Less than a month after some of her opponents said she should quit over decades-old ethical allegations, five-term incumbent Sheriff Laurie Smith has come out swinging.
In a no-holds-barred interview with editors of the Gilroy Dispatch and Morgan Hill Times (San Jose Inside’s sister publications), Smith claimed San Jose media were deliberately spreading false complaints about her—that she had interfered with a gender harassment complaint against her 25 years ago—and accused her leading challenger, her former undersheriff John Hirokawa, of responsibility for lax jail administration that led to the murder of an inmate in 2015 by correctional officers.
On the same day of Smith’s interview, Hirokawa also sat down in Morgan Hill with the same editors. Hirokawa said the sheriff had been “asleep” and unresponsive to his pleas for jail reforms prior to the death of a mentally ill inmate whose assailants—three jailers—would be convicted of murder.
The two candidates’ attacks on each other in separate interviews showed clearly that the increasingly vicious race for sheriff of California’s sixth most populous county has emerged as a two-person contest, and one that could continue past the June 5 primary. Administration of the county jail continues to be a big issue for both the incumbent and challengers.
Smith is pressing hard to top the 50-percent mark in the primary vote and avoid a long, hot summer campaign.
At the same time, she has avoided some opportunities to tell her story—most recently as a no-show at a candidate forum on April 24—although she agreed to the nearly one-hour interview with the Times and Dispatch.
The other challengers on the June ballot are retired Lt. Jose Salcido, Deputy Joe La Jeunesse and retired police chief Martin J. Monica.
The Sheriff’s Office has a staff of 1,800 sworn and non-sworn employees and an annual budget of about $308 million. The elected sheriff serves a term of four years.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office serves the communities of Cupertino, Los Altos Hills, Saratoga and the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County. The agency maintains contracts with the Valley Transportation Authority and the Santa Clara County Parks Department for law enforcement services. The Sheriff's Office is also responsible for the safety and security of the Santa Clara County Superior Court system and all its staff. The Sheriff's Office oversees the jail system for Santa Clara County, with more than 4,000 inmates.
Four of the five county supervisors—Cindy Chavez, Mike Wasserman, Dave Cortese and Ken Yeager—have endorsed Smith. Supervisor Joe Simitian has not.
The editors said they chose to limit their sheriff interviews to the two front-runners who have raised the most funds and campaigned most extensively.
Below are the edited transcripts of the two interviews.
SHERIFF LAURIE SMITH
What of the allegation from the 1990s, accusing you of sexual harassment?
Basically, I say it is false—and it is very hurtful. For generations to come, you have to read about how this guy made these salacious allegations against me that aren’t true.
So may we ask you something about your former undersheriff, John Hirokawa? Was he responsible for the 2015 death of Michael Tyree in the Santa Clara County Main Jail?
In July of 2010 he was chief of correction—with no correction. Now he’s saying apparently he has taken full responsibility for the murder [of inmate Michael Tyree]. I can call them murderers now because the three jailers were convicted of Tyree’s death. [Hirokawa] was there during that time and he froze—he didn't want to do any media, didn't want to talk about. We were writing a reform plan and he didn't want anything to do with it. I think he just panicked. He was chief all the way up until he retired [in 2016].
And he's saying that he had no authority, that he had to do what you wanted.
You know that's a great thing to say right now, but that's that's factually inaccurate. He reported to the Board of Supervisors. He met in closed session with the Board of Supervisors. And he set goals and objectives on the entire jail with the Board of Supervisors. The fact is, that he was running the jails. It's very convenient now for him to say that and place blame somewhere else.
Are you satisfied with the current setup for administration of the jail?
It does need to be changed because it's somewhat convoluted. My current undersheriff, Carl Neusel, is also the interim chief of corrections and reports to the Board of Supervisors in closed session and is evaluated by the board. It really should be a more clear-cut command. I think if you ask jail employees, they say that they don't know whom they work for, necessarily. There really needs to be needs to be a clear chain of command.
