For the first time in 20 years, there's a sheriff's race in Santa Clara County that's contested. Five-term incumbent Laurie Smith's department has come under scrutiny in the last few years for the mistreatment of jail inmates and overspending. But her challenger, John Hirokawa, is less well-known, and the question remains whether voters are swayed by the department's internal problems.
Smith, a Republican, was the first woman to be elected sheriff in California. In the June primary, Smith captured 43 percent of the vote — not enough to avoid a runoff.
Challenger John Hirokawa, a Democrat who was the undersheriff in Santa Clara County until he retired two years ago, won 32 percent of the vote. The remaining votes were split among three other candidates.
Both Smith and Hirokawa favor putting more resources into addressing campus sexual assault and limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. And they both support a plan to build a new county jail. But one issue dominating the campaign is the sheriff’s responsibility for how the jails are run.
Jail Inmate Death Exposed Inhumane Treatment
This election is the first since the 2015 jail death of inmate Michael Tyree. The 31-year-old suffered from mental illness and was being held at the jail for his own safety until he could be released into treatment.
But one August night, three jail deputies entered his cell and beat him to death. All three were sentenced in January to 15 years to life for murder.
Tyree’s killing exposed a culture of brutality toward people with mental illness in the county jails, along with poor supervision and lax discipline of correctional deputies.
Sheriff’s Department Response
Smith was praised for swiftly arresting and identifying the correctional officers who killed Tyree.
At an Oct. 8 candidates’ forum in Cupertino she also touted reforms she has implemented since his death to prevent future violence against mentally ill inmates.
“We have teams within the jail of multi-service deputies that are specially trained to deal with people with mental health,” Smith told the audience at the League of Women Voters’ forum. “We've increased the number of mental health professionals.”
Hirokawa, who was Smith’s second in command when Tyree died, suggested the killing could have been prevented. At the event in Cupertino he said he had tried to increase the number of psychiatrists on staff before Tyree died, but the sheriff blocked him.
“The county jails were down to one psychiatrist for over a thousand seriously mentally ill inmates,” Hirokawa said.
Hirokowa says before he retired he had developed the plan to create the mental health teams that Smith is now touting. He said it took Tyree’s death and a federal lawsuit to force the sheriff’s hand.
After the killing, the Prison Law Office sued the sheriff’s department in federal court for excessive solitary confinement and use of force on inmates. The lawsuit was settled just last month.
In an Oct. 23 statement Executive Director Donald Specter wrote, “Although the negotiations were long and difficult, the outcome will result in dramatic improvements to the jails that will help reduce recidivism.”
Specter praised Smith and other county officials for what he called their “complete transparency,” and said they were dedicated to addressing shortcomings.
“The Sheriff has already made substantial efforts to remediate some of the deficiencies in the jails,” Specter wrote.
Questions About Oversight
But not everyone shares that view. Retired Superior Court judge LaDoris Cordell thinks Smith must leave before there can be lasting change in the sheriff’s department.
Cordell chaired a blue ribbon commission established to investigate Tyree’s death and improve conditions for inmates.
“What we discovered was a culture of resistance to change and a culture of retaliation,” said Cordell in an interview.
The commission made 101 recommendations to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, including one to replace the sheriff.
Attorneys for the commission surveyed nearly a thousand inmates and dozens of sheriff’s department staff members to learn of their concerns.
Inmates reported that some jail guards bullied people with mental illness to “set an example” to all inmates of what happens to those who don’t follow orders. Others felt that the grievance system was meaningless, because they had to hand complaint slips to the very deputies they were reporting, and the deputies would often crumple up the paper slips and toss them in the trash.
Cordell said she was shocked to learn that inmates at the main jail were given just one clean pair of underwear a week.
“That’s just more of the inhumane, thoughtless kinds of things that were going on in the jail until we brought transparency to it,” she said.
Inmates are now supposed to get fresh underwear every day.
Cordell, who has backed Hirokawa, says Smith has done nothing to facilitate one of the most critical reforms.
“Smith has dragged her feet to bring independent civilian oversight and transparency to the sheriff's department,” Cordell said. “That was our commission's No. 1, unanimous recommendation.”
Earlier this year the board of supervisors adopted a plan to appoint a nine-member civilian board to monitor the sheriff’s department. Smith has said she supports the move.
Hirokawa has said he pushed to establish independent oversight of the department when he worked for Smith, and has promised to make it happen if elected.
Questions have also been raised about excessive overtime costs at the department. A recent county audit for the Finance and Government Operations Committee found that the sheriff's department exceeded its annual budget for overtime pay for most of the last decade. From 2013 to 2018, spending exceeded the annual overtime budget of $60 million by 250 percent. The majority of the money went to pay county jail staff.
County supervisor Joe Simitian, who chairs the finance committee, has called for an in-depth analysis of the cost overruns. The committee is also reviewing more than a thousand proposals from multiple stakeholders to improve the jails.
Public Safety and Law Enforcement Role
While the beating death of inmate Michael Tyree shocked the public and exposed systemic problems in the Santa Clara jails, it’s unclear how much it will factor into how voters view Smith’s leadership.
Frank Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley who has written extensively on police killings, says, voters tend to be more focused on the sheriff’s role in fighting crime than in ensuring jails are safe for inmates.
“The sheriff also wears a badge,” said Zimring. “And in the mix of responsibilities, the administrative ones don't take high priority until something, usually calamitous, comes to our attention.”
Even then, the public may not blame the sheriff for her deputies’ abuse of force.
“It is generally not what the sheriff knew but what the sheriff didn't know, and should have known, that are important,” Zimring said.
The key question for voters is whether the sheriff had implemented proper training and supervision to prevent deputies from abusing inmates, he said.
Michael Tyree’s sister, Shannon Tyree, remains critical of the department.
“Laurie Smith believes that because the guards that murdered my brother have been brought to justice her job is done,” Tyree wrote in an Oct. 8 press release. “She only does what is politically expedient rather than implement the civilian oversight that is needed. After twenty years of failed leadership it is time for a change.”
In her bid for re-election, Smith has touted her record on fighting crime.
“I've always been a strong advocate for victims and protecting our communities,” she said at the candidates' forum last month. “We respond to all calls and provide investigative services.”
Smith cited a 34 percent decrease this year in residential burglaries in Cupertino, where the department provides policing.
The union for the 800 correctional deputies who work in the jails has endorsed Smith and so have four of the five county supervisors. Only county supervisor Simitian has not endorsed a candidate, and a spokesman for his office said that that is his policy.
Hirokawa has won the support of the smaller union for sheriff patrol deputies. He has also received endorsements from San Jose Mercury News and several other editorial boards.
But Hirokawa has been criticized for his response to a racist text scandal involving correctional deputies. After a supervisor was demoted over the 2015 incident, Hirokawa defended him in an arbitration interview, saying the supervisor wasn’t responsible for policing the deputies’ off-duty conduct.
Updated 10 am November 5, 2018