focus on strategic planning in the short term, mid term and long term, that’s where I think we’re going to accomplish a lot of great things. I see these staff officers – lieutenants and above – how do we get them to programs I’ve been to at Boston University – a three week program under the Police Executive Research Forum – or my time in the Police Executive Leadership Institute of Major City Chiefs where I graduated last month in D.C.? How do we get them to leadership Fresno, which I participated in, so that they can experience those things as well and develop their succession planning? Because when you focus on people like that, when you care about that, it resonates. They work harder for you. They’ll get results. It creates a culture where people want to be there. That’s the culture I want to develop there in the sheriff’s department.
DG: We’ve seen the sheriff’s office collaborate with other law enforcement agencies such as the FBI in operations to fight drugs and gangs. How would your leadership impact any potential collaboration with other law enforcement agencies?
MS: When I speak I speak of a track record. When we had the biggest gang initiative seven years ago with the Dogpound Gang, it started with one detective, and we put other detectives around that detective. We went to the FBI. We personally went to CalDOJ, and they signed off on it. And then we got the attorneys involved, the district attorney’s office, the United State’s Attorney’s Office, and then we put a plan together and we took down a gang that at that time they had so much cash they were looking to buy a McDonald’s franchise, human tracking at levels that at that time we hadn’t seen before. We need those partnerships to work. We can’t do it no more, especially when you work with our federal partners, they stay in jail. Those charges are not charges that they leave. I’m a big advocate of having those federal partnerships and the state partnerships as well. And we just finished the biggest investigation with the Operation No Fly Zone, again focusing on collaborating. We just did an operation with the FBI, and it was in regards to human tracking. And I won’t go into details, but it was something of a first that we’ve done with them on this issue. We have to. They’re willing partners too. They’re trusting local law enforcement to guide them, and for them to assist them with their resources that they have, and I see that just flourishing under my leadership as sheriff because I’ve done it for many years as a deputy chief.
DG: Outside of the topics we’ve already discussed, what other top priorities do you have as sheriff?
MS: One that I’ve been on the record as saying, because Fresno County – it’s a big county, it’s a big sheriff’s department. And most big departments, whether it be police or sheriffs, have body-worn cameras for their deputies. So I propose that we have body-worn cameras, because it serves many purposes, and one of the purposes is the frivolous lawsuits, complaints that come in. We’ve learned in the Fresno Police Department – I think we’ve had them now for eight years – it’s nothing new, no emerging technology. Pretty much everyone big has it. Even the smaller agencies have them. How do we protect the county from liability? How do we protect the department, how do we protect the individual officers? And also when the camera’s on and a deputy’s having a bad day, just like an officer sometimes has a bad day, you may record that and it gets corrected. So there’s many pros to that, having a body-worn camera. That’s one thing that I’ve talked about on the record as well.
DG: Is there anything else you would like to say?
MS: I’ve talked about safety, and really it’s a big thing for me. So I have a saying that drove my policing mission in the police department, and I’ll tell you what’s going to be my policing mission as a sheriff. I used to say the kid in the 400 block of West Strother should feel as safe as a kid at Champlain and Perrin. I’ve been a commander in northeast Fresno at Champlain and Perrin, so I know that neighborhood very well, the business community and the residents. It’s an incredible community. But the concept is we have to keep people safe. And there’s rural communities whether you’re in Malaga, Calwa, Mendota, Huron, Sanger and Selma. So how do we support our allies out there or law enforcement agencies that are smaller? And how do we keep people safer, whether it be property crime, ag crime or it be violent crime, and how do we do that? One thing about me is I’m always thinking about safety. I’m always thinking about crime. I’m going to be a sheriff that serves and is not here to be served. That’s going to be my philosophy as sheriff.