John Hemmerling and Kelly Martinez
John Hemmerling and Kelly Martinez. Campaign photos

San Diego County will get a new sheriff for the first time since the retirement of longtime department head Bill Gore, with two candidates facing off in Tuesday’s election.

Undersheriff Kelly Martinez and former city prosecutor John Hemmerling are vying to head the department and due to recent legislation, the new sheriff will serve for six years, rather than the typical four-year term.

Martinez is looking to become the department’s first female sheriff following her appointment last year as the department’s first female second-in- command.

Martinez, who has served within the sheriff’s department since 1985, has Gore’s endorsement, as well as the backing of County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, among others.

Hemmerling was most recently a prosecutor at the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, but resigned following comments critical of the transgender community. Hemmerling previously served as a San Diego police officer and U.S. Marine. The California Republican Party, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and County Supervisor Joel Anderson are among his endorsements.

The election comes at a time when the sheriff’s department faces continued scrutiny over inmate deaths at its jail facilities. A state Auditor’s Office report indicated the death rate at San Diego County jails was far higher than other large California counties and that the situation “raises concerns about underlying systemic issues with the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and practices.”

Martinez says she will invest in hiring additional medical staff and mental health professionals for the county’s jails, as well as the implementation of a body-worn camera footage program. In a statement on her campaign site, she said, “For too long the jails have not been prioritized with appropriate health care and much needed renovations that will make them safer for incarcerated individuals and staff.”

Hemmerling says that if elected, he will focus on behavioral health services for those incarcerated in county jails and diversion opportunities to keep others out of custody and the criminal justice system altogether.

Both vowed to focus on transparency, with Martinez saying that during her time as undersheriff, the department has endeavored to report in-custody deaths and release body-worn camera footage in a timely manner.

Hemmerling said he is “committed to staying engaged with the community” and that public trust will follow when the department shows that it can maintain transparency and responsiveness to the community during investigations and critical incidents.


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Ellen Bullock