When he became a deputy in 1989, Don Barnes had his badge pinned on him by then-Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates.
Gates would go on to serve another decade as O.C. sheriff before ending his storied 24-year career as one of the county’s most popular and colorful elected officials.
Meanwhile, Barnes would continue his steady ascent through the agency that culminated Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 with him being sworn in as O.C.’s 13th sheriff-coroner.
And none other than Gates, 79, was there to present the sheriff’s badge to Barnes’ wife, Marilyn, who helped pin it on her husband.
It was a touching moment during an hour-long ceremony at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy that was packed with more than 20 chiefs of police throughout Southern California, as well as local political leaders and deputies and officers from dozens of agencies.
“You have been a mentor, leader and trusted friend and a counsel to me over the years,” Barnes told Gates during his remarks near the end of the ceremony. “You have my admiration and respect, and no matter how hard I try, you will always be the sheriff.”
In videotaped comments, Gates said Barnes was the ideal person for the job, which involves managing the nation’s fifth-largest sheriff’s department. The OCSD has 24 divisions comprised of 3,900 sworn and professional employees, and more than 700 volunteers. It serves a population of 3.1 million residents.
“I know you’ll be a great sheriff for the County of Orange, and I’m so proud of you, so happy to be here this day,” Gates said.
He advised Barnes to “listen to your heart,” especially when having to make difficult decisions.
Gates also reminded Barnes to carve out time for his family and close friends.
“Make sure you have fun once in a while, because it’s a tough job,” Gates said.
Before he outlined five initiatives he wanted to accomplish during his first term, Barnes praised his predecessor, Sandra Hutchens, who served for 10 ½ years and is credited with restoring the agency’s reputation after taking over leadership at one of its most tumultuous times.
“From day one, Sheriff Hutchens led with humility, honesty, and vision,” Barnes said before presenting her with her retirement badge and service plaque.
Barnes was elected sheriff-coroner after a 17-month campaign he said wasn’t easy. But the experience was invaluable, he said, because it connected him with segments of the community that will help him achieve his No. 1 priority:
Keeping O.C. as safe as possible.
“Sheriff Barnes will have numerous responsibilities in his new role, but none more sacred than the duty to preserve public safety while upholding the public’s trust,” said Master of Ceremonies Gene Hernandez, a Yorba Linda councilmember and former police officer in Fullerton and Orange, as well as former chief of police of Chino.
In her remarks to the assembled, State Senator Patricia Bates, 36th District, thanked Hutchens for her years of service and leadership. She called Barnes “the right person for this moment of challenge.”
Added the senator: “He has been steadfast partner in advocating for good public safety policy, from sounding the alarm about the rising danger of fentanyl, to putting forth ideas to enhance school safety.
“Don has provided a needed voice for both law enforcement and common sense. Now, as sheriff, he will continue to be that voice, but take on a whole new mantle of responsibility. He will face tough decisions, but have the wisdom and experience to choose what is right.”
Bates said she has no doubt the new sheriff “will meet and exceed our expectations.”
In his remarks, U.S. Rep. Lou Correa, 46th District, acknowledged the difficulty Barnes and other law enforcement leaders have in doing their jobs at a time of divisive national debate.
“You (and all law enforcement officers) have to deal with whatever rhetoric we put out in Washington and how it affects our communities here,” Correa said. “You work hard to earn the respect, that badge, that honor, and we cannot let fear get in the way of you performing the job.
“It’s a big job, but together, all of us, we’re going to do it.”
Barnes’ career at the OCSD has been one of steady achievement and promotion.
After 12 years as a deputy, he was promoted to sergeant in 2001.
He became a lieutenant in 2005, and served as Chief of Police Services, City of Lake Forest, from 2007-2009.
Hutchens then tapped Barnes to be her executive assistant. He served in that position from 2009-2010, and served as a division commander from 2010-2012.
From 2012-2015, Barnes was an assistant sheriff. In 2016, he was appointed undersheriff, the last position he had before being elected sheriff.
“When I started my career with this agency 30 years ago, I never aspired to become sheriff,” Barnes said. “Throughout my career, I’ve benefited from other leaders…who took the time to mentor me, challenge me, and develop my abilities.”
Barnes also thanked his wife for always supporting him, especially during the 17-month-long campaign to become sheriff.
“My wife is incredible,” he said. “I thank God he gave you to me all those years ago. I’m a blessed man because of you.”
Barnes noted the challenges all law enforcement agencies face.
