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Cowboy to top cop: An interview with San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon
San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon
John McMahon

San Bernardino County has a rich western heritage. Its valley was once a thriving agricultural area filled with citrus groves, vineyards and dairies. To this day the upper desert includes farms and ranches along with sprawling Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range land that reaches all the way to the state borders. It is also home to the third largest law enforcement agency in the state, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Back in the day, many bigger-than-life western outlaws and heroes, both real and of the silver screen variety, called the area home. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were Apple Valley’s most famous residents and are laid to rest not far from their home. Gene Autry built a set out in Pioneertown where many of the biggest western stars made movies romanticizing the west.

In real life, Wyatt Earp, his parents and his brothers lived much of their lives in the county, and it is the final resting place of many members of the Earp family. Virgil and father Nick both served as lawmen in Colton. Wyatt was commissioned as a “non-salaried deputy” by then-Sheriff Walter Shay and received a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s badge after capturing a robbery suspect in Vidal, Calif.

Today, Sheriff John McMahon is the San Bernardino County’s top cop, where he may not always ride into the sunset with a bad guy in tow, but he dedicates himself to preserving the county’s western heritage. He oversees more than 1,700 sworn lawmen and he also serves as chairman of the Executive Board of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Rodeo.

McMahon took some time from his busy campaign schedule to talk about the challenges of policing in a county as large and diverse as San Bernardino. At more than 20,000 square miles, San Bernardino is the largest county in the United States. It is as varied in topography and lifestyle as any.

McMahon grew up in San Bernardino County. His family moved to the high desert in 1967 while he was still in elementary school. His says his first memories of ranch life are from his grandfather’s farm in Fairview Valley where they raised hogs and cattle. “To me, meat came wrapped in white paper with only the name of the cut of meat on the package, “ he says.

At some point the family added horses and McMahon quickly became quite the horseman. But once he hit his teenage years, he decided horses were not as “cool” as motorcycles and temporarily switched loyalties.

When McMahon met and married his wife, Michelle, who always wanted a horse, the family became horsemen once again. Today they own six horses, four that live on their ranch with them and two that are with their grown daughters in Idaho.

McMahon is proud of his western heritage and he is equally proud of what his department is doing to preserve that heritage for the citizens of San Bernardino County. His Rural Crimes Unit consists of deputies who have both a background in the ranching lifestyle and specialized training to recognize certain types of crime prevalent in farming communities. For example, they can look at an underweight horse and determine if it is in that condition due to age or abuse.

The unit also investigates cock and dog fighting as well as theft of irrigation equipment, farm equipment, livestock and more. Often criminals cross county and state lines so these deputies work closely with other law enforcement agencies and the California Farm Bureau.

“We do a very good job of investigating and prosecuting rural crimes,” McMahon says. He hopes to add deputies to the unit as the economy continues to improve and he can obtain funding.

The Sheriff’s Department has a number of volunteer posses that are not only involved in ceremonial duties, such as parades, but serve as a great resource during search and rescue operations. Many areas of the county are so rugged that deputies on horseback are necessary for searching for missing persons as it provides them with a better vantage point and the ability to get through brush where ATVs cannot maneuver.

If one asks Sheriff McMahon what his favorite horse-related function of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is, he may not say but his voice gives him away. Clearly, he loves the Sheriff’s Rodeo. He is a cowboy at heart.

In 1957, legendary Sheriff Frank Bland started the Sheriff’s Rodeo. It ran until 1971. In 1999, Sheriff Gary Penrod brought it back.

Over time rodeo supporters formed the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Rodeo Association and established a permanent home in Glen Helen. Funds raised from the rodeo benefit the department’s Equestrian Unit, scouting programs, the Children’s Fund and other worthwhile charities.

The rodeo is PRCA sanctioned and held on the last weekend of the pro rodeo season. It attracts top names as they try to earn enough money to bump themselves into the pro rodeo finals held in Las Vegas. This past year, as with many in the past, it sold out even after adding 500 seats.

McMahon says that the rodeo is important to him as it is a means of not only preserving the county’s western heritage, but it is a chance to share that heritage with adults and children alike. He says it is a great public relations tool as citizens are able to interact with his department on a different level while being entertained and learning about a different way of life.

Being the top cop in San Bernardino County is a challenge. But it is a challenge Sheriff John McMahon clearly enjoys. He is proud to lead his department.