By Debra Moore
It’s been a grueling couple of years for Plumas County Sheriff Todd Johns — dealing with COVID-19 and back-to-back years of catastrophic fires — and now he is in the midst of an election.
Does he have time to campaign? “Very little,” he said, “but I do as much as I can.”
Johns is being challenged by retired Sheriff’s sergeant Dwight Cline. The two will be facing off in a forum sponsored by League of Women Voters on Wednesday, April 20, in Quincy. Both Cline and Johns visited with Plumas News this week and discussed the role of Sheriff, crime in Plumas County, and their plans for the future. Cline’s interview is being reported separately.
Johns, 54, has worked in the department for 31 years and was appointed Sheriff toward the end of 2019 by the Plumas County Board of Supervisors to succeed Sheriff Greg Hagwood who retired early from the position.
“I had two magical months and then COVID hit,” Johns said of his appointment. All of his plans — which included a resource officer in the schools and more community interaction — came to a halt. “It was catastrophic for us,” Johns said of a department that is used to interacting with the public. “We were taking crime calls over the phone.” Still, he said he and his officers did what they could to help the community survive the pandemic. “We went to bars and encouraged them to serve food so that they could be considered essential,” and remain open. In his dual role as head of the Office of Emergency Services he ordered PPE that could be handed out to businesses at no cost.
While COVID progressed – the fires arrived in the summer of 2020. First the Claremont, and then the Bear — they would later become the North Complex. Johns said that Plumas County has always been self-sufficient and his staff, along with the CHP, Fish and Wildlife, and the Forest Service handled the evacuations and the logistics. That would change the following year with the Dixie Fire when 86 agencies were involved. “My staff was trying to find housing, cooking for them … all while trying to manage the fire and their regular jobs,” he said.
Johns said his staff was working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes more. He was working 16 to 18 hours a day to manage as well. “These have been the toughest two years for the county,” he said. “If people in the county knew what my staff did, they would be amazed.”
It has been a roller coaster of COVID and fires, but now Johns hopes that he can implement the plans he had when he was appointed Sheriff. “I want to focus on community-oriented policing, back in front of the public,” he said. If money and staffing weren’t an issue he would have multiple deputies and a sergeant at each substation.
Still he has positions to fill and to accomplish that he needs to attract more correctional officers and deputies. “The number one priority now is pay raises,” he said, and not just for his staff but for others. He mentioned that the public works department is also experiencing critical staffing issues.
He knows it’s difficult to compete for law enforcement personnel because other agencies can offer higher pay, signing bonuses and various incentives. Johns said his approach is to grow deputies from within … get them working in the jail and then move them to the academy to become deputies. “It takes a bit longer, but in the end you get someone who wants to stay here,” he said. Johns thinks the new jail will entice more individuals to work for the sheriff’s office because it will provide a much better working environment.
His opponent has said that if Johns is re-elected there will be a mass exodus because his staff is unhappy. Johns addressed the issue. “People have come and gone for years,” he said of sheriff’s office staff. “I hope that the people who are unhappy right now will give me a chance to move things forward.” He addressed the difficulties of the past two years and said it has been a challenge, that his staff has been driven hard, but “We’re public servants above all.” Johns takes pride in the fact that no one lost their life in the Dixie Fire.
Johns also pointed to the fact that some staff who left for higher paying jobs have returned — two correctional officers and two dispatchers — which is a good indication.
He said he knows he is being bashed on social media about the lack of resident deputies in Chester, but he hopes to address that by offering a stipend for those who would live there, and he is working with the chamber of commerce to find short-term rental opportunities.
During the interview April 14, Johns responded to questions about increased crime in the county. “Crime increased in areas impacted by the fire and I expected that,” he said. He is taking steps to alleviate the situation by setting up cameras, working with PG&E to provide banks of solar lights, and increasing patrols as possible.
Johns is proud of the fact that during COVID, he didn’t release inmates from jail despite repeated requests to do so. He said his refusal was almost unheard of statewide.
One of the areas that concerns Johns is the increase in substance abuse, and the state laws which have become more lenient. Some of the most violent crimes that have happened in recent years have been the result of alcohol and drug abuse. “They concern me; they’re all high on meth,” he said, of when they committed the crimes.
Property crimes are also on the rise in general, and Johns said it’s not the “time when you can leave your keys in your truck.” He encourages residents to be vigilant and advocates the use of devices such as Ring cameras, as well as Neighborhood Watch programs.
Johns could retire next month, but “there’s too much riding on it to walk away.” He wants to see the county recover from COVID by helping businesses flourish. He has been deeply engaged in the post-fire rebuilding process– not just for his hometown of Greenville, but for all of the destroyed areas. “I’ve fostered these relationships with state and federal agencies,” he said, and mentioned several situations where he saw a need, called one of his contacts and had it fulfilled.
He described riding in a car with an OES supervisor who was frustrated by the traffic delays and tried to text Caltrans only to discover that his phone didn’t work. He experienced what locals do daily. He asked Johns what he could do to help, and Johns asked for 50 refrigerators, knowing that the returning residents would need them. When those were quickly given out, he asked for and received 50 more. He mentioned other instances that people might not know. He said he fought to return Chester residents to their homes sooner than the Forest Service wanted, and then made sure there were Dumpsters available when Waste Management wouldn’t enter the area.
“I like to think I have the ability to make things happen,” he said and knows there’s still much more to be done.
Additionally, Johns wants to see the jail project completed and be able to fully staff it. “There is still much to accomplish so I’m committed to do this for four years,” he said.