Growing up a first-generation American in San Francisco, Carlos Bolanos knew he would have to carve his own path.
"My parents immigrated from Nicaragua," he said. "They didn't know anything about SATs or anything of that sort. So I kind of had to figure it out on my own."
Only in his senior year of high school, when he started feeling the pressure and expectations of adulthood, did Bolanos consider a career in law enforcement. He liked the idea of working in the field, and the excitement of the job appealed to him. And, as he said, "I thought law enforcement would be an honorable profession where I can make a difference."
Now, more than 40 years later, he's in the midst of his first reelection campaign for San Mateo County Sheriff, a position he's held for almost six years. In a contentious race against Sheriff's Capt. Christina Corpus, Bolanos is running a campaign that emphasizes his extensive law enforcement experience and his accomplishments as the incumbent sheriff.
Yet, when given the opportunity, Bolanos has taken jabs at his opponent.
When a news article outed Corpus' husband for having a tattoo of a confederate flag, Bolanos criticized her in an Instagram post.
"It is frankly shocking that Christina Corpus would try to pretend that the Confederate flag has another meaning than exactly what it is - a sign of racism and white supremacy," Bolanos said in his post. "It's less surprising that she would try to cast blame on others in light of this revelation."
Corpus dismissed the claim and described it as "mudslinging" and a distraction from the larger issues.
"It's a smear campaign," she said. "Why aren't people asking the sheriff about things that have happened under his leadership?"
Bolanos's platform is centered around what he calls "public safety first for all," which he hopes to achieve by strengthening community relationships and transparency, upgrading policing technology, reducing recidivism and prioritizing officer wellness.
Describing himself as "the most qualified person to continue to lead the Sheriff's Office," Bolanos said that he has "extensive experience not only in leading law enforcement agencies and keeping our communities safe, but also in building relationships with the communities that we serve.
"I am running for reelection because I want to continue the outstanding work my people are doing," he said.
Becoming sheriff was never a goal of Bolanos's.
After setting his sights on law enforcement, he completed a two-year degree in criminology at City College, before going on to earn his bachelor's in economics from the University of San Francisco and ultimately his master's in public administration from California State University, East Bay.
Then, in the late '70s, as a green patrol officer with the Palo Alto Police Department, he began to dream of rising to the ranks of police chief. At the department, he served as a detective, sergeant and lieutenant, before accepting the role of police captain for the City of Salinas in 1991.
Three years later, at the age of 35, he fulfilled his ambition when he was appointed police chief for the Redwood City Police Department. As chief, a position that he held for 12 years until becoming San Mateo County undersheriff in 2007, Bolanos established the local Police Athletic League (now Police Activities League or PAL) as a way to keep kids out of trouble by engaging them in sports instead. What started as a small operation in a downtown storefront soon grew to include summer camps, field trips and cultural events. Redwood City's PAL, which turned 25 in 2019 and will officially mark the occasion in May, has served a total of 15,000 children and youth so far, mainly in the Latinx community, according to the organization's website.
In 2016, then-Sheriff Greg Munks announced his early retirement, cutting his four-year term short by two years. Facing an imminently vacant sheriff's position, the County Board of Supervisors was tasked with deciding how to proceed, either by appointing then-Undersheriff Bolanos or by opening the process to other candidates through election or appointment. In a letter to the board, representatives Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier advocated for the latter, recommending "a decision making process that is absent a perception of a pre-ordained outcome."
Ultimately Bolanos was appointed in a 3-2 vote, with Supervisors Dave Pine and Carole Groom dissenting. He was officially elected in 2018 with just over 60% of the vote.
Since then, Bolanos has helped expand the Sheriff's Activities League (SAL), most notably in the opening of a new 2,000-square foot space in Half Moon Bay in December 2021. He has also created new programming for inmates of county correctional facilities, including launching an Acute Stabilization Unit for those experiencing severe mental health issues, opening a Maple Street Correctional Center Family Reunification Unit to help reconnect inmates with their loved ones and implementing video services for remote visitation.
"One of the differences between a sheriff's office and a police department is, of course, we run the correctional facilities," Bolanos said. "And I think it's critical that we do everything we can for the people that are in our care and custody, to make them better when they come out than when they came in."
Bolanos also champions a community policing philosophy, which he said is best demonstrated through the department's engagement efforts, including hosting "coffee with a deputy," "shop with a cop," food and clothing drives, as well as continuing the Community Alliance to Revitalize Our Neighborhoods (CARON) program to serve residents of North Fair Oaks and unincorporated coastal regions. He also launched the Asian American Pacific Islander Liaison Program with Millbrae Deputy Jimmy Chung to address safety concerns among, and prevent hate crimes against the AAPI community.
