A Golden Gloves boxing tournament, sponsored by the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Activities League (DSAL).

‘The Journey to Trust Is Long’

The Sheriff’s Office in unincorporated Alameda County provides civic services in the absence of a local government. Is this “community capitals policing” a model for public engagement or law enforcement overreach?

Story by Emily Nonko

Photography by Eddie Herena

Published on

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

On a cold and drizzly Friday night, a crowd began to build inside the Hayward Adult School. The continuing education campus, a series of low-slung buildings situated around a concrete courtyard, was hosting California’s Golden Gloves boxing tournament inside its modest gym.

Attendees rushed across the flood-lit courtyard, trying to escape the rain, and were greeted by two young police cadets, in full uniform, doling out $25 tickets for the event inside. A small group of officers chatted by the front door; a few more wandered through the entrance toward the ring.

Inside, a flurry of dark blue uniforms, some with yellow stitching spelling out Cadet or Explorer across the upper back. A deputy serving as DJ blared Jackson Five, K Camp and Spice Girls. Two explorers — part of a youth law enforcement program — stood as gatekeepers to the VIP section surrounding the boxing ring, while cadets walked the floor selling tickets to a 50/50 raffle. A camera hung around one officer’s neck; another officer snuck in a dance move.

This wasn’t an unfamiliar sight for the plain-clothed crowd gathering on the bleachers. For anyone taken aback by the significant law-enforcement presence, as the music quieted, Terrance Montigue — a boxing coach and sergeant with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office — stepped inside the ring to explain.

He taps the mic several times. “All right, we’re going to get this party started, so to speak,” he tells the crowd. Montigue explains he coaches through the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Activities League — known as DSAL — an arm of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office that offers a boxing academy and was hosting the Golden Gloves for the second consecutive year.

He thanks the crowd for coming as well as the event staff of explorers, cadets and deputies wandering the gym in uniform. “None of this would be possible without Captain Neideffer, who created DSAL sports,” he continues. “A big round of applause for Captain Neideffer.” Captain Marty Neideffer stands briefly, not in uniform; he’s known for donning a business suit instead.

For the past 15 years, as described by the East Bay Express, “Neideffer has been building something unusual in American policing.” In partnership with Hilary Bass, who he met while she served as resident services coordinator for a local housing developer, he established DSAL as a nonprofit for the sheriff’s office to run community farms, athletic leagues and events from the Golden Gloves to Friday night markets.

Along the way Neideffer and Bass built off the community policing philosophy to establish what they call “community capitals policing.” Their work revolves around a target locale: the unincorporated communities of Ashland and Cherryland, where DSAL has gained a prominent presence.

Ashland and Cherryland are wedged between the cities of San Leandro and Hayward within Alameda County, which covers 821 square miles across Northern California’s East Bay. Being unincorporated means the area lacks many things, most crucially a local governance structure and local representatives. To Neideffer, it presented an opportunity for the sheriff’s office to offer resources and build trust in two communities with high crime and what he saw as ineffective law-and-order policing.

But there are residents increasingly uneasy about the growing, changing role of law enforcement, pointing out that Ashland and Cherryland are home to undocumented residents and those with traumatic experiences involving the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. To these community organizers — working in spaces that include a local church, neighborhood association and larger grassroots organizations — DSAL’s growth prompts questions of civic representation, resource distribution, and the role of law enforcement in a community.

“Where does the sheriff end and the community begin?” asks 24-year-old Marco, outside a youth center in Ashland that became a point of controversy last year, when the county proposed that the sheriff’s office take over operations. (He asked that only his first name be used.)

Marco expresses distrust about community capitals policing in the neighborhood he grew up in. “There’s a very blurred line,” he says, “And there needs to be limits.”

Unincorporated and Overlooked

Neideffer also grew up in Ashland, one of seven kids in a Catholic family, when the area was “a working-class enclave,” he recalls. As part of early 20th-century development of the Bay Area, canneries and packing facilities replaced farms and orchards in the unincorporated area east of Oakland. Ashland and Cherryland developed as neighborhoods in the 1940s and 50s to serve the growing industrial sector.

