For Christina Corpus, being a woman in law enforcement has been a challenge since the beginning.
During one of her first shifts as a newly minted correctional officer, a veteran deputy pulled her aside. According to Corpus, he asked her what she was doing there, adding, "You should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen."
She was shocked. But she kept her frustration to herself.
"I didn't say anything. I didn't go to HR. I was brand new," she said. Had she spoken up, she believes there would have been repercussions. "I would have probably had to leave the organization. We have to break that—that stigma of 'you better not say anything.'"
In retrospect, that interaction set the tone for much of what was to come throughout her career.
"I knew that I wasn't going to have it easy," she said.
Now a sheriff's captain and chief of police for the city of Millbrae, Corpus has launched a contentious bid to unseat her boss, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, who was elected in 2018.
Championing transparency, community engagement and inclusivity, Corpus hopes to redefine policing in the county—both for the residents and for the officers themselves.
"I'm running because we definitely need change," she said. "I'm the first female candidate in San Mateo County history to run for sheriff. And if I'm elected, I would be the first Latina sheriff of the whole state of California."
'Actions speak louder than buzzwords'
Corpus knew that, as for any candidate, running for office would be risky. But campaigning against her current boss, Bolanos, who has been sheriff since 2017, has presented its own unique challenges, she said—especially because much of her platform is a direct challenge to his leadership.
Though reluctant to criticize him directly, Corpus said she would like to see more efforts towards increasing transparency and facilitating relationships between the sheriff's office and the communities it serves. Referring to the Sheriff's Office Police Transparency Portal published earlier this year, Corpus said that she finds it to be more of a data aggregator that lacks detail and doesn't tell the full story.
"Actions speak louder than buzzwords ... And accountability starts at the top," she said
In addition to expanding the portal, Corpus said she wants to establish a Sheriff's Office Community Advisory Board to facilitate more community oversight of law enforcement activities. Emphasizing the importance of including a diversity of stakeholder perspectives, she has proposed bringing in representatives from the northern, southern and coastal regions of the county.
She's responding, in part, to greater calls for transparency among the county's residents. For instance, Fixin' San Mateo County, a local organization working to create civilian oversight of the sheriff's office and establish a county inspector general, launched its campaign on March 26. While Corpus said she understands the reasoning behind their work, she hopes her advisory board may be a way to collaborate directly with the residents.
One of Fixin' San Mateo County's main priorities is permanently ending the voluntary release of immigrants to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. In her official priorities, Corpus said she would "permanently end casual hand-overs of individuals to ICE." However, in her platform she advocates for "reviewing immigration requests on a case-by-case basis" and says she would only turn people over to ICE if they "pose a clear and imminent threat to our community's safety."
Corpus is also well-aware of the optics around law enforcement these days. She believes that insufficient mental health services — both for officers and for residents — is part of the problem.
Pointing to a lack of wellness services and a culture "where we have to be tough," Corpus said she believes much of the turnover in the sheriff's office is the result of people feeling underappreciated. And that mentality has an affect on their ability to engage and build trust with the community.
Building better relationships with the community also requires acknowledging that "our world has changed and law enforcement has changed," she said. For Corpus, that means recruiting more people of color to the sheriff's office, focusing on de-escalation and non-violent alternatives and better responding to mental health crises.
'From a warrior mentality to a guardian'
Corpus knew she wanted to work in law enforcement since she was 16, when a harrowing experience changed her perspective of public safety — and the trajectory of her life.
She was picking up a friend after work in San Bruno when someone tapped on her window.
"I looked and it was the barrel of a gun," she said.
She managed to hold off her attacker, who hit her with the gun and tried pushing her farther into the car.
"At 16, it was a very traumatic situation," she said. But even more so than the horror of the ordeal itself, Corpus was struck by the aftermath. "It was the way that those officers that responded and helped me navigate through the report ... really changed the way that I thought about law enforcement.
"I thought if I could do that, and I could give back to communities that are in need, that would be life-changing for me."
Corpus began her career as a caseworker with the county district attorney's office in 1995, going on to become an entry-level correctional officer at Maguire in 2002. It was a rocky start for a young woman in a predominantly male field. But Corpus didn't only have trouble with the male officers. She remembers being teased and harassed by other female correctional officers as well, something she attributes to a culture that denigrated women.
"There were times where I'd go home, and I would cry. And I would be like, 'Why am I doing this?'" she said. She wondered if it was worth it, if she'd ever be accepted. "I always walked into the jail with my head up high. And always put a brave face on. But it tested my faith. And it also tested my strength."
According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations' Uniform Crime Reporting Program, as of 2018 only 26.7% of all law enforcement employees and 12.6% of all officers were women, though women represented almost 51% of the population of the U.S. Currently, just under 30% of the 773 employees of the sheriff's office are women.
Driven by a desire to serve her community and fix what she believed was broken, Corpus stayed with the sheriff's office, going on to work in the Corrections Bureau and Professional Standards, where she first got involved in hiring processes.
It wasn't until she was promoted to a deputy sheriff in 2005 that Corpus started to notice a shift in how her fellow officers treated her. A woman, and one of the only Spanish-speaking patrol deputies at the time, she was often assigned to work in North Fair Oaks, a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
"When you have a commonality with somebody, people feel more at ease with you. So, I looked like the people in North Fair Oaks. I was a Spanish-speaking deputy, and they resonated with me. So I was able to really gain their trust," she said.
"And that's kind of how I started to gain the respect of my peers, which were all men," she said.
Through her work as a deputy and later director of the Community Alliance to Revitalize Our Neighborhoods (CARON), Corpus got a window into community-based policing, which she described as "being more involved in the communities" and "going away from that warrior mentality to a guardian." Through community events, such as basketball games, barbecues and other efforts, she said she was able to build relationships and trust with the local residents.
After completing a master's degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership at the University of San Diego, Corpus reached what she called a "crossroads" in her career.
"I realized that we need change. I realized that there's a lack of community engagement, that there's a better way of executing our law enforcement," she said. "If we're not asking people what is wrong in the specific communities, then how are we supposed to properly deliver those resources and our services to them?"
Knowing that doing so could threaten, and potentially end, her career, Corpus said she decided to launch her campaign for sheriff last July.
"I think now is an opportunity for the voters of this county to have a voice and to really have a choice who they want as their next sheriff — and the values that align with them," she said.
A tough road ahead
Corpus, who described her platform as one built on bringing modern ideas and practices to the sheriff's office, feels the strain of pushing against tradition—and campaigning against her current boss.
"It's been very uncomfortable for me. And it's not been an easy road at all," she said.
Responding to a recent article that outed her husband for having a tattoo of a confederate flag, Corpus described it as "mudslinging" and a distraction from the larger issues.
"Everybody's focused on a tattoo that my husband got when he was 16. He learned that it was hurtful and he covered it up," she said. "It's a smear campaign. Why aren't people asking the sheriff about things that have happened under his leadership?"
In an Instagram post, Bolanos criticized the tattoo calling it a "sign of racism and white supremacy."
"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."
She also denied being a lifelong Republican, saying, "I had a difference of opinion for a few years, but I always aligned myself as a Democrat."
Touting endorsements from the San Mateo County Democratic Party, as well as State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, and Assembly member Kevin Mullin, Corpus said she hopes ultimately her reputation will speak for itself. But, with only weeks left before the primary, she knows she has a tough rough ahead.
"I will either continue being an employee here and will become sheriff in January or, if I am not successful, I will have to retire."
Corpus was set to face opponent Sheriff Carlos Bolanos in 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 Carlos Bolanos here.