“For nearly a decade,” he said, “our state has made significant changes to our criminal justice system by decriminalizing drug and property crimes. And, in an effort to solve the problem of prison overcrowding, state policymakers have shifted additional burdens onto local communities and upon law enforcement.
“Add these California-specific issues to the nationwide opioid epidemic or the rise in homelessness or the inadequate resources for the mentally ill.
“These are serious social issues that have never been the responsibility of law enforcement to fix. Law enforcement should be the last option to address these problems, not the first. Each of these issues has manifested over time, and as a result of gaps in service, have landed on the shoulders of law enforcement to solve. But we cannot do it alone.”
Barnes detailed his five initiatives:
Vigilance in protecting our community
“A safe community is one in which people live free from the fear of harm and one in which you can live with your neighbors in peace,” said Barnes, citing his goals of reducing property crime, maintaining low violent crime rates, enhancing school safety efforts, and mitigating the impact of homelessness.
“It’s our job to facilitate such an environment,” Barnes told the attendees, who numbered more than 1,000. “I know, however, that fear or uncertainty exists in our community.
“People fear for the safety of their children when they send them off to school each morning.
“People are concerned about the security of their home while they’re away at work.
“There’s concern about the impact of homeless encampments within our communities, and we’re passionately troubled by those who suffer from mental illness and have no place to go for treatment when in crisis.”
Barnes mentioned some of the initiatives the OCSD has launched over the last year to make schools and the community at large safer, as well as efforts to link up homeless people with critical services.
“We continue to improve our training for interacting with the mentally ill and further develop collaborative partnerships such as the Stepping Up initiative to restore our mental health system,” Barnes said.
“None of these societal challenges are easy, but we will not be lax in putting forth our best effort needed to address them.”
Reduce the prevalence of drugs
Barnes noted that drug addiction and abuse has become a national pandemic.
“Our narcotics teams will never stop drug intervention efforts aimed to disrupt the drug supply coming into the country,” he pledged. “But we cannot address supply until we reduce the demand for drugs within our country.”
Barnes called for more collaborative drug enforcement, increased resources for crime lab drug analysis, and increased education of youth and parents about the risk of drugs.
Operate the nation’s best jail system
Following the implementation, in 2011, of AB 109, the realignment of the state prison population to the county’s jails, OC jails now include a large population with hardened felons serving long sentences.
“These county facilities are not designed to house (such) individuals,” Barnes said. “As resources allow, we’re upgrading our facilities, redesigning housing units and intake centers, and are continually updating our training and tactics to keep jails operating safely and securely for both the public and our personnel.”
Barnes pledged to improve services for mental health inmates and to expand rehabilitation and re-entry programs for them.
The OCSD operates one of the nation’s largest jail systems, overseeing the care and custody of 6,000 people on any given day.
“I believe (we) do a great job in fulfilling this responsibility, but we must always strive for improvement,” Barnes said.
Barnes said his first three initiatives can’t be attained without strengthening existing ties with federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as public agencies, elected officials, community groups and houses of worship.
He also recognizes the need to develop new partnerships.
“I look forward to collaborating with the county’s chiefs of police, and our new district attorney (Todd Spitzer), to develop new programs and strategies to reduce and mitigate crime,” Barnes said.
He said he plans to create several “community councils” that will serve in advisory roles and “provide the perspective of the diverse individuals who make Orange County so unique.”
Added Barnes: “We know that the most secure communities are those in which people become co-producers of their own safety. These councils will help in communicating that concept and instill trust with those we serve.”
Maintain a culture of integrity, service, professionalism, and vigilance
Barnes said the most valuable asset of the OCSD is its people, and he pledged to attract new recruits, retain talented employees, and develop opportunities for existing employees.
“I have the dual responsibility of being the public’s voice to the department, but also the department’s voice to the community we serve,” he said. “I will be an advocate for both, and a bridge between the public and the public servants.”
He said OCSD personnel “do a phenomenal job, oftentimes under difficult circumstances, and I want the public to know about the grace and professionalism you show under pressure each day.
“You will have my support when you perform within the scope of your duties and in accordance with your training. When critics second-guess your actions, your sheriff will be the first to come to your defense.
“A sheriff should not only lead the current department, but must be working to cultivate the next generation of leaders.”
Barnes noted that change is constant in law enforcement, but he said he will keep focused on his five initiatives “to ensure that we leave a legacy of safe and secure communities to future generations of Orange County.”
He ended his remarks thusly: “I look forward to serving as your sheriff and I’m grateful for your support. Thank you very much. Thank you.”