Neideffer remembers growing up with small businesses, a strong union presence, and things for kids and working-class families to do. But Ashland and Cherryland experienced the same decline as many U.S. cities: factories and white residents left; disinvestment and neglect took hold.

Captain Marty Neideffer. (Photo by Emily Nonko)

Being unincorporated exacerbated this. In California, unincorporated communities are outside city boundaries and are governed by the county’s elected board of supervisors. A supervisor’s district can include one or more cities as well as one or more unincorporated areas — meaning that Ashland and Cherryland have no dedicated political representatives or city council.

The main drag of East 14th Street — which cuts through Ashland and Cherryland before hitting the incorporated city of Hayward — became desolate without economic development initiatives. There were no theaters, music venues, art galleries, libraries or public gathering hubs, and limited open space. The area is considered a food desert.

A real estate boom that began in San Francisco and carried across the bay hasn’t helped matters; in fact, a report found that Alameda County has re-segregated since 2000.

University of California, Berkeley reported that as Bay Area housing prices rose between 2000 and 2015, “some flatland areas of Oakland and Berkeley lost thousands of low-income Black households … Meanwhile, low-income Black, Asian and Latinx populations grew significantly in southern Alameda County cities such as San Leandro, Hayward, and the unincorporated communities of Ashland and Cherryland.”

There are huge county discrepancies for Ashland and Cherryland in unemployment, poverty, vacancy and chronic disease. The crime rate for assaults and robberies was nearly three times the rate than other communities in the area. Life expectancy in the city of Piedmont is approximately 10 years longer than in Cherryland, though they’re only 15 miles apart.

This is not to say the two communities are a monolith. “The only thing Ashland and Cherryland have in common is poverty,” says Arlene Nehring, a senior minister leading community organizing work through Eden United Church of Christ in Cherryland. Today Cherryland has a growing population of first-generation, Spanish-speaking immigrants. Ashland has a diverse, low-to-middle income population with a higher number of African-American residents. While Hispanic and Latino residents represent the largest demographic in both places (43 percent in Ashland and 54 percent in Cherryland, according to the county), communities form around where residents immigrated from.

Such diversity means there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for the unincorporated communities, Nehring stresses. Still, beyond the Sheriff’s Office, greater Alameda County has made a significant attempt to address the issues.

Nate Miley is an Alameda County supervisor who represents the area and is, given the lack of official local representation, essentially the mayor of Ashland and Cherryland. Establishing formal civic representation is a major goal before he leaves office in five years, according to Claudia Albano, Miley’s deputy chief of staff.

Albano, with a background in both community organizing and government, was lured from retirement by Miley to oversee these efforts. She scrawls complex webs of information across a whiteboard to explain the organizing strategy — she’s also a lecturer at the School of Social Welfare at Berkeley — and peppers her speech with expletives.

Ashland and Cherryland, she notes, are a small part of Miley’s district with low voter registration and turnout. The work to her has greater meaning. “This is a social justice issue. It’s an equity issue,” Albano says. “It’s not about where votes come from — it’s about doing what’s right.”

For several years the office recruited local leadership to build an organized community voice. The group now advocates for a Municipal Advisory Council, which would offer some official political representation to unincorporated areas, as well as an improved county budget process so unincorporated areas have more input and review.

It’s no mistake, Albano adds, that whiter, wealthier unincorporated areas in Alameda County already have municipal advisory councils.

One major organizing challenge, Albano notes, is that many Ashland and Cherryland residents have no idea they live in unincorporated areas: their zip code reflects the incorporated cities of Hayward and San Leandro. The sentiment is echoed by Barisha Spriggs, a member of the Ashland Community Association who also advocates for the Municipal Advisory Council. “Our post office is in San Leandro,” Spriggs points out, “But we get no funds from the city of San Leandro.”

