Meet Christina Corpus, San Mateo County’s first Latina sheriff

Meet Christina Corpus, San Mateo County’s first Latina sheriff

in Community

By any measure, Christina Corpus’s career in law enforcement was a success—notable, in particular, for her groundbreaking status as a Latina who rose steadily through the ranks of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

A sheriff’s captain who was serving as titular chief of police in Millbrae, she was well regarded by her colleagues as unusually compassionate and sensitive without surrendering any sense of the authority bestowed by rank. After more than two decades in the sheriff’s office, she was considering retirement and, only in her 50s, pursuing a variety of other interests.

But she also was unhappy with the department in which she had grown up and for whose staff she felt an abiding and caring loyalty. She was convinced the sheriff’s office had lost its way. It was losing deputies at a rapid rate. She believed standards had drifted and the wrong people—a group of insiders—were in charge and failing to provide the level of technical and personal support badly needed by an overworked rank-and-file.

For all those reasons, and because of her own credentials and a quiet, confident manner that pervaded her leadership style, she was being urged to run for sheriff against entrenched, well-financed incumbent Carlos Bolanos. And she was thinking hard about what it would mean to run and possibly to lose.

This story first appeared in the January edition of Climate Magazine

Not the least of her concerns was that she would be running against her boss. It was not inconceivable that an offhand criticism in the heat of the campaign could be turned by the incumbent into an accusation of insubordination.

Then there was the prevailing and widespread discomfort with law enforcement since the George Floyd killing and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with an associated ad hoc effort locally to create an independent commission that would oversee the sheriff’s department. There may have been a coalition of interests who would support a challenge to Bolanos, but that would only increase the pressure on the campaign, and Corpus, should she win.

Decision Time

As she tells the story, Corpus reached a point where it was time to decide, and she lay awake at night. Better than anyone, she could list all the reasons why she should not take on Bolanos.

“I had everything against me,” she says. In particular, her opponent would be an incumbent with a substantial war chest and prominent endorsements. “But I didn’t see him out there,” Corpus says, “talking to people who would vote.”

That night, she concluded, “Fear is the devil’s answer. … I can do the unthinkable.”

It turned out to be entirely doable.

Outspent almost 4-to-1, Corpus defeated Bolanos by nearly 14 points, a substantial and convincing victory. She is the first female and Hispanic sheriff in San Mateo County’s 167-year history. Along with Yesenia Sanchez, voted into office in Alameda County last June, Corpus is one of the first two Latinas ever elected sheriff in California. She is scheduled to be sworn in on January 3.

It is tempting to use the widely favored line that there’s a new sheriff in town. It may be more accurate to say it is an entirely new era—with a new set of expectations.

Crime Victim Turned Cop

Corpus can trace the precise moment she decided to enter law enforcement. The daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico and raised by a single mom, she worked a variety of jobs, including babysitting and helping her mother clean the skyboxes at Candlestick Park. She saved her money and, at 16, bought her first car, a Toyota pickup truck.

One night, she drove to Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno and parked outside a record store to wait for a friend. There was a tap on the window. A man was standing outside.

“I could just see the barrel of the gun,” Corpus says. The man forced himself inside, pistol-whipped her and tried to hijack the truck and kidnap her. She fought back and made her way out of the truck. The man took off and, after a high-speed chase that involved gunfire, was arrested in Daly City.

“The way the San Bruno Police Department helped me,” Corpus says, “they were compassionate, thoughtful, caring. They really gave me confidence at the scene and through the trial. Ever since then, I wanted to be a law enforcement officer.”

She attended City College of San Francisco and College of San Mateo, and held a variety of jobs before landing a position in 1995 as a receptionist at the county’s Department of Child Support Services, which operates under the district attorney’s office. Ultimately, she became a caseworker before applying for a position with the sheriff’s office.

A Latina who stood a petite 5-feet-2, she took the department’s exam in “a room full of men,” many of whom, in her own words, “looked like they should be on a football team.”

Out of 150 applicants, Corpus and another woman were the only two to be offered positions as corrections officers. She was happy, but she had no illusions about the career she on which she had embarked.

