Elected officials in San Jose and Santa Clara County have expressed diplomatic, if not cautious, public support for a proposal that would have the Sheriff’s Office assist an undermanned San Jose Police Department. But behind the scenes, the two law enforcement agencies have been at odds for more than a year over services already contracted.
Based on a review of emails, memos, public comments and interviews, it’s clear that several prominent San Jose officials have little interest in discussing county Supervisor Dave Cortese's proposal until previous disputes are resolved.
On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved a plan to study how the sheriff’s office could provide temporary staffing to help SJPD in patrol efforts. The city’s police department has been cut by almost a third in the last six years, going from more than 1,400 to less than 1,000 active officers, and recruitment efforts have also been stymied. Pension reform and changes to disability requirements have created a caustic atmosphere between City Hall and the police union.
Mayor Chuck Reed told San Jose Inside on Thursday that no discussions of the proposal penned by Supervisor Cortese, who is currently running for mayor, occurred before Tuesday’s meeting. The proposal’s political ramifications—the perception that the county is coming to San Jose’s rescue—could also be seen as a benefit to Sheriff Laurie Smith, who is running for re-election, Reed acknowledged.
“You don’t spring things on the public like this without having some conversations ahead of time,” he said. “It’s certainly an opportunity to get some media coverage in a political campaign. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the help, but there is certainly a political element in this. We have an existing relationship with the sheriff, obviously, and there are places where conversations can happen and you can have professional staff look at ideas. None of that happened. It was a surprise to (SJPD) Chief (Larry) Esquivel.”
"If Mayor Reed is not interested in our assistance, a simple 'no, thank you' would have been appropriate," Sheriff Smith told San Jose Inside. "If he wants to disagree on policy that is fine, but politics should stay out of the public safety debate."
In an email sent to Smith and two of her top staffers a day before Tuesday’s meeting, Ed Shikada, San Jose’s city manager, wrote that the city had more interest in resolving disputes that have dragged on for more than year than looking at expanded sheriff services.
“We appreciate the ongoing relationship between our agencies, and look forward to any discussion of future partnering opportunities,” Shikada wrote. “That said, in a quick review with Chief Esquivel of existing issues, I understand there are several areas where clarification of Sheriff's Office responsibility for law enforcement services would significantly enhance SJPD's ability to focus on other priorities.”
The email goes on to list areas the city believes the sheriff’s office is not currently fulfilling its obligations:
- VTA light rail response during nighttime hours
- VTA bus stop response throughout the city, with particular emphasis on 1st Street and Alum Rock Avenue
- First response to county buildings
- First response to unincorporated areas
- Supervision of arrestees upon admittance to county hospitals
“I understand that these issues have been outstanding and under discussion for well over a year, and Chief Esquivel reviewed these issues with Undersheriff (John) Hirokawa earlier today,” Shikada continued. “We appreciate the opportunity to resolve these issues, and hope this can be communicated to the Board of Supervisors as part of their consideration tomorrow.”
These issues were not presented to the Board. Instead, vague but optimistic statements were made about a potential partnership.
SJPD spokesperson Sgt. Heather Randol sent San Jose Inside an email statement noting that discussions have centered around the same areas in Shikada’s email. “Having the Sheriff handle those calls would provide some immediate help and allow SJPD officers to focus on patrol and investigations in our neighborhoods,” Randol wrote.
Mayor Reed bristled at the timing of Cortese's proposal, especially after the county decided to withhold money over slow fire department response times.
“I think there is an issue,” Reed said. “If they can’t do these things (right now), how are they going to help us in any other way?
“The things that the sheriff used to do we now have to do, for one reason or another. We picked up these tasks and that takes our resources to do that. The county could easily pick them up and let us focus on our other areas.”
Reed added that the sheriff office’s current manpower would most likely only allow for an additional “two or three people, maybe, and I don’t see that happening. I don’t know what they have in mind—other than generating newspaper stories.”
Sheriff Smith took exception to that claim, adding that her office has provided resources in the past to nearby cities.
"This is not an unusual offer—Alameda County Sheriff's Office assisted Oakland Police and the San Mateo Sheriff's Office assisted East Palo Alto Police," Smith said. "Those in our jurisdiction and our contract entities are extremely pleased with our service and I object to any comments that we are less than exceptional."
Undersheriff Hirokawa told San Jose Inside that the sheriff’s office was “caught off guard” by the supervisor’s proposal.
“You got to remember, this is a suggestion that was coming from a supervisor,” Hirokawa said. “We didn’t know this was coming our way, so we’re reacting just like San Jose is reacting.”
Supervisor Cortese told San Jose Inside a slightly different story, noting that he has recently broached the subject with the sheriff on more than one occasion.
"Sure I checked in with the Sheriff several times over the past few months just to ask if she the department has the capacity to do more," Cortese said. "Had she said 'no' I would not have made the recommendation.
"This is a possibility that has come up at candidates forums and in other areas of the campaign. Perhaps an idea whose time has come."
Part of Reed’s concern came from public comments made at Tuesday’s meeting. When the Board discussed the proposal, Supervisor Ken Yeager asked Sheriff Smith if her office had the capacity to assist SJPD.
Despite Shikada and Reed’s emails from a day prior, Smith told the Board, “I think we do. Certainly we don’t know what the city of San Jose is interested in right now, whether they’re interested at all."
That left Reed to surmise, “Apparently, my communications and Ed Shikada’s communications did not get discussed.”
Cortese quipped, "Sounds like the mayor is under a lot of stress."
Undersheriff Hirokawa told San Jose Inside that Smith had not seen the city's emails before Tuesday's meeting, and he was “surprised” at Reed’s reaction.
“There has been some good movement, but everybody’s a little busy,” Hirokawa said in reference to the year-plus discussions between local law enforcement agencies. “VTA is a little more challenging.”
The sheriff’s office is currently contracted by VTA to patrol stations role 21 hours a day Monday through Thursday, and 18 hours a day Friday through Sunday, Asst. Sheriff Carl Neusell told San Jose Inside.
The city would prefer for the sheriff’s office to be the first responder in these areas during their contracted hours, while the sheriff’s office believes it is not the “primary” agency and instead operates in a in a “supplemental” role.
“I’m not too sure if we’re all on the same page on that,” Hirokawa said.