“We’re not ICE,” Sergeant Oscar Perez, who also serves as a DSAL boxing coach, says point blank. “In a predominantly undocumented community, we still fill our [boxing] classes. The community is not scared to come to a gym they know is operated by the sheriff’s office.”

Albano and Spriggs both believe establishing a civic structure and local representation for Ashland and Cherryland is an urgent social justice issue, but their opinions differ on the role of the sheriff’s office. “The sheriff is a bandage, it is not a real solution,” says Spriggs. She doesn’t want a community that depends on law enforcement to provide recreational activities at parks, health services, or spur economic development. “Because it is unincorporated, it’s why [the sheriff’s office] has so much control,” Spriggs says. “We want to be independent like any city.”

Albano views the sheriff’s office as a crucial partner in working toward a Municipal Advisory Council. And she believes that community capitals policing could become a model for the country. “If all we did was look at police work with a terrible brush, how will we change or reform it?” she asks. “We have to look at the innovative stuff. This is the most innovative shit I’ve ever seen in community policing.”

Keeping Kids Engaged: Sports and Farming

The REACH Ashland Youth Center, a sleek modern building fronted by a plaza, park and playground, is easy to spot on the mostly drab drag of East 14th Street. Where there are pockets of vibrancy — a community garden, colorful mural, soccer fields — it’s likely DSAL has something to do with it.

Hilary Bass.

Neideffer calls REACH “the house that Hilary built,” referring to Hilary Bass, his partner in growing the DSAL nonprofit through the sheriff’s office. A center like this was a far-off aspiration 15 years ago, when Bass was a 25-year-old resident services coordinator and Neideffer was a school resource officer. Back then a major problem facing youth in the unincorporated area was a lack of things to do.

“There was just nothing to do for kids — at all,” explains Evelini Bogart, who met Bass at age 11. Bogart lost her father, was looking for a job to help support her family, and became a member of a youth leadership council started by Bass. “In our area a lot of parents work full-time, so the kids are on their own,” Bogart, now 23, says.

“The kids who were constantly finding their way in front of school resource officers were in circumstances of poverty and did not have a lot of options to do things,” Neideffer echoes. “This idea of diverting, or addressing that gap, was what prompted the start of the Deputy Sheriff’s Activity League.” He formed DSAL as a nonprofit in 2004. Around the same time, Bass was busy organizing the youth leadership council in hosting talent shows, movie nights and violence prevention rallies.

The two met at a meeting of the Ashland Violence Prevention Collaborative and discovered their aligning interest in youth programming. “I had some money for programming, and she had programming ideas without the money,” Neideffer explains. The sheriff’s office officially hired Bass as DSAL’s program director in 2009.

Thinking about opportunities for young people in Ashland and Cherryland informed Neideffer and Bass’ vision of public safety and policing within a community. “You tap that vein of what’s impacting kid’s behaviors, what’s impacting crime, what dynamics are involved in that,” Neideffer says. Law enforcement intersects with conditions of poverty, economic opportunity, health, addiction and other quality of life issues. “But all these different sectors, all these different agencies, are trying to tackle the same problem from their own siloed area,” Neideffer says.

The pair envisioned DSAL as a nonprofit offshoot of the sheriff’s office that could more holistically, and creatively, address matters of public safety. To address young people lacking activities, they launched free boxing and soccer leagues coached by professionals and members of the sheriff’s office.

Dig Deep Farms comprises 8 acres across 3 sites in the county, and provides employment and training for returning citizens.

To address the food desert and limited economic opportunities, in 2011 DSAL launched Dig Deep Farms. Two urban farm sites, havens of green off East 14th, provide internships to formerly-incarcerated adults and youth on probation.

To utilize law enforcement in supporting community revitalization, DSAL partnered with other county agencies to launch Eden Night Live inside a long-vacant East 14th lot. A Criminal Justice Innovation Award funded the series of pop-up festivals, which ran July to December 2016 and July to December 2017, with music, arts, games, sports and local food vendors. The Urban Institute profiled the event as a successful effort in urban placemaking and “building beyond policing.”