“I work in a male-dominated field,” Corpus says in an interview in her sparsely decorated office at the Millbrae police station. On one wall is a sign that reads: “Be Bold. Be Fearless.” On her desk is a small model of the iconic Star Wars robot, R2D2.  It’s a reference, she says, to law enforcement as “the last Jedi.”

“Because of my size and how I look, sometimes people don’t take me seriously,” she says. “I had to work twice as hard. I knew I would have a tough road and had to prove myself.”

Eyes Opened

In 2002, she went to work in the county women’s jail. There, she saw not hardened criminals, but women with drug problems, women who had been exploited and abused—emotionally and physically—by lovers, family and friends.

It was a revelation. “I learned not to be judgmental about people based on how you meet them,” Corpus says.

Soon, she was promoted to deputy, and began 20 years of steady advancement. She was assigned to patrol in North Fair Oaks, where she found she had a knack for community policing and engagement. It’s also where she met her husband, John Kovach, who retired last year as a sheriff’s lieutenant.

Her career ran a broad gamut—commander of the North Fair Oaks Bureau, the operations division, the Bayside Patrol Bureau, the K-9 unit, among others—reflecting promotions up the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant and, ultimately, to captain. She assumed a growing range of responsibilities. Along the way, she started or ran more than a dozen programs, including a local branch of the I’mPossible Run Club for children, a Women in Law Enforcement Boot Camp and Symposium and an initiative that surveys the community about law enforcement performance.

She has also served as a board member for several local nonprofits, including Casa Circulo Cultural in North Fair Oaks and Redwood City-based LifeMoves, which addresses homelessness. During all this, Corpus obtained a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement leadership from Union Institute and University, an Ohio-based online college—all while working full-time and raising two children.

For all the places she went, her career repeatedly led her back to community policing, and to North Fair Oaks, where “I look like the community. When you have commonality with the community, it opens some doors.” And builds relationships. When Corpus was pregnant with her first child, the residents of North Fair Oaks surprised her with a baby shower.

“These are the people who, all they wanted was to help their children have a better life,” Corpus says. “I was always around for people.”

Odd Woman Out

Still, she felt like an outsider in a sheriff’s office whose hierarchy she found increasingly insular. She was transferred to Millbrae, where the sheriff’s office serves as the police department. It was quieter and allowed her to obtain a master’s degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership from the University of San Diego in 2021.

Maybe the department’s leaders thought they were shipping her to an outpost where she could be shunted aside. “I guess I wasn’t in line with the administration,” she says. “I wasn’t in line with that group.”

If that was the case, it may have been a strategic error. “It gave me time to reflect,” she says, and to consider changes the office needed, and whether she was the person to bring them about.

She hired Dan Mullen, a Petaluma-based campaign consultant who could look at the race against Bolanos unburdened by any conventional wisdom that might discount her chances of winning.

He concluded: “There was an appetite among voters for change.”

High Expectations

That appetite has not slackened. Corpus won the election with considerable support from a loose coalition of people dissatisfied with Bolanos. Some were still angry at then-Undersheriff Bolanos for being on the scene at a police raid of a Las Vegas massage parlor in 2007. Others opposed his policy of cooperating with ICE in handing over county prisoners as they left jail. Some felt Bolanos had done little to make himself a high-profile and accessible presence in the community. Still others worried about incidents that resulted in accusations that sheriff’s personnel had used undue and, in some cases, lethal, force.

And there was a broad, underlying desire for law enforcement to change. It was often called “defund the police,” but, more generally, it reflected an aspiration for greater accountability within police departments, better resources for responding to mental health issues that devolved into police activity and better training in de-escalating confrontations.

Even as the campaign for sheriff got underway, an ad hoc group, Fixin’ San Mateo County, began lobbying for a civilian oversight board and inspector general that would have direct jurisdiction over the sheriff’s office to investigate complaints of abuse, excessive force and other misconduct. Both entities would have subpoena power. It has been endorsed by nearly every elected official in the county, and the board of supervisors has appointed a subcommittee to research the idea.

