Politics

Fresno Co. Sheriff hopeful Zanoni leans Mims backing, internal knowledge to mold department

Two candidates are vying to replace Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims after she announced her upcoming retirement earlier this year: Assistant Sheriff John Zanoni and Fresno Deputy Police Chief Mark Salazar. 

The two will face off in the June 7 primary. 

The Sun spoke with Zanoni 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? 

John Zanoni: I’ve had a 26-year career with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Started out as a reserve deputy sheriff, worked my way up through the ranks. Currently serving as the assistant sheriff for the field services division and have been in that capacity for the last four years. The sheriff’s office, we have over 418 deputy sheriffs, 575 correctional officers and a total staff of 1,257 employees, and we are the largest law enforcement agency in Fresno County. During my time at the sheriff’s office, I’ve been involved in leading bureaus and divisions from civil to training to administration, human resources, internal affairs, along with being in charge of detectives, patrol, overseeing the sheriff’s air support unit and the entire sheriff’s fleet unit. So my qualifications are is that I have not only been focused on crime and reducing it in Fresno County, but also all aspects of the sheriff’s office and the operations of the office. We have a strategy here. We meet weekly – the sheriff, the undersheriff, myself, the captains. We discuss crime. We discuss crime trends, crime prevention, how to clear cases. And with my experience at the sheriff’s office, as sheriff I’ll know and understand the needs of those residents in Fresno County, and I do have a plan to improve service and reduce crime. One thing we do is we meet. Members of our executive staff, our sergeants in various detective units, we meet at things like coffee talk and the ag roundtable meetings, and during these meetings we meet with community members and stakeholders. We discuss crime, crime prevention, and innovative strategies to reduce crime and apprehend those who are committing it. For me, as sheriff, crime reduction, crime prevention and public safety are our top priorities at the sheriff’s office, but what I want people to understand is that’s not our only priorities. In addition to being the sheriff’s office, we also handle coroner and public administrator duties. We are a full service law enforcement agency, and we have 17 specialty units, and I command many of those specialty units in my current assignment. As far as the coroner’s office, we’re responsible for recording all deaths that occur in Fresno County with our staff of forensic pathologists, deputy coroners and autopsy techs and other support staff. So other reasons is we work with many faith-based organizations here at the sheriff’s office. We have our sheriff’s chaplains. We recruit them from all religious denominations throughout Fresno County. Our chaplains, they serve individuals in our communities, in our correctional systems, and they’re active in the community. They work with inmates. They work with youth. They go on ride alongs, and they help support staff with spiritual wellness. One thing as the assistant sheriff over the last four years, for three of those years we’ve had a reduction in homicides from 2019 when we had 15 in Fresno County to 2020 when we had 13, 2021 we also had 13 homicides. So we had about a 13 percent decrease compared to 2019. And on top of that I’ve helped create a feeling of safety here in Fresno County. I think our residents feel safe to recreate, to play, to go to work and live their lives. Conversely, we’ve done better – during that same period of time the City of Fresno, in 2019 they had 46 homicides. Their homicide totals actually increased by 60 percent by 74 in 2020 and then slightly down to 71 in 2021. So I feel commanding detectives and patrol, I’ve done a really good job here helping to maintain and slightly reduce homicide rates when in fact in other jurisdictions they’ve gone up. And what we have to remember is Fresno County is 6,000 square miles and that as the assistant sheriff and as the sheriff, I’m not just responsible for individuals that live in a certain area or in a certain portion of a policing district. I’m responsible for public safety within Fresno County, which is 6,000 square miles and over one million residents. As far as what I’ve done for our rural communities, we have community service officers and deputy sheriff’s that work with our youth. We’ve got them out there, we’re conducting community outreach at schools throughout a lot of our communities. The Sheriff’s Foundation for Public Safety, we’ve partnered with them. We do the Reading Posse. We give bicycles and toys to disadvantaged youth, and we help coordinate the Sheriff’s Activities League. And typically we have Sheriff’s Activities League in locations such as Calwa, Malaga, San Joaquin and Tranquility and Raisin City. I’m in full support of these programs, and we must do the best for the youth throughout our community. Look, I’m born and raised in Fresno here. My mom was a school teacher in Fresno Unified for over 30 years. My dad worked at a bank and then went into the insurance business. My parents and my family have always been very active in the Catholic Church, numerous service organizations. And my parents really did teach me the value of hard work and service at a very young age. As far as what we do here with technology at the sheriff’s office, as sheriff I’ll make sure that we continue to use technology to take down some of the most violent gang members in Fresno County. Over the last three to four years it started when we targeted MS-13 on the west side of Fresno County due to a significant increase in homicides in and around the City of Mendota. We utilized technology, our federal, local and state partners, we eradicated this gang. It was a highly successful operations. And we helped restore feelings of safety to the community, and they felt safe and that’s what I will bring to the table as sheriff. I will make sure that people throughout Fresno County feel safe, that we fight crime and that we target criminals. I’m the best candidate. I’m the most qualified to become the next sheriff of Fresno County. As I said previously, the last four years I’ve been the assistant sheriff. I’ve not just been in charge of the detective bureau, but also the patrol bureau, human resources for all 1,257 sheriff’s employees. I handle risk management, our communications center, civil records, training, air support, along with sheriff’s fleet. I’ve been endorsed by Sheriff Margaret Mims, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, all five members of the Board of Supervisors and various law enforcement associations throughout Fresno County and sheriffs from the surrounding counties such as Sheriff [Tyson] Pogue in Madera County, Sheriff [Mike] Boudreaux in Tulare and Sheriff [David] Robinson in Kings County. The reason I’ve received this overwhelming support is that they know me, they know my experience, they know my abilities and my proven track record with 26 years of service to the residents of Fresno County and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.

