County’s 1st Female Undersheriff to Face Plenty of Tests

This month, Sheila Ashmun broke new terrain by becoming Shasta County’s first female undersheriff. Ashmun is No. 2 in command, the highest rank a female officer has held with the department.

Sheila Ashmun brings more than 20 years of experience with the Shasta County Sheriff's Department to her new position.

A veteran of 20 years in Shasta County law enforcement experience, Ashmun was appointed by Sheriff Tom Bosenko to succeed former undersheriff Greg Wrigley, who retired last month.

In a recent interview with A News Café, both Ashmun and Bosenko chatted about the appointment and the challenges the department faces amid ever-looming budget cuts.

Quick to smile, straightforward and personable, Ashmun acknowledges that she’s broken ground in terms of gender and rank, but says she really doesn’t dwell on it much beyond that.

“I’d like to think (Bosenko) chose me based on my ability and merit, my knowledge and what I’ve done throughout my career,” says Ashmun, who has worked as a watch commander at the jail, a detective and later captain in the major crimes division, a patrol supervisor, and a jail facility manager, among other positions.

All of those hats she’s worn, plus the qualities of being “analytical, logical, ethical, fair, and an independent thinker,” made her an excellent choice for the position, Bosenko said.

“She’s the right person for the right job,” Bosenko said. “Her personality is cool under fire. She also understands the stresses and challenges that lie ahead.”

More on the stresses and challenges the department faces in a moment.

First, a little on Ashmun’s philosophy about the profession of law enforcement: She says it’s a job that a person must have a genuine passion for. She believes officers should never lose their sense of humor, “because we don’t see lots of positives in this profession.”

“We don’t see people on their best days,” she says. “But I know our motivation is to do the best we can to keep people safe. The sheriff’s office culture here is big on mentoring our own and holding ourselves accountable. We have to be able to walk the walk and we can’t get negative. We love what we do and we’ll continue to do the best we can with whatever we have.”

In the coming months, Ashmun will likely face plenty of challenges to keep her core mission in mind. As the department’s chief financial officer, she is having to plan for a worst-case scenario: that the upcoming budget cycle could include reductions as large as $2 million.

Following an all-day budget meeting last week, Ashmun said it’s a daunting task to prepare for more cuts, especially when there have already been $4 million worth of reductions since 2009. As a result, an entire floor of the jail was closed, cutting the building’s 381-inmate capacity to about 241. Eliminating that jail space means about 140 inmates who would ordinarily remain incarcerated at any given time end up getting released. (There’s a formula for determining which prisoners are considered the least dangerous and they’re released first.)

There were also cuts to the Burney substation (it no longer has a public office), the closure of the records division on Fridays, and a huge reduction in the work-release program. In 2009, there were around 1,100 people working off their sentences through the program. That number has fallen to about 110 people involved in a modified work-release program.

“A year ago, we shed off just about everything we considered extras,” Ashmun said. “We’re pretty bare bones in terms of personnel and equipment. We don’t know what will happen with the state, but we have to look at the worst-case scenario. If it doesn’t happen, great. But we have to be prepared if it does happen.”

California Governor Jerry Brown is proposing to shift primary responsibility for a number of programs, along with a dedicated source of funding, to local governments – primarily counties – beginning in fiscal year 2011-12, which starts July 1. Counties would assume responsibility for $5.9 billion in program costs in 2011-12, rising to $7.3 billion in 2014-15. Brown proposes to fund these costs with revenues raised by extending the temporary .5 percentage point increase in vehicle licensing fees (VLF) and a temporary 1 percentage point increase in the sales tax rate – both of which expire on June 30, 2011 – for an additional five years.

Despite these looming storm clouds, Bosenko has stressed to his deputies that they must focus on providing the best service possible.

“We still have to do our jobs,” Bosenko said. “I tell (the deputies), ‘Do your job and don’t change what you’re doing. Jail staff will do its job.”

If another round of budget cuts become reality, it may mean response times will go up and less officers will be available, Bosenko said.

“But it’s this way up and down the state,” he added.

Ashmun said a fundamental challenge in Shasta County is that it’s big geographically and growing in population. (Consider the distance from Fall River Mills to Platina, both within the county.)

In addition to the jail situation, illegal marijuana crops grown by Mexican nationals continue to be a major issue in the county. Many Mexican growers have ties or work for the deadly Mexican drug cartels.

“We’re not talking about people growing for personal use,” Ashmun said. “These are revenue-generating gardens and the stakes are high. To lose a garden to law enforcement doesn’t play well for who they’re working with. They’ve become more brazen with the public. They’re not hiding in the bushes, they’re confronting people and telling them to stay out of the area.”

Ashmun began her career as a deputy in the main jail, where her duties included classification officer, jail training officer and watch commander. She was assigned to patrol operations in 1997, where she worked until she became a detective in the Major Crimes Division in 2000. She was promoted to sergeant in 2003, lieutenant in 2007 and captain last year. She’s married to Mike Ashmun, the department’s patrol operations captain.

For the record, Shasta County currently has 12 female corrections officers (out of 47) and eight female deputies (out of 50).

Ashmun, who manages the day-to-day operations of the sheriff’s department, says she has no aspirations of becoming Shasta County’s first female sheriff. She does, however, hope quality men and women continue to enter into the profession. She has advice for those who do.

“Get an education. Get a bachelor’s degree, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in criminal justice,” said Ashmun, who says she did it backward by getting her degree from National University after being on the job for a few years. Her bachelor of arts degree is in business and management with a concentration in human resources. “Stay in decent physical shape and be assertive and positive. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it.”

Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Jim Dyar

is a journalist who focuses on arts, entertainment, music and the outdoors. He is a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding and can be reached at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com

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