Guide to S.F. Sheriff's Race: Can Mirkarimi Win?

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This fall’s race for the next sheriff of San Francisco is one of the most watched contests in the city. Incumbent Ross Mirkarimi is seeking re-election after a first term overshadowed by a series of scandals. His main challenger is Vicki Hennessy, who has worked the bulk of her career in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the city’s Department of Emergency Management. The third candidate is John Robinson, who worked for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for 20 years and now runs a private security firm.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is responsible for the county’s jails and for law enforcement at City Hall, in the civil and criminal courts, and at public hospitals.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, incumbent

Incumbent Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is on the defensive over several scandals that have beleaguered his department since he took office in 2012. His policies came under national scrutiny when his department ignored requests for cooperation from federal immigration authorities and released a man from jail who shortly thereafter was arrested for killing a young woman. His department is under fire for alleged misconduct by deputies in the jails.

In 2012, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence-related charge and has most recently had to field questions about whether he failed a marksmanship test. As for what he’s accomplished, Mirkarimi points to the award-winning charter high school program inside the county jail and to pushing for change in how transgender jail inmates are treated.

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Mirkarimi said his status as an outsider allows him to make change: “[Former Sheriff Mike Hennessey] supported me in 2011 and he supports me in the re-election because we’re outsiders.”

Vicki Hennessy

Vicki Hennessy worked in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department for over 30 years and in that time was promoted to chief deputy sheriff. Hennessy also directed the city’s emergency services for several years before retiring in 2010. In 2012, she was pulled out of retirement by Mayor Ed Lee to serve as interim sheriff during Sheriff Mirkarimi’s suspension. Of the three candidates, Hennessy has raised the most campaign dollars -- over $244,000 as of mid-September. Her endorsements are also the most numerous and include the Deputy Sheriffs' Association and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Managers and Supervisors Association.

Hennessy said she has the executive and management experience to run the Sheriff's Department best: “I want to return proactive leadership to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.”

John Robinson

John Robinson worked as a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison and later for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department for 20 years. He retired from public service in 1994 and is now CEO  of Inter-State Security Inc., a private security firm. Robinson has kept a relatively low profile in this race, raising just over $16,000 as of mid-September.

Robinson said he wants to address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system and reduce the high rate of incarceration of African-Americans and Hispanics: “I am the one who is intending to identify and promulgate a new path for San Francisco. What we need to do is to figure out how to de-incarcerate our jails.”

Debate in Studio

We invited all three candidates to debate their views on our weekly current affairs program, KQED Newsroom. Here are some highlights from their discussion of sanctuary city laws, alleged misconduct in the jails, body cameras and getting along with City Hall. (Excerpts have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The candidates for S.F. Sheriff debate their views on KQED Newsroom.
The candidates for S.F. sheriff debate their views on KQED Newsroom. (Monica Lam)

Sanctuary City Laws

When the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez from jail earlier this year, it ignored a request for cooperation from federal immigration officials. Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted of immigration violations and deported multiple times, but San Francisco’s sanctuary laws allow local law enforcement to refrain from participating in federal immigration enforcement. Shortly after his release, Lopez-Sanchez was charged with killing Kate Steinle on July 1 as she walked along the city’s waterfront, generating national debate over sanctuary laws.

Question: Do you stand by your decision not to contact federal authorities before letting him [Lopez-Sanchez] go?

Mirkarimi: I do. And I think it would be a real mistake for San Francisco to get sucked into this, where politicians at City Hall are professing their support for sanctuary city yet telling me with a wink and a nod to practice something different. ... There really is a schizophrenia between our municipal laws like the one signed into effect by Mayor Lee called “Due Process For All” in 2013 and how it limits that contact with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and the changing federal procedures of immigration and customs and enforcement.

Hennessy: The takeaway is there has to be a balance of public safety along with making sure we’re providing constitutional protections. …. I think he [Mirkarimi] erred on the wrong side of public safety in this matter. But I want to say one more thing, and that is that nobody could have known that Francisco-Lopez would go out and what would happen would happen. What we did know, though, is that he was a career criminal and we were releasing him into a city where he had no money. He had no relationships. He had nothing.

