Santa Clara County is getting a new sheriff for the first time in more than two decades, following Laurie Smith’s decision to not run for a seventh term. Five candidates are jockeying for Smith’s seat.
Smith’s tenure as sheriff has been marred by scandals and political investigations. Last year, the Board of Supervisors voted no confidence in Smith and demanded state and federal investigations into her office after several high-profile cases involving mentally ill inmates who suffered injuries, including one that resulted in the county paying a $10 million settlement.
The state attorney general is investigating possible civil rights violations in the jail system, and Smith is fighting a political corruption accusation brought by a civil grand jury that claims she granted concealed firearm licenses to political supporters.
The next sheriff will have significant challenges, including the ongoing warehousing of mentally ill inmates in the jail system, increased political scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Office and the construction of a new jail.
Here are the five candidates running for sheriff in alphabetical order.
A sheriff sergeant with almost 30 years of service in the office, Sean Allen said his platform boils down to transparency, accountability and reform.
Allen, 51, has mostly worked in the jail system. He previously served as a board member of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association and is founder of Lodge 65 of the Fraternal Order of Police in California. He wants to dismantle the system of nepotism that he claims took root in the Sheriff’s Office during Smith’s tenure. Allen says he stands out from his opponents because he’s spent much of his career openly criticizing the office.
“My intent is to change not only what’s happening at the top of the organization, but some of who’s at the top of the organization,” Allen told San José Spotlight. “I will let people know this department is going to be run based on performance and rewards for performance.”
Allen also wants to address the homophobia and racial inequities he sees in the office. He said it’s important to increase the office’s transparency. He plans to implement greater civilian oversight in the jail system—an outstanding concern among county officials.
A veteran staff trainer, Allen wants to change how officers apply use of force, saying there need to be more alternatives for de-escalating situations and preventing harm to inmates. Allen said in his first 100 days in office he wants to meet with every politician in the county and glean ideas about how to improve his office.
Allen has received endorsements from Reverend Jeff Moore, former president of the Silicon Valley NAACP, and several retired sheriff employees. His campaign filings don’t reflect a total amount raised to date, but Allen said he’s raised $21,000.
“I am the only candidate who has addressed these issues for 30 years,” Allen said. “My unique experience speaks for myself. My resolutions are not something I’m just saying—it’s something I’ve been doing my entire career.”
Colton is a latecomer to the race, having filed her nomination papers in March. In response to a list of questions, Colton referred San José Spotlight to a questionnaire she filled out for a recent sheriff candidate forum.
It’s not clear if Colton qualifies for sheriff. California law requires candidates for county sheriff to have experience as certified law enforcement officers. San José Spotlight was unable to find record of Colton serving in law enforcement. The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters told San José Spotlight Colton is a registered voter in the county, and submitted a signed declaration swearing she meets the requirements of the position.
A retired Santa Clara County sheriff’s captain who ran for office in 2014 and lost, Kevin Jensen believes he has the momentum to take the seat.
Jensen, 58, retired in 2013. He touts his experience working as a correctional officer at Elmwood Correctional Facility, starting in the mid-1980s. Over the next 30 years he worked in numerous roles in the county jail and Sheriff’s Office. He wants to prioritize building morale in the office, which he said has been low for many years, and to rebuild relationships with the San Jose Police Department he claims Smith neglected.
“The morale will get better, then the whole department,” Jensen told San José Spotlight. “The culture of management can no longer be one of fear and intimidation.”
Like his opponents, Jensen said he’s concerned about the lack of transparency in the office, which he blames on Smith’s managerial style. To avoid the perception of impropriety, Jensen said he won’t take any financial contributions from employees.
Jensen said he’s concerned about the large number of mentally ill inmates in the jail system, but believes those with violent offenses need to be incarcerated. He supports the Board of Supervisors’ decision to build a new 500-person jail, and he favors adding more mental health resources for inmates.
