May 18—Juan Camarena, a 23-year veteran of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, is challenging incumbent Sheriff-Coroner Bill Brown in the June 7 election, saying there is a need to rebuild trust between the public and law enforcement.
Additionally, the lieutenant aims to transform the Sheriff's Office into what he describes as a more efficient, proactive and transparent organization, to modernize it, and get people in the community to want to become police officers again. Camarena also hopes to bring fresh ideas to the position.
"Civil unrest, protests — we have a demand for change and we have this lack of (public) interest in the profession," Camarena said. "In the last several years, law enforcement has gone through challenging times."
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Camarena's parents brought him to the U.S. at the age of 4 in 1978. His family moved to Guadalupe, then to Santa Maria, which has been his home ever since.
Growing up, Camarena worked in the fields and has picked nearly every crop there is to pick around Santa Maria including strawberries, squash, lettuce, cauliflower and celery. Camarena credits his parents for teaching him the values he holds including hard work, compassion and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in, he said.
After graduating from Santa Maria High School, Camarena entered the Marine Corps in 1992, deploying to Somalia and throughout the Middle East as an infantryman as part of a sniper platoon. He reenlisted after 9/11 and left active duty in 2004.
Camarena holds a bachelor's degree in public administration from Ashford University and a master's degree in communications from Purdue. He's married with four children and has two German shepherds.
Law enforcement wasn't Camarena's first choice of profession; he originally wanted to be a trauma surgeon and started community college classes. Seeing the high cost of medical school, however, Camarena got a job with the Sheriff's Office as a custody deputy. Camarena then applied to work patrol and fell in love with the job.
Twenty-three years later, Camarena has served in virtually every corner of the county and in various capacities, including as a human resources sergeant supervising background investigations, commander of the Isla Vista foot patrol station and he currently manages personnel in major crimes, the forensics bureau and rural crimes in the criminal investigation bureau.
Additionally, Camarena has served on the SWAT team for the last 20 years as a collateral assignment.
"I believe in the mission of law enforcement, which is a very noble profession," Camarena said. "In the end, I feel we do make a difference in people's lives."
Over time, and especially in the last two years, Camarena said he has noticed a rise in property and violent crimes, which he attributes to several factors including the COVID-19 pandemic. Camarena said rural property thefts and drugs go hand-in-hand because people are stealing to support their habits.
One of the things Camarena said can help improve the Sheriff's Office is a updated records management system.
"In law enforcement, in order for you to be transparent and accountable, you need a system that meets the needs of a community," Camarena said.
Another task he sees is building a team of experts in various fields. Camarena wants to utilize more partnerships with local organizations, such as UCSB and its engineering students, which he said can help with technological changes.
The fentanyl crisis is also a priority for Camarena, a response to which, he said, should include a "multi-agency and cross-disciplinary collaboration" that's preventative in nature, because jail programs aren't doing enough.
The solution should focus on arresting suppliers and helping people with addiction, he said.
"Narcan is intervention but it's not prevention," Camarena said. "We have to come together, law enforcement doesn't have all of the solutions, we just have a seat at the table."
Brown has served as sheriff since 2007 following 14 years as Lompoc Police chief. Whichever candidate receives at least 50% of the vote will be the winner in the June 7 primary.
Camarena has earned endorsements from several local organizations, including the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriff's Association and the County Firefighters Association.