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? 

JZ: So as the assistant sheriff of the field services division, I oversee patrol and detectives. So jail overcrowding and early releases are always something that we discuss. It’s always something that’s on our radar. When we book individuals into the jail, we want them to stay in custody and not be released to improve our community safety, but unfortunately that’s not always the reality. We must for one focus on prevention and intervention in our communities, which most law enforcement agencies do, but we have to do that because we can only add so many jail beds. And our population here has increased over the past 10 years, and really there’s just not enough jail beds available right now to prevent releases with our population being over one million people. So what I want folks to remember is the jail just doesn’t release people. The releases are mandated and required by court orders, case law, legislative decisions and policies that all control jail housing and the total number of inmates we can keep in jail. So as sheriff, I’m going to continue to evaluate what we call our jail classification system. And that’s a system that our jail classification unit utilizes to classify inmates and make sure they go into the appropriate housing unit, appropriate cell within the jail. One of the big issues you have is you can’t house certain groups and classifications of people together, even if there are empty beds. If we did that and something happens, such as a death or an assault, we would be considered deliberately indifferent and that would open up the sheriff and the County of Fresno to serious liability and lawsuits that the taxpayers would have to be paying for, and that’s not acceptable and that’s not what we want. So what we’re going to look at as far as changes to the jail, one thing we need to do is we need to add more jail beds, and I would accomplish that by adding two additional floors to the West Annex Jail, which will be opening later this year which would increase our capacity by about 350 beds. The other issue that we have to look at is the impacts of COVID-19. COVID-19’s had a significant impact on our jail classification. It reduces the amount of available jail beds, and it puts additional constraints on the number of inmates that can be housed should we have to split people up based on their COVID classification or their COVID status instead of just their classification, criminal or gang status. Then you look at things like zero bail and then the fact that any given day up until the last two months, we were housing about 400 inmates in our jail that were sentenced and were supposed to be out at California Department of Corrections prisons, but due to COVID and other issues they were not accepting them. So we had to keep them here. To give you an idea, our average number of those inmates in our jail typically prior to COVID and now that we’ve come out of COVID is between 30-40. So with 400 you’ve got an additional 350 inmates that you shouldn’t have to house that you normally don’t house. So we have to make room for them, which is causing us to push out other inmates who are not already sentenced and pending transfer to CDCR, and then you look at the fact that the court process slowed down, court staffing was reduced, and you combine all of this and it created sort of a perfect storm for overcrowding and early releases. Now that we’ve come out of COVID and we’re getting those inmates out to CDCR, and the courts have picked up the number of cases that they’re taking and they’re resuming what we would call almost normal operations, we’re seeing the number of early releases due to overcrowding somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 a week. So if we keep on this track and we keep looking at ways to get funding to add a few additional jail beds, I think that’s our path to reducing releases and making our community safer.