Jensen has picked up support from the main unions serving jail employees: the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association. Jensen said he is also proud to have the support of former county Supervisor Blanca Alvarado. As of January, he has raised $72,398.
“Character is huge—if you don’t have the ability to make decisions for the right reasons, it won’t work,” Jensen said. “I’m the only candidate who has called out the bad behavior and served all the major functions in the Sheriff’s Office.”
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen said he wants to apply his experience working in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to fix some of the long-time issues in Santa Clara County’s office.
Jonsen, 59, spent the last four years working as police chief in Palo Alto. Before that, he was chief of police in Menlo Park for five years. He spent the bulk of his career—27 years—in the LA County Sheriff’s Department, retiring as captain of Lancaster Station. Jonsen said he has experience stabilizing organizations bleeding staff, noting he helped staunch the flow of people leaving the Menlo Park and Palo Alto police departments, in part by raising salaries to a competitive level.
“I’m the only candidate who has experience from a large sheriff organization as well as municipalities, and that diversity will serve me well,” Jonsen told San José Spotlight, adding that his great-great uncle served as sheriff in Santa Clara County in 1870. “I would love to serve in that role.”
Jonsen said he has experience overseeing crime reduction from his time as a coordinator of the Antelope Valley crime fighting initiative run by the LA Sheriff’s Department. Jonsen said he also values transparency in law enforcement. He cited a internal solutions group he helped create in Palo Alto to address issues like morale and promotions. He also noted he’s implemented community advisory groups in every command position he’s held.
Jonsen said the county should offer more skill-based programs in the jails for inmates so they can find employment upon release. As police chief in Palo Alto, Jonsen said he’s helped the city implement a program that partners behavioral health workers with police officers to respond to psychiatric emergencies. The county has a similar program, but Jonsen wants to expand it to meet greater demand. He’s also interested in growing the jail’s mental health resources by potentially enlisting interns and clinicians in training from local universities.
Jonsen, who filed his papers to run in January, has received endorsements from former state Sen. Jim Bell, the Democratic Asian Pacific American Club and the Sunnyvale Democratic Club. His campaign filings do not reflect a total amount raised to date, but the candidate himself says he’s raised about $50,000.
“It’s going to be an easy election for voters to choose—they’re either going to choose somebody in the organization, or they’re going to choose for change,” Jonsen said. “I’m the candidate that brings the fresh perspective and greatest opportunity for change.”
Santa Clara County Sheriff Sgt. Christine Nagaye wants to transform the office into a national role model.
Nagaye, 51, has served in the Sheriff’s Office for 20 years, with the last seven as a supervising sergeant. She also served in the office’s operational standards and inspections unit and worked at both Elmwood and the main jail. She is also a veteran, having served for five years as a combat medic and training officer in the army.
Nagaye said she wants the Sheriff’s Office to improve its relationship with diverse communities in Santa Clara County, and would set up a commission to jumpstart this process.
“All of these people do not feel safe, and they feel threatened,” Nagaye told San José Spotlight. “I would make every attempt and work tirelessly with community leaders to let them know the Sheriff’s Office, or law enforcement as a whole, is here for you.”
Nagaye opposes the creation of a new jail, although she does support the creation of a new mental health facility to better meet the needs of mentally ill inmates. She’s concerned about declining morale in the office, noting staffing levels are low—which means many employees work mandatory overtime, separating them from their families. She would combat this by setting up a retention program.
To address the office’s transparency, Nagaye said she would provide the Board of Supervisors and Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring with all materials that have been requested.
Nagaye’s major endorsement is from the Dean Democratic Club of Silicon Valley, and she says she has strong support among deputies and residents. As of January, she’s raised $8,400.
“I am a mom, wife, a veteran, LGBTQ+ ally and I understand the diversity of Santa Clara County,” Nagaye said. “I will always remember my oath to protect and serve—that will be my ultimate oath, and that’s why I’m running for sheriff.”