During this work, the sheriff’s office promoted Neideffer to captain and brought DSAL into its Youth and Family Services Bureau, which includes behavioral health professionals. In tandem, the sheriff’s office expanded from four therapists to 16 licensed clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists to better focus on reentry from jail, juvenile diversion and family counseling.

On the fence surrounding the Eden Night Live site — now used for DSAL soccer practice — hangs a sign that reads “Healthy Vibrant Community With a Vital Economy.” The words are printed inside the outline of a sheriff’s badge. Surrounding text breaks down the type of capital that goes into this work: social, political, cultural, natural, human, financial and built.

It’s the sheriff’s office vision of community capitals policing: reentry practices, creative placemaking, economic development, social enterprise, sports and fitness programs, all to change how law enforcement can serve their community.

Who Should Run the Youth Center?

In April 2018, the East Bay Express ran an article that wondered “is Alameda County’s Sheriff reaching too far?” Conversations around the role of law enforcement in Ashland and Cherryland came to a head when Supervisor Miley proposed that operation of REACH transfer from the county’s Health Care Services Agency to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

Before REACH was built, Bass’ youth leadership council spent an entire decade advocating for it. “We would go to these very long, boring board meetings with all these adults who looked at us funny,” Bogart recalls. “We kind of rallied for the youth who had no voice.”

The REACH Ashland Youth Center. 

It was among the last projects selected as part of a redevelopment program of Alameda County, before the state slashed the funding. The $23-million center opened in 2013 with a health clinic, library, cafe, computer lab, study hall, art room, recording studio and gym. SFGate dubbed REACH the “Taj Mahal of Youth Centers.” For those who join, all services, including healthcare, are provided free.

Since its opening, the county’s Health Care Services Agency operated REACH. But when it came to operations, the sheriff’s office and health care agency clashed. “When we first came together, there wasn’t enough acknowledgment around our differences,” says Lisa Warhuus, who is part of the agency and interim director of REACH. “It could lead to conflict and misunderstanding — our governing rules and guidelines conflict sometimes. We didn’t know each other’s rules, and didn’t take enough time to learn and understand them.”

There’s been persistent disagreement around the presence of uniformed, armed deputies, who kept an office on the second floor. A sheriff’s office grant funded five officers to work out of REACH; Health Care Services Agency felt that number was too high. Ultimately all uniformed officers left the center.

A petition signed by about 300 parents, many of them Latino immigrants, emerged to support deputies as part of REACH operations. Then, in December 2017, Supervisor Miley proposed a management takeover by the sheriff’s office. The decision overestimated the community’s comfort with law enforcement.

Opposition took hold in early 2018. “There was no oversight, or any formal assessment of the current staff … they didn’t ask the youth or community members,” Marco recounts on another rainy day outside REACH. He and Barisha Spriggs, of the Ashland Community Association, were manning a table underneath the center’s overhang to distribute care packages to homeless residents.

Spriggs started a Change.org petition against the sheriff’s office taking over. It gained the attention of larger grassroots organizations, like Ella Baker Center, which has taken strong stances against abuses within the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and spoke out against REACH’s management change.

Barisha Spriggs.

Nehring, of Cherryland’s Eden Church, wrote an open letter to Supervisor Miley and gathered over 250 signatures from residents expressing concern over the proposed takeover, as well as lack of public oversight. Nehring, who’s seen a significant increase of undocumented residents in her parish, expressed concern with young people providing their parent’s contact information to become members of REACH. It could have a chilling effect, she thought, if management was under the sheriff.

In response to outcry and calls for more accountability, the county decided to retain leadership with the Health Care Services Agency. Neideffer is not defensive about the pushback. “This was an earthquake worth having,” he recounts in his office. “It reset the conversation.”