Ultimately, everything is under me, because the undersheriff position is there and I'm the appointing authority for all the deputies. But in functionality, it’s the chief of correction (who runs the jail).
Do officers in the jail wear body cameras, and are those helping?
Yes, and we've seen our complaints really go down. I was pretty unhappy that the county told me that a camera system in the jail would cost something like $20 million. I bought one system that was I think 15 cameras. We put them up in this one housing area and the next day there was a major, major serious fight. And just having those cameras there, we were able to get criminal charges on the actual offenders. After that, the county went out and bought the same system. I'm also a big proponent of Tasers in the jail. I think that we have to do everything that we can protect our deputies.
What's your thought about when or if deputies’ body camera videos should be released?
That’s a really hard question and I've wrestled with that a lot. I believe in that and also in privacy. I think that people really have the right to privacy. I know we can always hide behind the investigation exception. But I think there are going to be some court decisions. I think the courts are wrestling with that as much as the rest of us are—how does privacy and transparency mix, and what is the right answer?
So do I think it should be released the day after the investigation ends? That's the problem: Is the investigation done? But then the district attorney has to review it to find whether or not they're going to indict.
When they do that very detailed report of the summary, and (report) their findings, they should release the tape at the same time. The DA’s office should have to weigh in on that within a couple of months, instead of a couple of years.
Do your officers use the carotid restraint?
No. It's in our use-of-force policy, but it's very high up, where it can rarely be used. Most people don’t know the carotid restraint is blood, and not air—This is what kills people [uses her hand to demonstrate pressure on the front of her windpipe].
How do you keep excited about your job? What is it that drives you, that keeps going?
The people. We have the greatest deputies in the world. What they do every day I think it's wonderful. I'm very passionate about the job. I will stay as long as I think I'm productive, or don’t get elected. I really believe in the service that we provide. I've been in the sheriff's office for almost 45 years. So it's been a long time—I've had a great career. When I started at the sheriff’s office my title was “Deputy Sheriff Matron.” Our uniform was only skirts, and we were paid 15 percent less.
So you expect, if you’re re-elected, to serve out the full four years?
Was the Sierra LaMar case a success?
I think we were very very successful. The initial call came out: “My teenage daughter did not return home.” We called out our search-and-rescue team, a group of really highly dedicated volunteers, and along with technology we were able to find her cell phone and then within 48 hours they were able to find her backpack. Had the deputy who responded to the scene not had the intuition that this is not just a teenage girl not coming home, I don’t think we would have been so successful, because the backpack was where we identified the suspect. I think that our investigation into the case was exceptional. We had a first-degree conviction of murder without ever actually finding Sierra, and that’s one thing I hope we can do some time, is to find her.
Why did you decide to run for sheriff?
I want to restore the integrity, fairness, transparency, community trust and balance to the elected position of sheriff. This is critically important to our community because the culture of the sheriff's office starts at the top.
The sheriff is a public servant leading by example. I believe that I have in-depth knowledge and experience and have had diverse responsibilities.
What do you think are the top two public safety issues in unincorporated portions of Santa Clara County?
Probably the number of supervisors and deputies that are assigned to the area. And then how those shifts and especially the special assignments needs to be flexible to the needs, especially in more rural areas. How they're deployed and how the shifts are arranged are probably important.
I have been talking to the rank-and-file. I believe that it's important to have that communication with the community groups in the South County to determine how to best serve this community. The best ideas come from, guess what? The rank-and-file in the community. What I'm looking for is to create more supervision at all the shifts to make sure there’s complete coverage.
Outreach is important, not just at certain election periods, but consistently throughout the term, and that's why I’ll continue to do it. But on top of that is the training with regard to certain crimes that are more unique to the South County area. Fish and game issues, things like that.
Because of the growth of the area there is a lot more traffic on alternate commuter routes. Is there anything you think the sheriff's office could or should do to kind of curtail that?
