Esteban Gonzalez (left) is the Republican candidate for sheriff. Toby Shelley (right) is the Democratic candidate for sheriff.

For the first time since 2014, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s race won’t have an incumbent running. Earlier this year, Sheriff Eugene Conway told the Republican party he would not run for the office again. 

Republican Esteban Gonzalez and Democrat Toby Shelley will face off to replace Conway. Here’s a breakdown on where they stand on the issues:

Experience, qualifications, background 

Esteban Gonzalez

Gonzalez is the sheriff’s office’s chief custody deputy and chief correction deputy. He oversees both the jail in Syracuse and the Jamesville Correctional Facility.

Gonzalez began working for the sheriff’s office in August 1994 as a jail deputy.

In 2012, he was promoted to chief custody deputy under then-Sheriff Kevin Walsh. Gonzalez was the only chief deputy retained by Sheriff Eugene Conway when Conway was elected in 2014. 

If elected, Gonzalez would be the first Onondaga County Sheriff to have worked as a jail deputy. Every previous sheriff has had experience working in road patrol either for the sheriff’s office or another law enforcement agency. 

Toby Shelley

Shelley, a Democrat, is running for sheriff a fourth time. Shelley served as a patrol deputy and as a sergeant in the sheriff’s office before his retirement in 2011.

He now works as a police officer in Jordan. Shelley also spent 30 years in the military with five years of active duty.

While Shelley hasn’t had administrative experience at the sheriff’s office, he said he’s served as deputy chief of the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing’s fire department at the Syracuse airport. He said that’s the equivalent of the superintendent of public works at an army base.

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Bail reform

Over the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Onondaga County like other places across the country saw a rise in violent crime. Many in New York, including those in law enforcement, blamed changed to the cash bail system.

State lawmakers rolled back parts of the law, but critics have continued to push for changes, including to have a “dangerousness” provision added to the law, giving judges discretion to jail someone based on their perceived danger to the community.

An Albany Times-Union review of rearrest data found that about half of all felony rearrests came after a judge used their discretion to let someone out on bail. We asked the candidates where they stood on this issue.

Gonzalez 

Gonzalez said he would like to serve on the New York State Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative committee to push for the state to change bail reform. He believes judges should be allowed to consider dangerousness when deciding someone’s bail. 

“As written I oppose bail reform,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t oppose poor people getting out of jail.” 

Gonzalez said he does not want to prevent people who don’t have the means to pay bail from getting out of jail. 

“I’ve never been for a debtor’s prison,” Gonzalez said. 

Shelley

Shelley also believes judges should be given more discretion as to who can be jailed on bail and who can’t. 

“I’m not against the intent,” Shelley said of bail reform. “I’m against the result.” 

Shelley believes that bail reform has played a role in higher crime rates. 

He suggested that setting bail could be used as a way to make sure repeat offenders for lesser crimes be stopped. 

“I say to the judge, ‘Judge, this is the third time just me has caught this guy. Here’s his rap sheet. He’s a professional thief, that’s all he does. We need to slow him down, gotta do something,’” Shelley said, positing a mock scenario. “So judge puts $500 bail on him, that slows him down because they don’t have $500.” 

Shelly acknowledged the criminal justice system is not fair for people who do not have money, but he said he didn’t think bail reform would fix that inequity. 

“It’s not a fair system. You think there’s fairness? You think there’s justice in our system? You think there’s fairness? I have money, I make bail, I get a good lawyer, I don’t go to jail,” Shelley said. “You don’t have money, you don’t make bail, you get a court-appointed lawyer, you plea bargain your case.” 

Healthcare at the jail

At least four people have died at the Syracuse jail in the last two years. Two incarcerated people died by suicide, another died of a medical condition and earlier this year an infant died shortly after being born at the jail.  

Onondaga County started using privatized, for-profit healthcare after the death of Chuniece Patterson in 2009. Patterson had an ectopic pregnancy and her family sued the county after her death.

The county is nearing the end of its three-year, $37-million contract with correctional healthcare company NaphCare, its third health-care provider since it privatized healthcare at the jail. The contract expires at the end of this year.

Across the country, jails have turned to privatized for-profit correctional healthcare to cut costs and trim legal liability for deaths. We asked the candidates how they would handle this going forward.

