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San Luis Obispo sheriff candidates say mental health #1 issue facing county

Greta Mart/KCBX
The forum drew a capacity crowds and supporters of both candidates.

It was standing room only at Wednesday night’s candidate forum for the public office of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff. 

Every seat in board chambers at the San Luis Obispo County government building was filled, with the overflow crowd watching the two candidate square off on screens in the building’s hallways and atrium.  Incumbent sheriff Ian Parkinson and challenger Greg Clayton started with opening statements, then took turns answering two hours’ worth of questions posed by the public and a panel.

“When I got elected...there are a number of things you say during your campaign that you want to accomplish, and for me I had a laundry list of probably 10 to 12 things that I felt were really important, that I dealt with. So as soon as I entered office, I took immediate action,” Parkinson said in his opening statement. “And during that first year we accomplished nearly every single one of those campaign promises and goals.”

“I've never run for political office before. I'm 60 years old. I decided if there is one time in your life you have to stand up, I was going to stand up now and carry this narrative through to election day,” Clayton said in his opening statement. “I decided to enter this election after watching a torture video of the death of Andrew Holland in our county jail. I researched the use of restraint chairs in custody facilities and found dozens of inmate deaths nationwide in the past 18 years.”

The forum was organized by the Latino Outreach Council of San Luis Obispo County and the League of Women Voters. Key topics touched on included mentally ill inmates in the jail, human trafficking, and gang activity in surrounding areas.

Questions probed into the backgrounds and experience of the two men, and many touched on aspects of the death of Andrew Holland, the mentally ill man who died at the county jail in 2017 in what Clayton labeled an act of torture. Parkinson acknowledge it was a tragedy but he had changed policy since Holland’s death. Clayton referenced the Holland case in his opening and closing statements, and made it a focal point of discussion.

There were a few moments of levity, but mostly it was a serious and sober discussion about the many issues facing the sheriff’s office and law enforcement in general, with each candidate detailing how he would effect change.

“What do you think are the most significant challenges facing force and slow county and cities nationally?” a panelist asked the candidates.

“I say number one - mental illness,” Parkinson said. “Right now, in county jails in California, we've got almost a thousand people that have been sent or ordered to state hospitals that cannot go. That’s almost a full that’s still pending. We have them sitting in our jails for months on end, and it's a huge, huge challenge.”

“I agree with Sheriff Parkinson, the number one problem in this county and our nation is mental health,” Clayton said. “When I started in law enforcement in 1978, we had 11 beds at the unit up on Johnson Avenue - that has expanded to 16 and recently added four more. We need 50 psychiatric beds for every 100,000 folks that are in our community. We have less than 4,000 psychiatric beds in the state of California with a population of 39 million. We need public policy to support funding for psychiatric beds and for mental health.”

San Luis Obispo County voters will decide on June 5 if it’s Parkinson or Clayton who will lead the Sheriff’s Office over the next four years.

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