The Cyclist Running for Sheriff Makes the Case for Reform

When we heard there was a candidate running for sheriff who is an active cyclist, we took note and sat down with the man himself, Duke Nguyen, to hear his take on some of the issues we’ve seen in Southern California, and specifically in Orange County. Nguyen is a 26-year law enforcement veteran of the force and currently investigates officer involved shootings for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.

For many cyclists, the experience of turning pedals provides a regular and intimate view of ones community. You see it all, the sights, sounds and smells. The insular world of automobiles prevents many citizens from truly experiencing the communities they live in, in the same way that cyclists do. It is a much more vivid experience of transportation than automobile, the cyclist is a passing observer, allowed access by way of trail and path to see parts of the community that their driving neighbors won’t see. 

Often, this is a positive experience. Being able to take in an ocean vista while pedaling along the coast is a much more engaging experience than driving. You’re traveling slow enough to see the surfers paddling out, but fast enough to cover the entire coast line in a morning ride. You’re able to smell the salty ocean spray, hear the world around you. It can be a truly magical experience that keeps people pedaling the earth, looking to experience the world at a speed that provides this unique vantage point.

But when a community has health and safety issues, the negative experience is even more visceral for the cyclist.  For Southern California bicyclists, the biggest change has been the increase in levels of homelessness and the threats to pedestrian safety due to distracted driving. Seeing homeless encampments while speeding along at 80 mph from the adjacent freeway is an entirely different observation than riding through the encampment by bicycle. It is much easier to detach, forget and continue on ones automobile journey, and the districted driving only compounds this problem. 

For those in Southern California or visiting, both of these topics are uniquely tied to law enforcement. The enforcement of laws that keep cyclists safe and interactions with law enforcement while passing through Orange County will most likely take place with a member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The 42 miles of coastline on your way from Long Beach to Solano – OCSD. Taking the Santa Ana River Trail out to the inland empire? That’s OCSD as well. 

Extending into the mountains, the MTB trails of El Morro, Silverado and Trabuco, all fall under their watch.  Covering an area of almost 1000 square miles, and serving a population of more than 3 million, the jurisdiction covers a wide swath of road and trail that are of considerable importance to cyclists of all types. A majority of the south county, thirteen cities in total, the entire OCTA system, John Wayne Airport, as well as 42 miles of coastline and the Dana Point, Newport and Huntington Harbors all fall under OCSD.  

When we heard there was a candidate running for sheriff who is an active cyclist, we took note and sat down with the man himself, Duke Nguyen, to hear his take on some of the issues we’ve seen in Southern California, and specifically in Orange County. Nguyen is a 26-year law enforcement veteran of the force and currently investigates officer involved shootings for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. 

“I want to be the people’s Sheriff.”

Photo courtesy of Duke Nguyen

CR: Thanks for sitting down with me. First things first, tell us about your involvement in bicycling?

DN: I mountain biked for many years, but now that I’m older, sustained too many injuries, I took the mountain bike out of the equation and moved to road. I find it’s peaceful. I wake at 3:30am, put on my kit, turn on my light and get my workout in. I really don’t have the opportunity once my kids are up, or I’m at work. 

Have you always woken up so early? When you’re on vacation do you sleep for longer?

After 26 years of police work, I’m programmed to get around 4-5 hours of sleep. I was with my family in Cancun on vacation earlier this year and even then, I’d be up walking around the hotel or going on the computer. If I sleep 8 hours, I’m sick. 

“Educating drivers about the shared use [of the road] is an important part of effecting change. ”

Is cycling something you’ve brought to the people you work with? Is it popular with law enforcement?

What we currently have them working on is body building and weight lifting, but we also see a lot of injuries in weight lifting, like guys getting torn muscles, dropping weights on their feet, etc.  At the same time, we see guys revert back because they’re not doing cardio. We don’t really have access to a swimming pool, and while a lot of cops love to run, that impact on the knees isn’t sustainable longterm.  So what I would do is definitely promote bike riding as it’s less stress on the body. With weight lifting, there is more risk of injury. On the East Coast, we have the Unity Bike Tour, involving thousands of law enforcement cyclists. That’s something I’d like to see here on the West coast. Even when you need to take someone down, it’s not about how big you are, it’s about your stamina, endurance and technique. Many of my deputies work long shifts, and I need to think how I can help reduce injury. Cycling is less damaging for them and promotes cardio, and it’s definitely something I want to promote as sheriff.