Acknowledging that many of the people behind the oversight effort supported her, Corpus nonetheless is wary of such an organization.

The membership of the board “has to be people who understand law enforcement,” she says. “Lived experience is not enough. This could be a recipe for disaster. This really needs to be thought out.”

“I believe in transparency,” Corpus continues. “What I don’t want is something to be rushed. I really hope we can do some studies and look at what works best for San Mateo County. I hope they will give me a chance to be a sheriff that is about transparency, trust and accountability.”

Supporters of oversight say they believe Corpus will represent an improvement in transparency and accountability. They add that they’re worried about “the next sheriff” (after Corpus), who might lack her commitment.

In response, she says, quietly, “I want people to give me an opportunity.”

Internal Challenges

Then there are the issues within the department. Authorized for 800 positions, the sheriff’s office is down 75 personnel.

“It’s a hard time in law enforcement,” says Carlos Tapia, president of the San Mateo County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The 430-member union stayed neutral during the campaign.

“It has been a rough three years,” Tapia adds. “Morale’s at an all-time low.”

Working through the public’s rising distrust of the police has been especially difficult, says Tapia, a sergeant.

“The whole Floyd thing happened, and that was horrible,” he says.

Like virtually all organizations, the sheriff’s office was hit by the pandemic and associated staffing shortages that have led to 60- and 70-hour work weeks. That has been compounded by the absence of a contract and increasingly uncompetitive pay. Until last month, the deputy sheriffs had gone three years without a contract. The local cost of living is driving deputies to commute from farther and farther away. “It’s really hard to live in San Mateo County,” Tapia observes.

The election created its own internal strife, and the possible oversight board is another source of tension among the ranks.

“Do I believe in transparency? I absolutely do,” says Tapia. “I hate dirty cops. One does one thing wrong and it’s on all of us.” But they should “go through the process if they get in trouble. Let him have his day.”

Tapia says the state already mandates a law enforcement oversight agency with subpoena power, and the county should complement that with civilian advisory committees “in all the areas we patrol,” a position advocated by Corpus.

Leadership Matters

It starts at the top.

Look at any law enforcement agency and the behavior of individual cops is a direct reflection of the person with the most stars on the uniform collar and that person’s tolerance for misconduct.

Corpus expects to move swiftly to put into place an entirely new executive staff.

“It would be harmful if I kept the existing executive team,” she says. “It would be harmful to the organization. When people are loyal to one person, that is problematic. I want them to be loyal to the organization.”

She says she wants the opportunity to build trust within the ranks and within the community before any other major steps are taken.

Within the office, that means she will seek increased training in de-escalating potentially dangerous circumstances and in recognizing and responding to mental health issues, including programs and partnerships with mental health professionals. She plans to develop clear guidelines for the use of force, including tasers, and provide additional training in alternative methods.

She also says she wants to “change our model” and adopt practices, such as wellness programs, used in the private sector to recruit and retain employees.

“I think the majority of the organization is hopeful,” she says. “People are excited. There is a small fraction who are not excited. I will give people the opportunity to conform. I’m not asking them to do things I wouldn’t do myself.”

Externally, she plans to continue her practice of connecting with people, saying, “I want people to know I’m the sheriff because I’m out in the community.”

But she will have to find her way through a thicket of expectations, not all of which she embraces. Her views on the oversight board constitute one example. Another is her statement that she will exercise her authority to turn over to ICE recently released jail prisoners who represent a clear threat to the safety of the community. It is a position for which Bolanos was strongly criticized by advocates of zero cooperation with ICE.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Corpus says. “It’s going to be a really tough road.”

She hopes the public will be reassured by her commitment to key values that form almost a mantra in the frequency with which she recites them: Dignity, compassion, integrity, respect.

Of all the law enforcement executives in San Mateo County, only the sheriff is elected, directly accountable to the 738,000 residents served by the office.

“That’s a lot of bosses,” Corpus says. “I won’t be able to make everybody happy.”