Sheriff Laurie Smith has performed one delicate dance of damage control, as we learn just how terrible Santa Clara County’s jails have become. Inmates are dying, jail guards are breaking laws and sending racist texts, and worse, some may even be raping the men and women behind bars.
First, a brief history:
There have been 374 use of force complaints made by jail inmates since 2010, yet only four have been sustained.
In September, three guards at the county’s Main Jail, which is overseen by the Sheriff’s Office, were charged with murder after the fatal beating of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree. An unusually forthright press conference was held to announce the charges—even the medical examiner was trotted out to provide public comments.
In October, two more guards were arrested—deputy Ryan Saunders for accessing confidential records; deputy Mark Navarrete for workers comp fraud—and others have been suspended in unrelated matters.
The Sheriff’s Office, District’s Attorney’s Office and FBI are conducting their own investigations into the jails, and there are two independent inquiries being conducted: a blue-ribbon committee led by former judge LaDoris Cordell and a probe by Sabot Consulting, the latter of which appears to be more focused on the county’s liability concerns.
In an effort to control the message, county executive Jeff Smith hired crisis management consultants Tom Saggau and Dustin Derollo to advise the Sheriff’s Office. On Wednesday, Sheriff Smith held a press conference to announce new protocols to prevent abuse in county jails.
On Thursday, that message of accountability was trounced by yet another scandal.
Mercury News reporters Tracey Kaplan Robert Salonga wrote a damning report that noted “at least a dozen” correction officers have routinely shared racist text messages about the people they’re paid to monitor.
The messages reported by the Merc include:
- “Think of all the lamp shades we can make from that k--e's hide. I mean there is always a bright side to everything.”
- “I know you are on vacation, going to be more f----- up than a n-----'s checkbook by 4 p.m.”
- “Cops have already killed 550 people in 2015.” In response: “If they're black, it doesn't count”
- “What do you say to a n----- in a suit? Will the defendant please rise”
- “F--- n-----s.”
Lance Scimeca, president of the correctional officers union, reportedly sent the first text, which used a derogatory term for Jewish people. He was suspended prior to the report for unknown reasons, but he also allegedly sent texts that “include references to black people as ‘n------’ and ‘yard apes,’ and to Vietnamese as ‘g----.’”
Judge Cordell called the text messages “absolutely shocking,” Sheriff Smith called them “repugnant” and both said any county jail employees who sent such messages should be fired. As of Friday morning, four correction officers who allegedly sent racist texts had been placed on administrative leave. More could be suspended as the Sheriff’s Office is frantically reviewing phone records.
Scimeca wouldn’t comment on the content of the messages, according to the Merc, but an attorney whose firm represents the jail guards’ union slammed the Sheriff’s Office for leaking the text messages to the press. That accusation hasn’t been confirmed, but it seems entirely possible. Anyone who followed last year’s elections will remember Smith’s bitter re-election fight.
She and the unions that represent county law enforcement get along like peas and carrots, if peas were grenades and carrots were cutlasses.
Releasing racist text messages to the press would seem tricky from a PR perspective, but they were going to come out one way or another after deputy Saunders’ arrest. The messages were discovered when his phone was taken as evidence.
From the Sheriff Office’s perspective, it might as well get ahead of the story, as it was going to become public one way or another. Sheriff Smith released this written statement:
“The text messages read to me are repugnant and vile and they turn my stomach. Deputies alleged to have sent these text messages have been placed on leave so that they have no contact with inmates. If the ongoing independent investigation surrounding these disgusting text messages are found to be attributed to any member of the Sheriff’s Office, I will move to fire those individuals because they have no business in law enforcement, let alone civilized society. This is absolutely shameful. The residents of Santa Clara County deserve better.”
What was mentioned in the story, but only in passing, is that the county jails might have more criminals walking around on both sides of the bars. The Merc reported, “Some texts suggest that certain guards may have either coaxed or coerced inmates into giving them sexual favors, multiple sources familiar with the investigations said.”
If true, all we’re missing is drug smuggling to complete an Orange is the New Black episode. Smith has taken a tough public stance on the improper and illegal activities taking place in the county’s jails. But at a certain point, the rhetoric must give way to a look in the mirror.
The jails operate under the Sheriff’s Office watch, so who has been watching the watchers?