It was one example of growing pains DSAL and the sheriff’s office have hit while expanding and interacting with county agencies outside law enforcement. But both Neideffer and Warhuus say the controversy set the two agencies on a better path to work together moving forward.

The presence of uniformed officers remains unsettled. Marco says he and other youth do not support their presence, expressed at an open forum held about six months after REACH’s proposed management change. On a February visit with Bass, there were none to be found.

Bass gives an impassioned tour of REACH that retains a hint of disbelief she and her youth leadership council actually pulled this off. But it was an awkward place to discuss the presence of uniformed officers; not all the organizations who operate out of REACH have been in agreement about the sheriff’s office. (Nurses with La Clínica de La Raza, which provides healthcare services, have said some clients would avoid the center under the sheriff’s office.)

Bass says DSAL is looking at ways to reintroduce officers back into the facility. It was partly a security concern, in that uniformed officers could respond to safety issues in the building or nearby. But she believes the presence of uniforms is essential in community capitals policing.

“People have biases about people in uniform,” she explains. “If we are to progress in relationship development, people have to actually build relationships with people in uniform and see them as human beings. If that doesn’t happen and the uniform still carries a stigma, it further challenges the progress of building relationships.”

Bogart, after her years as a youth advocate, is now employed by DSAL and works out of REACH. She sees importance in the uniform, too. “I come from a family where they didn’t always agree with the police … not on law enforcement’s side,” she says. “Deputies can be in uniform and playing soccer and dodgeball, and I think it’s helpful so the kids aren’t always so afraid.”

To officers who participate with DSAL, the work can be transformational. Repeatedly, officers expressed distress to me about their negative portrayal in the media alongside a desire to “humanize the badge.” To them, DSAL offers an opportunity to connect with Ashland and Cherryland residents outside of tense, law-and-order situations. They could get to know the community as soccer coaches, urban gardeners, or fans at a boxing match.

Deputy McGee, working as a DJ.

“I’m DJing right now, and I’m a cop!” Deputy C. McGee yells over “Who Let the Dogs Out,” blaring across the Hayward Adult School gym between Golden Gloves matches. McGee was tasked with DJing the three-day event.

McGee studied sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara and was drawn to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office because of the community programs and services. “I was always interested in law enforcement because I cared about communities that needed help,” he says.

Upon joining the force, he got involved in DSAL events on top of his primary assignment, supervising inmates enrolled in education and study programs. He also coordinates the Santa Rita Jail Youth Education Program, designed to prevent youth from criminal activity.

McGee believes the community capitals policing model aligns with reasons he entered law enforcement and sees it as an important component in rebuilding communities.

But gaining trust while in uniform is an uphill battle. “I have to convince you that I’m here to show you love and help you out,” he says. “It takes time to build those relationships … but we’re still regular people.”

Looking Critically at Police-Community Relations

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office isn’t immune to abuses, often against its most vulnerable citizens. Misconduct includes excessive force, racial discrimination, and the illegal recording of privileged attorney-client conversations. Last year the sheriff’s office came under fire for its decision to publicly disclose the release dates of inmates from county jails to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Can the work of DSAL stand apart from the abuses? There was hardly a consensus. Some told me they retain deep distrust of the sheriff’s office that extended to DSAL. Laura Rodriguez, with the neighborhood group Padres Unidos de Cherryland, says the increased presence of law enforcement requires lots of communication with immigrant residents. “We can feel more of their presence, but in a positive way,” she says. “We tell the community why [law enforcement] is there, at any type of event.”

“We’re not ICE,” Sergeant Oscar Perez, who also serves as a DSAL boxing coach, says point blank. “In a predominantly undocumented community, we still fill our [boxing] classes. The community is not scared to come to a gym they know is operated by the sheriff’s office.”

Another sticking point with DSAL’s growth is the distribution of money and resources in an unincorporated community.