Question: How would you have handled it differently if you were the sheriff? Would you have picked up the phone and called ICE?

Robinson: I certainly would have. Once that warrant was dismissed, what would have been wrong with simply saying, 'Do you want this guy?'

Watch the exchange here.

Ross Mirkarimi
Ross Mirkarimi (KQED Newsroom)

Alleged Jail Fights

In March, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi accused correctional deputy Scott Neu and his colleagues of orchestrating fights in the back of the county jail and gambling on the outcome, among other abuses.

Question: Ross, this happened under your watch.

Mirkarimi: And I was the one that called in the FBI, which is the first time in modern history that a sheriff has requested the FBI to come in. Typically they don’t, unless it’s court-ordered or the U.S. district  attorney requires it.

Robinson: When I worked as the high-security unit manager, one of the things you did is you picked your officers based off of their skills and ability and training. You don’t put an individual in charge of prisoners, who had already had a claim paid out on him for over $900,000. This issue of fighting in the back of the jail is a clear example of how they don’t respect their leadership.

Hennessy: When I managed the jail, I did management by walking around. I walked around the jail constantly, and I think that it’s very important to have the supervisors understand what your expectations are. I think it’s very important to set the expectations, communicate the expectations, work on them, train to them and to make sure that they’re followed and monitored. I think that’s through supervision and that’s the people that have the boots on the ground as the supervisors. And managers have to be held responsible.

Watch the exchange here.

Vicki Hennessy
Vicki Hennessy (KQED Newsroom)

Body-Worn Cameras Inside Jails

Proponents of outfitting law enforcement officers with body-worn cameras say it will increase transparency and accountability by providing a window into officers' actions. Critics of the idea cite the cost of the technology. Both sides agree that it's crucial to develop a policy for how -- and how long -- images captured on these cameras would be retained.

Hennessy: There are cameras in many of the new jails and they’re in most places where there’s prisoner access. And I do think that body cameras in this case would actually help, and I do think that’s something -- particularly in this linear jail, this one-style jail that we still have left in our resources -- I think it’s important to take a look at that. I think body cameras are a tool; they’re not the answer. I think accountability, expectations, working day-to-day and no complacency [are the answer].

Mirkarimi: I think it could be a problem altogether with culture inside prisons and jails throughout the United States. That’s why I’m the first sheriff in California to ask for body cameras to come in the jail system. I find it incomplete that President Obama and everybody else wants body cameras fitted on law enforcement on the streets of America. I can make 10 times the reasons as to why body cameras should be in every prison and jail in this country.

Watch the exchange here.

John Robinson
John Robinson (KQED Newsroom)

Politics and Communication

Tensions between Mayor Ed Lee and Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi have been ongoing since 2012, when Mayor Lee tried to remove Mirkarimi from office as he defended himself from domestic violence charges. Since then, the two men have not met in person.

Question: How many one-on-one meetings with Mayor Lee have you had?

Mirkarimi: Zero.

Question: Wouldn’t the city be better off if the mayor and sheriff were talking to each other?

Mirkarimi: I think we should be very careful about the oligarchy that’s forming inside City Hall, and a manipulative mayor who decides who he wants to meet with and who he does not. We’re elected to serve all the people and you don’t cherry-pick. You get the business of the people done. But I have to tell you, the net effect of what’s happened is that I’ve become extremely resourceful and effective in making this department, we together, a national leader in criminal justice reform without the mayor.

Robinson: It’s essential for the sheriff to be able to communicate with the most powerful political person in this city in order to get the funds necessary in order to impact the system of recidivism.

Hennessy: I believe that in order to create new initiatives, you really have to work with your staff and the people on the ground who are going to be responsible for putting those initiatives into force, and I think that’s something that’s been missing. I think that what we’ve had is some leadership by headlines, particularly in The Examiner, and it’s been interesting to see that happen. I think that leadership requires effective communication but communication is sometimes, it’s listening, it’s not just talking but listening. It’s assessing and it’s got to be two-way communication up and down.

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Watch the exchange here.