Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff grabbed a narrow early lead Tuesday evening in his reelection bid, edging out sheriff’s Lt. Chad Bianco in a race that will apparently not be decided until November.

Sniff was appointed in October 2007 to finish out the term of then-Sheriff Bob Doyle, who left the county for a state position. Since then, Sniff has been elected to two full terms.

In 2014, he successfully fended off a challenge from Bianco, of Riverside, who launched another challenge in Tuesday’s election, along with former Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown and sheriff’s Deputy Miguel Garcia of Beaumont.

Early returns showed Sniff with about 35 percent of the vote, followed by Bianco with 33 percent.

Bianco, who was endorsed by the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association — representing all the line deputies under Sniff’s command — has echoed concerns he advanced during the 2014 race that the department has been poorly managed, and the sheriff is out of touch with the community’s needs.

“I’ll start (my term in office) by repairing the relationship between the sheriff and our deputies and will work to bring the entire public safety community in Riverside County together to make our county a safe place to live and work once again,” Bianco said in campaign literature. “Under my leadership, the sheriff’s department will be focused on community-oriented policing and a proactive approach to crime reduction.”

Bianco highlighted his opposition to Senate Bill 54, the so-called “Sanctuary State” legislation that largely prohibits local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal authorities in enforcing immigration law. The candidate, a self-identified Second Amendment stalwart, also said he would put an emphasis on expediting the process of issuing concealed firearms licenses.

Sniff has been criticized for failing to address a months-long backlog of applications for concealed carry permits. He recently announced that funds from a sub account would be used to trim the backlog.

The incumbent was endorsed by the advocacy group Gun Owners of California for his pro-Second Amendment positions.

Sniff shied away from confrontation in the campaign, choosing instead to run on his record. He has not appeared before the Board of Supervisors during several contentious budget hearings, including one in February during which retiring Supervisor John Tavaglione, who endorsed Brown, chided the sheriff for behaving “like a child” because of his attitude toward the county’s $40 million contract with Netherlands-based professional services firm KPMG.

The company is heading a data-driven revamp of public safety and general government operations to make them run more efficiently. Critics, the sheriff among them, have denounced the work as a waste of time and money. However, Supervisor Marion Ashley asserted earlier this week that KPMG’s efforts have netted more than $90 million in long-term savings.

A growing concern for the county is the lack of deputies in unincorporated communities, where only two patrol deputies might be available at a given time for a space covering several hundred square miles. Sniff has repeatedly complained to the board that he’s hamstrung by escalating costs associated with union contracts, inter-agency services and the new John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, leaving few resources to fund more deputies in the unincorporated areas.

Brown has ridiculed Sniff for what he calls slipshod management, stating in a campaign advertisement that the sheriff’s budget is “almost $800 million a year, and yet he continues to tell us he needs more money to keep us safe.”

“The sheriff doesn’t need more money. The sheriff needs to embrace modern technology and 21st century policing tactics,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the sheriff’s department is in disrepair that’s reflected in a “staffing crisis” stemming from Sniff’s “driving out qualified, competent, highly trained, committed deputies” due to his administrative practices. Brown insists he can be a turnaround agent.

The sheriff has acknowledged a steady attrition rate in the past, but he has pointed to a lack of county incentives to retain personnel, as well as inducements from other law enforcement agencies that lure deputies away.

Sniff is also quick to note that, despite his challengers’ grievances against him, the county’s overall crime rate has dropped on his watch, falling almost 9 percent last year. On his website, the sheriff spotlights his “four decades of law enforcement experience,” as well as more than three decades as a U.S. Army reservist, contrasting his experience level with his challengers’, the least experienced of whom is Garcia.

According to the five-year peace officer, the sheriff’s department “lacks efficiency and modern ways of practicing law enforcement.”

“I will bring back the human touch to doing business,” Garcia states in campaign literature. “The employees will be empowered to come up with the solutions to existing issues. As Riverside County sheriff, I will never have all the answers; however, I will entrust others to assist in creating viable solutions.”

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