Is distracted driving something you see as a concern for pedestrian safety?

It is. It’s the biggest issue. We have a law in place, but it is difficult to enforce. It seems there needs to be changes made at the technology provider level. A technology solution that limits use while driving is something the cellular providers may need to implement. It’s also helping communicate the rights of cyclists on the road. Educating drivers about the shared use is an important part of effecting change. 

Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy on horseback, 1890s. Lacy served as Orange County's second and fourth sheriff. Look closely, see the bicycles? (Source: commons).

So why Sheriff?

When I took on this project, my number one thing, I want to be the people’s Sheriff. I want to go out and connect with the communities and organizations. I want to see how I can improve the work by getting the community involved in law enforcement, and vice versa.

I started this job 26 years ago. We do things very different and things are changing. I can’t say it’s softer and kinder, but decisions are more educated and patient. It’s not what it was 26 years ago where officers and deputies were rushing into certain issues. We see now, people are evaluating and collectively trying to find the best solution to diffuse these situations.

The newer generations are more educated, but we need to show them how to be proactive in law enforcement and -the most important thing- how to communicate with our citizens. A lot of times, our deputies are getting hired at a younger age and they don’t have the experience or the maturity yet. So I want to make sure that my policies and my message is to protect and serve the community, and this is how you do it. Here’s the blueprint, understand the blueprint, then take that and adapt it to fit within the overall culture of the department.

And creating the policy and procedures in the beginning, instead of trying to change things along the way? 

That’s exactly right. The old testament of law enforcement has been established for over 80-100 years and we’re trying to mold that to today’s climates. Orange County has a very diverse community, and we have to cater to understand each culture and why people do the things they do, mentally and physically, and that’s a challenge. That’s what I would want to do if I were to be Sheriff; opening the door of communication for people coming in and learning what we do, at the same time taking an interest in showing and demonstrating what we do. 

It’s a big challenge because the generation prior to us, or those about to retire, left or are leaving with so much experience. A big part of my job is getting those good parts from the previous generations and molding to today’s climates with procedures that our future deputies can follow.  Maintaining those good parts and helping pass that to the new generation of recruits. 

“The number one thing I want to tackle with our homelessness is mental health care.”

Homelessness in Orange County has become an increasing problem in recent years. Duke Nguyen wants to take on this issue by addressing the mental and physical health care needs of the homeless population. (Image source: Flikr, Chris Jepsen)

Observant cyclists in Orange County have watched the increasing number of people living on the streets over the past decade- What role do you see the Orange County Sheriff having in terms of policing homelessness in Orange County?

The number one thing I want to tackle with our homelessness is mental health care. We have people who have been out on the street for so long that they no longer have the ability to take care of themselves. Law enforcement, per the penal code, cannot admit somebody to a 72-hour evaluation without that persons’ consent. Part of what I would like to introduce is implementing a Mental Evaluation Team, which would be composed of a sworn county personnel in civilian clothes and a registered nurse. The registered nurse has the authority to admit this person for evaluations. Having someone with a kinder, softer approach towards people having mental issues, increases communication. The chance of getting someone into the car and getting them into a mental health facility is much higher. If it’s a uniformed deputy, and they are transporting someone in a police car, policy dictates that they must be handcuffed. Even if they’re not under arrest, they have to be handcuffed to ride in the car. This makes a difficult situation that much more challenging in communicating with someone having a mental health crisis. 

Why hasn’t this been brought into OC before?

The MET (Mental Evaluation Team) are practiced and proven in other areas, but the county doesn’t want to spend the money. Only through the actions of Judge Carter, in the Santa Ana River Trail lawsuit, it was found that the county has $700 million of funds that could be spent to help these marginalized communities. The county has hundreds of millions of dollars of tax payer money that was specifically allocated to help the homeless and people with mental health issues, but they won’t want to properly utilize this funding. I want to see our budgets better used for the community, better spent on the community. Building a jail to house mental health patients is not what I would want to do. 

How do you answer the supporters of building an additional jail-house?

