County’s New Sheriff Reflects Traditional Values
Imagine the county sheriff for the next century, and you don’t see the tough-talking lawman in blue.
In an era when computers are as powerful as pistols and neighborhood volunteers help catch crooks, your sheriff is someone like Bob Brooks.
Brooks, who blends traditional law-and-order conservatism with what he describes as a modern sense of compassion, was elected Ventura County sheriff this month in an uncontested race. He replaces retiring Sheriff Larry Carpenter on June 27.
A 25-year department veteran who has spearheaded community policing efforts, the mild-mannered Brooks brings a human touch to law enforcement, colleagues say.
“The swaggering type, he doesn’t fit that mold,” says Thousand Oaks Police Cmdr. Kathy Kemp, who has known Brooks for nearly 20 years. “Is he the ‘90s sheriff? Yes, I think he is. And the ‘90s sheriff is one who needs to deal with all these community issues.”
Brooks, a deeply religious man and longtime Thousand Oaks resident, says Ventura County residents want a close relationship with police.
“The era when the most successful cop is the toughest guy on the street has passed,” he said. “We’re really looking for someone who can do more than go out there and be a bruiser. We want someone who can make an arrest, but also go into schools and talk to kids.”
Toward that end, Brooks announced plans last week to let county residents voice their opinions on the department. The new sheriff wants to conduct a written survey of crime victims to learn if patrol deputies are courteous, respond quickly and follow up on calls. The feedback will help Brooks reorganize county patrol units, which he calls the heart of the department.
Carpenter, who tapped Brooks to replace him, said his successor is sure to face tough public scrutiny.
“I don’t think Bob’s skin is real thick, but no new sheriff’s is,” Carpenter said. “But Bob has an inner toughness. We won’t miss a beat.”
Brooks, who turns 48 on Monday, joined the department in 1973, a career decision prompted by the prospect of long-term stability.
He had married his high school sweetheart and was looking for job security. He also wanted a college education, and federal police education programs would allow him to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at minimal cost.
The drive he showed in earning degrees at night impressed his bosses. After working as a Newbury Park patrol deputy, Brooks quickly moved up the management ladder. For the past five years he has headed the sheriff’s patrol units in eastern Ventura County, a job placing him in charge of more than 200 officers. In the meantime, he taught classes at the department’s training academy and currently teaches police courses at Cal State Northridge.
Along the way, Brooks has seen major changes in law enforcement. For instance, he said, the macho approach to dealing with job-related stress has faded.
Brooks says he knows how stressful being a beat cop can be. In his last month as a patrol deputy, three men had pulled guns on him.
He also watched as two deputies struggled to deal with the psychological fallout from a Newbury Park slaying two decades ago. A man who had been bludgeoned with a rifle staggered about his house bleeding for days before being found. The man later died, and two deputies who worked the case eventually left the department because of the emotional devastation.
Brooks helped craft the policy allowing officers involved in such cases to go on leave and seek counseling.
“There was a culture where you didn’t talk about it. If you saw something traumatic, you just sucked it up and lived with it,” he said. “Those kinds of things happen in the life of an officer, but we’re much more open about it now.”
Squeaky-Clean Reputation Cited
Colleagues say Brooks’ humility has keyed his success. Although promotions always seemed to come his way, he didn’t come across as overly ambitious.
On the other hand, his squeaky-clean reputation--both colleagues and his wife say they have never heard him use a curse word--is something Carpenter had in mind when he tapped Brooks to run for the office two years ago.
Carpenter wanted the sheriff candidate to run uncontested. He viewed a competitive race as potentially divisive and harmful to public confidence in law enforcement. He saw Brooks’ record as important, because it would be difficult for an opponent to attack his character.
“You look at things about relationships, potential conflicts, baggage,” Carpenter said. “Those things didn’t exist with Bob. He surfaced as the person.”
After Brooks announced his candidacy, no one stepped forward to challenge him.
Both Carpenter and his successor say they hold similar viewpoints, driven by ideals of family, community and stability. Yet some department officials say the two men’s leadership styles differ greatly.
Bruce McDowell, commander of the sheriff’s major crimes division, says Carpenter’s hard-charging, aggressive approach was well suited for the county’s battles over law enforcement budgets in the early 1990s. What strikes him about Brooks is his seemingly bottomless reservoir of patience.
“There have been union attorneys in there, yelling, screaming, pounding on his desk,” McDowell said. “He’s there nodding his head. He doesn’t lose his cool.”
Adds Sgt. Dave Williams, a former police union president: “I think Carpenter tries to sell himself as the good old boy from Fillmore. Bob brings in . . . it’s not a sophistication, but a looking long into the future.
“I think he’s going to have to develop a go-for-the-throat mentality, because that’s how politics is played. You’re getting a real personality change.”
A Childhood in Thousand Oaks
Brooks, one of three children, says his personality was shaped during childhood in Thousand Oaks, where he still lives.
He was born in Montreal, but his family moved to California when he was 3, settling first in the San Fernando Valley. They moved to Thousand Oaks in 1961.
Brooks’ father built a thriving real estate brokerage, accumulating numerous properties in the San Fernando Valley. He grew wealthy from renting and selling properties.
All this was accomplished while the French-speaking family learned English. That kind of work ethic rubbed off on Brooks, who worked at McDonald’s and the Westlake Inn while attending Thousand Oaks High School.