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?

JZ: In my 26 years here I have never dealt directly with ICE, but when you run a jail or a correctional facility as our assistant sheriff does over there and the sheriff and the undersheriff, you will have to deal with them during the course of your duties. And what you have to look at is – you look at SB 54 and how it prohibits cooperation with ICE in many cases, but you also look at the crimes and the cases where it does allow cooperation between law enforcement and ICE. And what I want people to understand is that when cooperation is allowed with ICE, we’re talking about serious violent felonies, things like murder, robbery, felony assaults, crimes against children, violent gang members. Those are the individuals that I don’t care who you talk to, they don’t want them out on the streets. They want them locked up. They want them away because they don’t want them to hurt anyone. So I firmly believe that those individuals should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and if ICE can lawfully and properly take custody of them for a legal reason, then I’ll follow the law and ensure that that happens. To give you an example, we had the MS-13 gang investigation out on the west side of Fresno County in and around Mendota. Our officers, individuals who worked this operation, they came into contact with victims, witnesses and other people who were probably here illegally, but during that investigation those individuals were never questioned by law enforcement about their immigration statuses. That’s what I want people to know. Once we arrested the MS-13 gang members and we processed them for crimes like murder and other serious violent felonies, then their immigration status was checked. And that’s just part of what we do. And I fully understand that this country, the United States, was built by immigrants from other countries, and most of us are here today because someone from our family came to this country for a better life and opportunity. I’m in support of those people who want to come here, who want to work hard, follow the law and create a better life for themselves and their families. I will cooperate with ICE, but I will not give them any special privileges. They will follow laws, protocols and procedures just like other federal, state and local agencies we work with. And I will continue to ensure that as sheriff that we keep our community safe and we follow the law when it comes to dealing with ICE. 

DG: Sheriff Mims has been a strong proponent of issuing concealed carry weapon permits. How will the permitting process be handled under your leadership? 

JZ: This is a question that comes up all the time when I talk to people throughout Fresno County. I’m a strong proponent of issuing CCW permits, just like Sheriff Mims does. I have an active role in that process of issuing CCW permits at the sheriff’s office for the last 10 years. I’ve worked on improving that process during that time. I’ve made it more efficient and user friendly. I’ve brought on this computer system that we use now for people to enter their application information and upload their materials, and it’s called Permitium. So that’s really helped streamline the process and keep the costs down. I believe in the Second Amendment, and I believe in issuing CCW permits as sheriff of Fresno County, and there will be no change in the current process and manner in which they’re issued. Currently we have about 15,000 active CCW permits out, and we will just continue to issue those in exactly the same manner as we do now, so no worries. 

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? 