We already have a jail-house, it just needs to be modernized to today’s standards. If we build a jail, it will cost at least a billion. The land that is available can be better used to build shelters and affordable housing. And then the facility needs to be staffed. When I started, Twin Towers [Correctional Facility] was being built. When it was finished, it took 5 years before inmates could be housed. By the time they brought in prisoners, none of the switches worked, none of the plumbing worked. And then it took another year to get it back to being habitable. So a more realistic plan would be building shelters and clinics. Why not take a million, instead of a billion, and contract with existing clinics who have medical professional staff.

The OCSD helicopter is used to preform rescues. Duke Nguyen believes the Sheriff department can work together with the fire department and utilize their expert medical training skills in getting the best medical attention to trail users in the event of an emergency..(Source: commons)

There have been issues with communications and jurisdiction between the Fire Authority and Sheriffs Department in Orange County that have had real consequences for cyclists and other trail users who were delayed in receiving rescue or medical attention. How do you see this changing if you were Sheriff?

The Sheriff departments have rescue helicopters and perform a function of rescuing just like the fire department, but the edge the fire department has on the sheriff’s department is their medical training. They’re going to have better equipment and better knowledge on where to transport civilians. As sheriff, I would always say release it to the fire department. They have the band-aids, we don’t. Cops carry guns, firemen carry apparatus for rescue. I would go back and draw the line, anything dealing with rescue, we will help and locate with our airship, but when that’s done, the rescue should be the fire department. Because I can use my airship to do other stuff. I can use it to go to other cities to help with locating. But if I use my helicopter for rescue, when there is already the fire department that can do the rescue, I’ve taken my resources out of the ability to protect and serve. 

There has been a power struggle with Sheriff and Fire, but as Sheriff, I would always say, let the fire department do their stuff. I came from LA and we’re very busy. We assist fire, and if fire captain says they’re OK, we take off. We’re not EMT trained, there’s no sense for us to be there after the fire department has taken over. 

Do you have any insight on how it got to this point? How will things be different if you were Sheriff?

I’m not a micro-manager, I want my deputies to be more open minded to do their job, but management should make that call to defer to rescue and fire. It may be an issue of one department trying to show the other they can do their job better.

In my campaign, I go by three initiatives in community partnership. I want to work with the community, no closed doors; let’s work together to see what works, and what doesn’t. The citizens have a right to know; if there is an incident, the public has the right to know the details. The final part is modernizing the policy; going back to review the policy to see what is best economically and for the community. The job has to be done smarter, not harder.

“I want to see our budgets better used for the community, better spent on the community.”

Along the themes of transparency, communication, and modernization, what is the role of technology?

The number one piece of modern technology that we deal with is body cams. We’re in a new age of technology, and the policy and procedures need to be updated to reflect this. I want to have a role in the design I get for my personnel in custody, all the way to people on patrol. The body cams I envision would be implemented on day one, with all sworn personal wearing them, and have capabilities to monitor if they are removed or shut off. Implementing these systems of accountability makes decision-making more objective from custody to patrol. You have to hold deputies, but also make sure they can do their jobs. Body cameras specifically are meant to help both the citizens and deputies.  

In the history of sworn law enforcement, new recruits are at a young age. They sign to obey the police, but many don’t actually know the policy. There is a difference between reading that six-foot stack of paper and actually understanding it. Part of the modernizing and partnership is workshops, like putting new recruits hand-in-hand with citizens who are going through our citizen academy. In policy academy, there is no class for how to communicate with the citizens. Incorporating training that deals with senior citizens, homeless, people with mental crisis, or medical crisis. A lot of our recruits don’t understand the importance of communication with our citizens so training is vital. But if the policies and procedures aren’t updated, it’s ineffective.

The department has to put in the time to go back and look at every policy, and see how it is applied today. Every policy needs a procedure that helps deputies understand how to effectively follow the policy.Lately, I’ve been up in the mountains and I get no signal. Part of modernizing the department is making cellular and WiFi coverage county wide, and providing emergency support communications throughout the county. This is something I want citizens to have access to. Something that allows them to be able to communicate with first responders in all parts of Orange County, including mountain trails. 

How can people support your campaign?

Folks can visit to donate, volunteer and learn more about my plans as a sheriff for all of Orange County. I encourage everyone eligible to exercise their right to vote, and remind them June 5th is election day in California.

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