Gonzalez

Gonzalez said that the county should put the contract for jail healthcare out for bid. He said there are other, bigger companies with more resources who could take up the job.

Ultimately, the county executive’s office will make the decision on whether the county chooses a new provider. Gonzalez said he does believe the county can find a good provider with better care. 

Shelley

Shelley said that he’d look at other jails who have not had issues with deaths of incarcerated people and see what they’re doing that’s been successful. 

“Bring what they’re doing here,” Shelley said. 

He also suggested the sheriff’s office should have a review done by healthcare experts to see where they can improve. 

A county Citizen Review Board

The city’s Citizen Review Board is the only police accountability board in the county that has the power to recommend discipline for individual officers.

The closest equivalent is the county’s Justice Center Oversight Committee, which has the ability to evaluate policy but not recommend discipline. We asked the candidates what they thought about a county CRB.

Gonzalez 

Gonzalez said he wants to create a Law Enforcement Advisory and Direction group, which would be similar to a “neighborhood watch.”

In addition to helping the sheriff’s office be responsive to crime, Gonzalez said the group would evaluate complaints against road patrol and help suggest policy changes. 

However, Gonzalez is opposed to a group that can recommend discipline. He said he’d prefer to use the LEAD group first before escalating to a police oversight board. Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office has a track record of investigating and disciplining its own. 

“For discipline, I’m for policing myself so others don’t have to,” Gonzalez said. 

Shelley

Shelley said that any board that evaluates complaints against road patrol would need to receive significant training for him to feel comfortable with them fielding complaints about Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office deputies. 

“If they were an educated group, I would not fear their opinion,” Shelley said. “But if they were a group out to hunt cops, not feeding my people to a group like that. We don’t need another group to investigate things we investigate ourselves.” 

Shelley, like Gonzalez, said he would want to keep control of discipline. 

Enforcing New York State’s new gun law

In September, New York State lawmakers passed a law limiting where those with a pistol permit could carry their pistol, including private property and homes.

The law has been a point of contention among New York sheriffs who have said they will not enforce the law. It recently was shot down by a Syracuse federal judge, and will be considered by an appellate court.

We asked Gonzalez and Shelley whether they would enforce such a law.

Gonzalez

Gonzalez said he would enforce the law but potentially use wide discretion. 

He used the example of someone who has previously carried a concealed pistol but now can’t carry it in a particular place because of the law. In that case, Gonzalez said officers could use discretion.  

“We don’t intend to nor want to start arresting people with no criminal record and all of a sudden make them felons on the spot,” Gonzalez said. 

Shelley

Shelley said he would not yet enforce the law — at least in part because the law’s constitutionality hasn’t been decided in federal court. 

“This law is so controversial,” Shelley said. “Why would we get involved?”

He likened officers’ discretion on the new gun law to how officers use their discretion on speeding. If someone is going 95 mph in a 55 mph zone, it’s different than someone going five miles over the limit, for example.

Shelley joked that one of his older family members is technically, “a criminal right now,” because he doesn’t use a computer and hasn’t renewed his pistol permit online.

“A guy who’s never committed a crime in his life, we’re gonna make a criminal out of him?” Shelley said. “That doesn’t make common sense.” 

Leadership

There are six prominent positions underneath the sheriff that the next sheriff would have to appoint: undersheriff, chief civil deputy, chief correction deputy, chief custody deputy, chief police deputy and chief of staff services. 

Gonzalez

Gonzalez would not commit to keeping or removing any of the staff currently in place at the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office. 

He said he’d run an application process for the positions, including the people currently on the staff. All those who currently are in the sheriff’s office’s administration will have to interview for their jobs. 

“That’s Sheriff Conway’s team. That’s not Sheriff Gonzalez’s team,” Gonzalez said. “But I’ve also talked to everybody and I told the people in those positions, ‘You’re not guaranteed a job.’”

Shelley

Shelley said that he has already picked his leadership team but he would not reveal who would be on it.

The team has 180 years of experience altogether, according to Shelley. Shelley would only elaborate that everyone has worked in the sheriff’s office. 

The Democrat said he had planned to keep Gonzalez on had he beaten out Conway for sheriff in 2014, but said that he would fire Gonzalez if elected this time around.

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.