One of his main goals, he said, is "working in partnership and collaboration with the community that we serve to make sure that their needs are getting met and that we're listening to them."
One of the best examples of this approach, he added, was his decision to end release transfer requests to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Until November 2021, Bolanos collaborated with ICE by voluntarily transferring former inmates to immigration custody, a practice permitted but not required by Senate Bill 54, the California Values Act, and highly criticized by local advocates. In 2020, the Sheriff's Office reported they released 15 immigrants to ICE, which accounted for 62% of all Bay Area transfers and more than any other individual county.
"One of the things I have done to increase trust between my office and the community is end all cooperation with ICE. I listened to the community, I heard their concerns and I acted," Bolanos told the Pulse.
Opponents have noted that Bolanos could, at any time, reverse his decision. When asked if that's something he would consider, he said that he doesn't intend to cooperate with ICE in the future.
"It's a final decision unless something dramatically changes," he said. However, he added that he agreed with the nature of the law and was "still concerned about serious and violent criminals being released back to the community."
The past few years have marked a significant shift in public perception of law enforcement, something Bolanos is well aware of.
In light of heightened awareness of police brutality as well as growing movements to defund the police, law enforcement officers nationwide are being forced to reckon with their role and image in the public.
Bolanos said he intends to "address that shift by responding to the community's needs and being as transparent as possible." To that end, he said he has updated the department's Use of Force policy, created a Transparency Portal and hosted community events.
"I am also open to creating a community oversight committee that will be able to provide input on how my office can continue to build positive relationships with the communities we serve," he said.
The Sheriff's Office amended its Use of Force policy in the wake of public outcry surrounding three fatal incidents during the year prior.
Following the October 2018 killing of Chinedu Valentine Okobi, a 36-year-old Black man who was stopped by sheriff's deputies while walking in Millbrae and died after being Tasered, beaten and pepper sprayed, the sheriff's office—at the request of the Board of Supervisors—participated in a study session on Tasers and use of force. The sheriff's office presented a revised policy, which incorporated recommendations from the American Civil Liberties Union and emphasized communication and deescalation, implicit bias training and expansion of the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team. The ACLU, which reviewed the draft policy, wrote in a letter to county officials that some aspects of the policy didn't go far enough, adding that the policy includes language that could soon be outdated, permitting deadly force when a deputy "reasonably believes the suspect poses an imminent threat."
"There is never any room for excessive force," said Bolanos, adding that he was always taught to use the least force possible. Still, he added, "It is the job, where, unfortunately, sometimes force must be used. It's not a pleasant thing for a law enforcement officer. You know, we're human beings too, and it can be quite scary and stressful."
Bolanos acknowledged that public trust in law enforcement has been shaken in recent years and said that part of his responsibility as sheriff is to rebuild those relationships.
"As a law enforcement professional, I have to be open and willing to have those discussions with the various groups and members of the community," he said. Bolanos said he looked forward to sitting down with Fixin' San Mateo County, a local organization working to create civilian oversight of the sheriff's office and establish a county inspector general, to discuss ways of increasing transparency and bringing in new perspectives.
Though he welcomed their input, he added, "I don't really like the term oversight because I think it's misleading for everybody. I don't see a model where a group of residents is going to tell me necessarily what to do."
Touting San Mateo County as "one of the safest counties in the state," Bolanos said that ultimately his number one priority is to coordinate with all of the county's police and criminal justice departments to keep the residents and the peace officers safe.
The pandemic, in concert with rising housing costs in the county, non-competitive salaries/benefits and growing social justice movements, have resulted in more people leaving than entering law enforcement, he said. To address officer fatigue and turnover, Bolanos wants to look into better childcare options, more housing assistance and programs that divert public mental health calls to specialists instead of officers. He also plans to implement the third cycle of what he called "an improved mental health/emotional well-being system" focused specifically on helping officers cope with the stress of "the pandemic, civil unrest, low staffing levels," among other things.
"I'm hoping that people realize that law enforcement is absolutely an honorable profession," he said. "And that we get those candidates coming through the door again."
Bolanos and Corpus were set to face off at a candidate forum on May 12 but Bolanos pulled out.
San Mateo County's next sheriff will be determined by voters during the June 7 election.
Read the voter guide story on Christina Corpus here.