Meet Adam McGill, sheriff candidate

01/27/2021

After a quarter of a century and only one contested election, Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle will retire from his post in 2022. The race for the seat has begun: Undersheriff Jamie Scardina, who was endorsed by the sheriff after two decades with the county department, announced his run against newcomer Adam McGill, the city manager of Novato.

This week, the Light spoke with Mr. McGill, after a soft launch of his campaign. The 48-year-old Novato resident and father of three had a 29-year career in law enforcement locally and abroad before making a career pivot in 2019 to serve as Novato’s city manager. Previously, he worked as Novato’s police chief for three years, and held the same role in Truckee and Newman. In 2010, he spent a stint as a senior police advisor to the United States State Department in Iraq. Originally from Modesto, his early years were spent working in the Central Valley. 

Mr. McGill’s interest in leading Marin’s law enforcement has grown as the nation takes a hard look at reforming policing, he told the Light this week. 

Light: What made you decide to run for Marin County sheriff?

McGill: I’m doing well in my current position, but my passion and my life has always been about public safety. For nearly 30 years in my adult life, that has been what I enjoy and what I believe I am good at. In the times that we are going through with policing, people will say, “This is a tough time to be a cop,” and, “You’re crazy: Why would you want to go back and do that with all of the things happening with George Floyd and with reforms?” And my point is that this is the best time. I don’t want to be on the sidelines and watch that happen. I know what my skill set is and what I can do as Marin County sheriff to make life better and safer for everyone in Marin, and I can’t do that as the city manager of Novato. I feel compelled to lead at this extraordinary point in time.

Light: What is your policing ethic?

McGill: What my record would say is that my policies and values in policing represent the most current research and thinking about policing—what’s commonly referred to as the 21st century policing initiative. It reflects many of the concepts that came out of the Obama administration. Going forward, there will be other issues I haven’t addressed yet. For now, what I will say is that my values will always be reflected in my decisions, and that I am a relationship-centered person. 

I am going to spend a lot of time listening and learning from all of the stakeholders involved in an issue. I will take all that information and hold it up against my own experience and training, and from that a decision will come out on whatever the controversial policy is. This is a long campaign and we have a long way to go, so we will have to see what the issues are and what is on people’s minds as the campaign progresses. 

Light: What is your view on Marin’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement? 

McGill: California has a law, S.B. 54. The legislature makes the law and, as law enforcement officers, our job is to enforce it. We take an oath of office to enforce the laws of the State of California. I obviously commit to following all laws, including the S.B. 54 section that talks about relationships with ICE. We will see how that develops with a new administration, and if new guidance comes out and new laws related to immigration… 

My commitment would be to listen to everyone involved in this issue—ICE Out of Marin and others that have opinions. Certainly, public safety officers and the Board of Supervisors. Like I said before, I’m a relationship person, and so that doesn’t mean we would agree on every issue—whether it’s an organization promoting some sort of activism or the supervisors themselves—but I am a person who looks for common ground and looks for solutions.

Light: Tell me more about the immigration policies in Novato, where you were chief between 2017 and 2019. 

McGill: We have a policy in Novato that prohibits the police from arresting people that are undocumented or asking about their documentation or their citizen status. We do not share with ICE. That’s not the role of the local police. Some sheriff’s departments do that. Our policy is a model policy approved by the A.C.L.U. and that’s consistent with all of the laws of the United States and California. 

The point of it is that just like anyone else, those in the undocumented community are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and there’s also a lot of fraud in that community. Just like any other community, people are taken advantage of. If we create a barrier of fear to where undocumented people will not report to the police that they are being victimized, and even potentially physically harmed—or their children harmed—because of fear of deportation, the police aren’t doing what their primary role is: to protect everyone. 

Light: Last year, supervisors withheld some of a budget increase for racial equity initiatives. What did you think about that decision?

McGill: What I would say regarding the defund movement is that it is not a zero-sum, either-or scenario, in my view. The answer is generally in the middle, with a compromise. I like to think that if there’s a strong relationship with the supervisors, that we can work something out that is mutually agreeable instead of some sort of mandate or controversial issue. I think when relationships deteriorate to that point, that’s when our constituents suffer—when their elected officials are not getting along or on the same page. 

Light: In West Marin, the reduction in funding meant that our nighttime patrol hours were cut. 