Helping the Highway Patrol is key. But the other thing that you do is that when there is no sure concurrent jurisdiction, we can enforce traffic laws just like Highway Patrol. And you talk to those chiefs—you collaborate with them: Can we help? Can we do things? Are you going to be OK? So again, I'm about communicating, talking to the community and talking to other law enforcement agencies about how to address these issues. There’s nothing stopping the sheriff’s deputies from enforcing traffic laws.
You were part of the sheriff’s senior management for at least five years. Did you ever come to the sheriff and say, ‘We should be doing this,’ and she said, ‘No we can't do this?’
I would say she [Sheriff Smith] was disengaged or sleeping. So what she would say is, “You do do what you think is best.” OK. But when I was bringing things to her attention, especially about the jails, there was no response. So I had to take it. And that was in late 2014 early 2015, before the death of Michael Tyree. She had received letters and phone calls from the prison law office that had gone nowhere.
Were you aware of any incidents that came to your attention?
Complaints about the incidents that came to my attention were given to internal affairs and to the criminal division.
Were you aware of a culture there that would lead to brutality?
I was unaware of any issues that came up during the Michael Tyree investigation. However, in early 2015 before Michael Tyree was killed, I had already hired an expert consultant to review some of the issues that we were having in the jails.
I asked her [Sheriff Smith] if we can do these things. There was no response, so we went ahead and did it anyway. I’m advocating for oversight, independent oversight, an independent body, an inspector general, to say to the Board of Supervisors—who’s operating the jail? I brought this up.
Who should be in charge of the county jails?
The Sheriff’s Department has no operational authority in the jails. There was somewhat of a contract agreement that put supervisors in command of a lieutenant in the jails to help oversee it. Everything's now under the chief of corrections.
Who is operating the jail? Is it the board supervisors or is it the sheriff?
OK, but if the Board of Supervisors is operating, running the jails, then there should an oversight report to the Board of Supervisors. That’s an independent oversight. The sheriff was responsible for, was reported as saying the sheriff has been operating the jails (since the merger). The sheriff is responsible, is a live person operating the jails. If that's true, they're pointing it out.
That's how it's been and that's how it should be, then really then the board should have oversight and have that inspector general report to the board.
Under what rules should Tasers be used by deputies in the field?
I think the first thing that has to be done is an evaluation of what might have come into play if we had them. There has to be within the use-of-force continuum something short of using deadly force, a firearm, OK? Other than using deadly force, you may be able to use the Taser, but that has never been spelled out.
What about Tasers in the jail?
The correctional deputies want Tasers in the jail. But they don't want oversight.
Some people use the restrainer carotid hold.
I think it’s past its day.
Who would determine when an officer’s body cam footage could be released, so the public can get some confidence that procedures were followed?
With regards to privacy: A body cam doesn't just capture the person who may be the subject of the reasons why we're having contact. There may be other people also within our views or maybe other people in the background. OK, so they have privacy rights.
So I believe that in general that the video itself, because there are privacy issues for the people being filmed, that there is an expectation of their privacy and how we go about releasing it. Now when you come to a controversial subject, a controversial subject, you most likely use force, right? Now I know you guys are in the newspaper business, right? So it’s a public record for you. You believe that there should be more transparency disclosure. OK. Only on certain circumstances do I believe that the video can be released.
So I think I'm the only candidate who’s gone to the unions and has advocated for oversight, independent oversight.
Could you provide some clarity about how the sheriff’s department should cooperate with immigration enforcement agents?
OK, so we are not supposed to ask about immigration status or documentation. Also that creates an environment where we have a part of our community now who will not, who don't trust us in regards to our intent, in regards to what we may do if we start asking those questions.
There was a directive from the county that no ICE agents or immigration people can come and go into the jail. But that information wasn't passed down to the people. She [Sheriff Smith] let them in. So there needs to be a clear, unambiguous position from the top executive about where they stand.