JZ: Yes I do, and even in my current position I do my best to advocate for these things. And I will continue to be outspoken just as she has for criminal justice reform. But I also want to make sure that I’m an advocate for the residents that live here in Fresno County, for the men and women of the sheriff’s office and all law enforcement officers. If it takes those face to face meetings, whether it’s the President of the United States, the governor, elected officials in Congress or those in the State Assembly, I’ll meet them, and I will advocate for increased public safety and more resources here in Fresno County. Right now we need to add more deputy sheriffs. Our numbers are lower than they should be, and we need to bring them up. The kind of standard is two sworn deputies per 1,000 residents, well we’re actually at about 0.9, a little below one per 1,000 right now. So we need to improve that number. We did add 130 correctional officers back around 2015, so those positions are on the books, and we’re going to keep pushing hard and focusing on filling those positions with good qualified candidates. And even now in my current position I take the opportunity to talk to elected officials whether they’re federal, state or local. I’m always advocating for public safety, advocating for changes in the law to things like Prop 47 and 57 so we can kind of get the train back on the tracks. It’s very important, and as sheriff I will make sure that we apply for grants and we look for money outside of Fresno County to use to increase public safety and provide better public safety services. 

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? 

JZ: She’s had several achievements as sheriff. One of her achievements is getting out there and advocating for public safety in Fresno County and bringing attention to major issues that we face daily here in Fresno County and the State of California. She’s done a great job with that. I think we’ve seen her on various national news outlets and things of that nature. No. 2, issuing CCW permits and ensuring good law abiding people have the opportunity to legally carry a gun to protect themselves and their families. That is one of the cornerstones of her administration. As I said a minute ago, that will continue as sheriff for me. And lastly, I’d say one of her achievements or accomplishments is that she relates and connects well to people. She’s down to earth. She’s very approachable. People like this about her. And as a member of her staff we always get compliments on that, about how approachable she is, how easy she is to talk to. I’m very much the same way. I’m very down to Earth. I’m approachable, and I’m someone that you can just have a conversation with. I believe this is one of the reasons that Sheriff Mims endorsed me to be the next sheriff, because she knows me and she knows my qualities.

DG: Conversely, when you look at the sheriff’s office today, what changes would you like to bring to the table? 

JZ: I’ve worked here for 26 years, the last four years as the assistant sheriff, so I’ve had the opportunity and ability to look at the organization and understand how it operates and really how all of the moving parts here work together. So with that understanding and that knowledge how these changes will take place and the implementation process for making these changes here in the county because it’s different in every government organization, there’s going to be some changes. And even though I’m endorsed by Sheriff Mims, I have some really good ideas to make these changes, to add staff, to improve safety and service, bringing in new technology to fight crime. And one of my big things is I want to improve the work environment for patrol and jail staff and really for the entire sheriff’s office. If I’m elected, because of this experience and working here for the last 26 years, I’ll be able to begin to make these changes almost immediately and will hit the ground running. I know the people here. I know how things work, and so that’s the advantage I have. And that’s how I’m going to implement my change. Another thing that I’ll be different from Sheriff Mims is I’m going to be more engaged in the day-to-day operations here at the sheriff’s office, and I’m also going to be a stronger advocate for all sheriff’s office employees, both civilian and sworn because I feel that we need to show value for all our employees and they need to feel appreciated. And I think that when you advocate for them, they work harder and they’re just going to do a better job and provide better service.

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? 

JZ: We’ve had three major gang operations where we worked with the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice, CalDOJ, our local partners within MAGEC to CHP, the Fresno Police Department, and the Fresno County DA’s Office along with various other allied law enforcement agencies. There will be only an increase in the collaboration and partnership that we have with FBI and federal agencies, because this is what I’m used to. This is what we’ve been doing for the last four or five years, the last four years as I’ve been the assistant sheriff. Like I said, the MS-13 case, which we title Blue Inferno, then we targeted some White prison gangs and criminal street gangs, which we labeled Lucky Charm, highly successful operation. And then the last operation we did involved a Bulldog gang out of the Calwa/Malaga area, and we targeted them and we’ve had great success. And when we work with our federal, state and local partners, you just can’t imagine how much effort you get from these individuals, the resources that they bring to the table. And when you prosecute people federally, they do more time, there’s RICO statutes, there’s organized crime, racketeering statutes and all these other crimes that we’re able to charge people with, and it keeps them in jail for a long period of time than just the state charges, and that keeps our community safe, and safe for a longer period of time. And so these partnerships will remain strong. As sheriff we’ll continue to build them, and we’ll even work more closely with them here in Fresno County and even have bigger cases and better success as we move forward under my direction as sheriff.