McGill: My position in general, and on the issue of your deputies on the coast, is that patrol and answering 911 calls is the centerpiece of public safety, and always has to be a priority. I would always fill those positions before others. When people call 911, we have to go and we have to answer. We can’t say, “There’s no one in your area.” Whether that’s on the coast, the center of Los Angeles, or San Rafael, or wherever, my philosophical position is patrol is always fully staffed. And if we have to compromise in other areas because of budget, or people are out injured or on vacations or training or whatever the situation is, it doesn’t come from the patrol side. People need to feel safe in their communities.

Light: How do you look at policing in West Marin in particular?

McGill: I was police chief in Truckee for five years, so I am very experienced in policing issues in a resort community. We’d go from almost 20,000 people living there to 50,000 people on the weekends all through the year, summer and winter. I’m very versed in the massive traffic influx for moments and then how it turns into a ghost town, and how you have to ramp up and down and all of the safety issues that come with it—parking, neighbor frustrations. I have a lot of experience with that and I’m comfortable with that and we would work very closely with the leaders of those communities to address those concerns. 

Light: How will you ensure that people of different races are treated equally by law enforcement in Marin?

McGill: I’ve talked about this a lot, and it has to do with building community trust and relationships: My door is open to everyone. I talk to any group, anybody. I want to learn what their lived experience is and then apply that to my decision making. The short answer is that I use my ears a lot, listening and truly hearing people. I think what it does when you do that is you build relationships and trust with people. We can disagree but still have a relationship and have trust. 

We’ve done that in Novato. I’m proud of our relationship with our Latino community here. I have relationships with all age groups. With our Islamic Center, our Jewish Center—I have built, over time, relationships with all of these groups. We are on a first-name basis, they are texting me, we are talking to each other. That’s how you do it. Word spreads that we can have a relationship and they can call me and say, “We don’t like what’s going on with x,” and I can say, “You’re 100 percent right and we are going to come in and take care of that.” Or I can say, “Here are the facts. Let’s watch the video together or listen to the recording, or whatever it might be.” They know they can call me and have that kind of dialogue. Turning people away or dismissing them or calling them names for providing public comment or rolling their eyes at them is not building a relationship—that’s building division.

Light: Sheriff Doyle has been in office since 1996. What’s your view on his tenure?

McGill: I don’t know if I want to say anything directly about the sheriff. His record speaks for itself. I’ll just say that generally from a leadership perspective—whether it’s in the private sector, military, or law enforcement—that it’s healthy to have a new leader from time to time, to inject new ideas and to adjust to culture and to inspire and to make any course corrections in the organization. I think it’s healthy… 

Twenty-four years as a C.E.O., so to speak, is a long time. He could have been doing a great job for every one of those years, so I’m not saying he hasn’t. But, generally, I think it’s healthy to have a new leader from time to time. Presidency is four years and then you can run again, but then that’s it. I also think it’s healthy to give voters a choice, rather than someone just being handed the office. This is an elected position and the people of Marin County deserve to choose who the best person is for that job. 

My approach to policing is different… In community policing, a lot of police executives get it wrong: “I’m the chief. I’m the sheriff. I know what’s best.” That’s the complete opposite of what community policing is: You listen and learn from your community and what they need and want, and then you respond and you police that way.

For example, we may think gangs are out of control, but what you hear from the neighborhood is that people are upset about speeding. If we don’t put any traffic enforcement in, then all we are doing is creating this divide in the community because they think we are unresponsive. We are working really hard on another issue, and not listening to what is on their mind. They are upset about the speeders, and if we focused on the speeders, it would build trust. It doesn’t mean we take our eyes off the ball on other things, but if you aren’t listening to the community, that divide just continues to grow and grow until it’s broken.

And that’s how you get George Floyd and all the issues that we see, because those communities have no relationship with their police departments. And so one bad thing turns into a systemic issue.

Light: What should we know about your past experience that primes you for this position?

McGill: Different from my opponent, I’ve worked in other places, so what I bring with me is a broad base of experiences… I worked for two years with the State Department during the Obama administration when [Hillary] Clinton was the Secretary of State and I was a senior advisor in Iraq for democratic policing principles. I was exposed to leaders from all over the world [in that position]; I worked in the three different cities as a police chief; I’ve worked with different city managers and department heads. All of that is packaged into me, and I bring that with me—that diverse background—that I can bring with me to leadership in this county.

Marin County Sheriff candidate Adam McGill. - Courtesy of Adam McGill