Brooks describes life in Thousand Oaks back then as small and rural, “almost Midwestern.” A member of the wrestling and swimming teams at Thousand Oaks High, he stood out neither academically nor athletically. His favorite pastime was surfing at the Rincon. He still body boards there occasionally with the youngest of his two sons, Brian, who graduated from Thousand Oaks High last week.
A big change occurred when Brooks was in his early teens. His father decided to shed his real estate business and become an evangelical minister. The family’s income dropped significantly after his father left the business world, and the family moved from a spacious home near a country club to a modest house in Newbury Park that had been vacant for three years.
“He had a transformation. I remember him coming home one night, clearing out all the cupboards and pouring all the alcohol down the drain,” Brooks said.
“The only way I can explain it, is that Jesus became very real to me, so real I could never be the same again,” said Brooks’ father, Ray Brooks, who still speaks with a thick French Canadian accent. Based at a church in Van Nuys, Ray Brooks travels the world, preaching to recovering drug addicts and others down on their luck.
Some teenagers may have rebelled in such a situation, but Bob Brooks says he drew inspiration from his father’s new direction.
“It was a God-fearing house, and that’s where my moral foundation comes from,” he said. He met his wife, Debbie, in Bible class.
The couple attend Sonrise Christian Fellowship in Simi Valley, an evangelical Protestant church whose congregation has grown to 4,000 members in recent years. Mixing scripture, self-help and pop culture, services feature religious melodramas aired on large video screens and pop bands playing catchy religious tunes. Debbie Brooks runs the church’s children’s programs. She says her husband’s religious commitment is what attracted her to him.
“You have to understand, this is a man I’ve been in love with for 30 years, so I’m a bit prejudiced,” she said. “But I tell other young men who are just becoming fathers, to watch Bob.”
Bob Brooks at times grows outspoken on his beliefs. At a recent National Prayer Day rally held by Operation Rescue, a nationwide antiabortion group, Brooks decried the “killing of our unborn children, primarily for our convenience and prosperity.”
“I wasn’t taking a legislative position,” Brooks said later. “I’m just saying as a society, we don’t value life as we should. It’s consistent with law enforcement, in that value for life is an important component of this job.”
Sights Set on a Pair of 4-Year Terms
Despite his traditional beliefs, the new sheriff holds a complex view of what makes communities safe.
He is quick to say Ventura County’s affluence and relatively stable demographics contribute greatly to its continued ranking as one of the country’s safest places to live.
He hopes to serve a minimum of two four-year terms, during which he will run a 1,200-employee department with an annual budget of about $122 million. The sheriff oversees five cities--Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Moorpark, Ojai and Fillmore--as well as unincorporated county areas. He is the 18th sheriff in the department’s 125-year history.
Although local crime rates are dropping, he says there are things the department can do better.
For instance, he plans a top-to-bottom review of the sheriff’s hiring and promotion policies. He was concerned last year by the firings of three Fillmore deputies accused of having sex with women while on duty. While such scandals can hit any department with 1,200 employees, Brooks said, stricter personnel oversight can help avoid such problems.
The personnel review should also help in the wake of problems at the sheriff’s crime lab, which had its license yanked last year after failing a state proficiency test. The crisis, which resulted in hundreds of court challenges to drunk-driving cases, was in essence a personnel problem, Brooks said.
He said the department’s certified alcohol supervisor retired with no qualified replacement ready to take the job.
Brooks says another long-term goal is getting the crime lab certified for DNA testing. The department now does its genetic tests through a sometimes time-consuming process using private labs or the state Department of Justice.
Another aim is to equip patrol cars with computers. Brooks carries a laptop computer wherever he goes, and says computers have become invaluable crime-fighting tools. The $5-million system he wants to install would let deputies do criminal background checks in the field by accessing court and arrest records. That would make investigations faster and alert deputies to dangerous suspects, he said.
At the same time, Brooks puts a heavy emphasis on one of the basics: police patrols. The “Community Satisfaction Survey” will help him get a feel for what residents think of the department’s patrol cops.
The department now has separate patrol chiefs for east and west county; Brooks most recently has been the east county patrol chief. The west county chief has other duties, including oversight of the fugitive and narcotics units. Brooks believes it might be better to put one man in charge of patrol and have him concentrate on the responsibility full time.
“It’s the heart of what we do, and I want it to be our first priority,” Brooks said.
Such are the values of Bob Brooks, his supporters say. He is at once comfortable with new technology and new attitudes toward law enforcement, but at the same time driven by traditional beliefs in family and community.
This is, after all, a man who keeps textbooks on business management and organizational behavior on his desktop. But those books sit alongside “Chicken Soup For the Soul,” a collection of uplifting vignettes.
“He certainly reflects the values of the community I serve,” says Kemp, the Thousand Oaks commander.
Adds McDowell, the major crimes division chief:
“Times are right for Bob’s style.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Name: Bob Brooks
Occupation: Ventura County sheriff-elect
Residence: Thousand Oaks
Family: Brooks and his wife Debbie have two sons.
Education: A graduate of Thousand Oaks High School, Brooks received his bachelor’s in public administration from the University of Redlands and a master’s in management from Regent University.
Background: A sheriff’s deputy for 25 years, Brooks rose quickly through the ranks and has spent the past five years as chief deputy in charge of east county patrols. Hand-picked by Sheriff Larry Carpenter, Brooks ran for office uncontested.
Issues: Brooks stresses not only the need for new technology, but also the traditional patrols that are essential to police work. He plans a survey of crime victims to assess the department’s effectiveness.