DG: Outside of the topics we’ve already discussed, what other top priorities do you have as sheriff? 

JZ: One priority that I have as sheriff is to get workout facilities in our buildings, in our county locations for our employees, whether it’s correctional staff or whether it’s sworn deputy sheriffs. Currently I’ve been in charge of the new Area 2 substation project, which is just finishing up, and we will have a workout facility in this new substation for employees to use, which is important. We’ve also built workout facilities with equipment and other items over at our narcotics unit and down at our Selma substation. As sheriff, my goal is to have workout facilities and equipment available for all sheriff’s office employees to use. I believe it is imperative that deputy sheriffs and correctional officers are in shape, that they’re able to do their job safely and effectively, and also to avoid injury and for their own personal health. I’m not only talking about giving staff the tools to get in better physical shape, but I also practice it myself ensuring that I can physically perform law enforcement duties when needed. We’ve got to change the image of law enforcement. We need to maintain our physical health and give the public confidence that we can do our jobs and keep them safe. One other priority that I have as sheriff is that I like feedback from the community, and as sheriff I would create a sheriff’s advisory committee. I understand the sheriff’s an elected official and you’re elected by the people of Fresno County, but the term is four years. The people speak every four years when they vote, but I would like to get more up to date recent feedback. So I want to get individuals from various communities, businesses and cities throughout Fresno County to be part of an advisory group to meet quarterly with me and the executive staff. I want them to provide their views, their opinions and ideas about the sheriff’s office. I feel this is important because it will help us get buy-in from the community and also gives us valuable feedback that we can use to not only enhance safety but to improve service and build trust in all these communities that we serve. Fresno County has over one million people, and this will allow me to gage how we’re doing as an agency out there in the community, make sure individuals when we select them that they know their role, and that they realize that they’ve been selected to represent the community. I’ve talked to individuals about this, and most believe it is a good idea and that it will have a positive impact with good results for the sheriff’s office and the community.

DG: Is there anything else you would like to say? 

JZ: Currently as an assistant sheriff and in the future as sheriff my philosophy has been and always will continue to be safety, service and trust. I’ve always focused on attacking crime by targeting its root causes, holding people accountable for their actions and working on prevention to assure safety for every resident of Fresno County. As sheriff I can’t just focus on safety of individuals in one certain part of a city or community. I have to focus on safety for everyone across all 6,000 square miles which includes over 40 communities and 15 incorporated cities. My goal is I want youth across our county to feel safe and be able to go to school and play outside regardless of where they live in Fresno County. One other thing that is very important to me and is one of my law enforcement philosophies is service. As sheriff I’m dedicated to making sure that we provide dependable, professional and efficient public safety services to all residents here in Fresno County. And I will ensure that this services is always at the highest standard so we can help foster safety in our communities. And then I’d like to build trust. It’s very important that we build trust and strive to keep that trust with everyone in Fresno County. This is key to building relationships, working with individuals to ensure that they communicate with us, and I’ve been building this trust in communities and cities throughout Fresno County for my 26 years working here, and I will continue to do that as sheriff. As I said earlier, I have a lot of endorsements – endorsed by Sheriff Mims, DA Smittcamp, most every major law enforcement organization throughout Fresno County, along with sheriffs from the surrounding counties. I truly I believe I’m law enforcement’s choice to be the next sheriff of Fresno County. I’ve worked here for 26 years. These people know me. They know that I’ll stand with them and support them in ensuring that we keep our communities safe. Thank you.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.