Ashland and Cherryland have long been at a disadvantage as “a poor community with no tax revenue,” Spriggs explains. “Unincorporated areas with tax revenue, higher incomes and business revenue have a stronger chance of incorporating into a city and surviving that long term.” A bill proposed last year would allocate money from vehicle license fees to support unincorporated communities working toward municipal incorporation. It didn’t pass, but Spriggs helped introduce an identical bill this year.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, on the other hand, has a budget that’s doubled over the past decade as the Alameda County jail population decreased 44 percent. It totaled $404 million in 2018, according to the Ella Baker Center, which has advocated for an audit of the office.

The way Neideffer and Bass see it, funding through the sheriff’s office is being used to develop an innovative, community-centered policing model. With the addition of grants and award money, they can offer arts and athletics programming for free, and invest in projects like the food hub with a commercial kitchen and event space now under construction.

But some community members gawk over the grant money, access to resources and high law enforcement salaries. “DSAL has its own grant writer — we need our own grant writer,” says Spriggs, in regards to the Ashland Community Association. Nehring is concerned with the imbalance of sheriff’s resources relative to others, feeling that funding should be shared with organizations poised to serve undocumented residents. “What makes things hard is that there’s a ton of money,” she says, “But almost all the money goes to people with badges.”

Where DSAL stops and law enforcement begins

DSAL’s work has had an effect on the sheriff’s office, and the nonprofit’s impact is likely to grow. “We have to be flexible and understand what the current trends are,” says Sheriff Greg Ahern, who oversees the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. “The shift I’ve had to manage is the shift from just enforcement to prevention, service and programs.”

DSAL now includes 20 deputies, two sergeants, a lieutenant, captain, 16 therapists and four support staff. Neideffer’s goal is to introduce community capitals police training to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office at large. Scaling up will undoubtedly hold its own challenges.

Not all cops will want to approach their job through the lens of community capital. For those who do, training must go beyond law-and-order policing, Neideffer says. “It must emphasize the importance of understanding history, of identifying root causes of crime, of building community and governmental partnerships, and leveraging those partnerships to solve problems.”

In the meantime, DSAL can point to positive statistics since the introduction of community capitals policing: since 2014, arrests are down, recidivism for reentry clients is below the state average and they’ve seen a steady increase in DSAL program participation.

But a task remains at the local level, as Ashland and Cherryland residents advocate for a Municipal Advisory Council. This organizing will better determine how representation, economic initiatives and quality of life priorities play out.

It’s clear DSAL will be a part of those conversations; in fact, their presence in the community feels cemented. In interviews with community leaders, youth, educators and county employees, all were familiar with the nonprofit. And all had thoughts on how Ashland and Cherryland would have to negotiate that relationship moving forward. As Nehring told me one early afternoon, rushing from a reading event at Cherryland Elementary to the food pantry hosted at her church, “the journey to trust is long.”

Arlene Nehring (second from right) with some Alameda County residents, at the Eden Church food pantry. (Photo by Emily Nonko)

On the Eden Night Live site off East 14th, Bass has a vision not unlike the youth center she spent a decade advocating for. It’s that of a Polis Station — misspelling intentional — a sheriff-operated hub with offices for officers and therapists alongside public entertainment and recreation space.

In her dream, a question looms. Can DSAL gain enough local trust to re-invent the police station and offer it as a community center? Bass believes they’re on the right track.

“This is a concept that police should be ‘atomized’ into the community so that natural relationships can form and evolve,” she says. “It’s a natural integration of residents with one another, youth and adults, and residents and their government.” She pauses, as if envisioning it. “That would be ideal.”

Travel for this story was funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

Follow Emily .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Eddie Herena was the staff photographer for the only inmate-run newspaper in California, the San Quentin News. His work has been published in various publications including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Athletic and San Francisco Chronicle. He was recently featured on the San Francisco Foundation website, a non-profit dedicated to social justice.

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1106 other sustainers such as:

  • Anonymous at $5/Year
  • Brian at $60/Year
  • Paul at $120/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