Palo Alto police chief enters race for Santa Clara County sheriff
Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen and other officers in the department. Screenshot of a department video.

    The top law enforcement officer from Palo Alto is joining the race for Santa Clara County sheriff.

    A committee to elect Police Chief Robert Jonsen as sheriff filed its organizing paperwork on Tuesday. Jonsen was reluctant to discuss details of his campaign and told San José Spotlight he is planning an official announcement in a few days. Jonsen said his lengthy experience working in a sheriff’s department makes him well-equipped to become the county’s top cop.

    “I think it’s a great opportunity to go in there and really restructure things, as well as work on some of the key issues in this particular race,” Jonsen said.

    Jonsen has served as Palo Alto chief of police since 2018. Prior to that he worked as police chief for Menlo Park for five years. He spent more than three decades working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he served as captain of the Lancaster Station.

    Addressing the mental health crisis in the county jail system is one of Jonsen’s campaign platforms. In Palo Alto, he oversaw the recent rollout of a psychiatric emergency response team, which pairs mental health clinicians with officers to respond to mental health distress calls.

    “The timing is right to really evaluate how we’re dealing with people who are incarcerated and struggling with mental health issues,” Jonsen said. “I think there needs to be a better approach.”

    In the wake of the racial justice protests in 2020, Jonsen worked with Palo Alto officials to change the police department’s use of force policy and publicly released a less redacted version of its policy manual. Last year, the department agreed to expand the types of investigations and internal cases the independent police auditor is allowed to review.

    Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt told San José Spotlight Jonsen has been instrumental in navigating changes to the police department over the last two years.

    “We’ve been making some really significant progress and he’s been central to much of that,” Burt said.

    Jonsen is the fourth candidate to officially run for sheriff alongside former San Jose Assistant Police Chief Dave Knopf, Santa Clara County sheriff Sergeant Christine Nagaye and retired Captain Kevin Jensen. Santa Clara County Sergeant Sean Allen is also running and plans to file in the near future.

    To date, it’s unclear if Sheriff Laurie Smith is seeking reelection. Her management of the county jail system has come under close scrutiny from the Board of Supervisors, which voted no confidence in her performance last year. Tomorrow, Smith is scheduled to appear in court to address an accusation of corrupt misconduct brought against her by a civil grand jury.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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