Santa Clara County supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to say they have no confidence in Sheriff Laurie Smith’s handling of the jail—but not before hearing from the county’s top cop herself.
Smith excoriated the Board of Supervisors for attacking her and said officials used her as a bandage for a systemic problem, and when that failed blamed her without acknowledging their own failures.
“Using the jail as a mental health facility is not only wrong, but it’s inhumane,” Smith said, noting that an estimated 25% of inmates in Santa Clara County jails are mentally ill.
She said Santa Clara County has fewer than 13 psychiatric treatment beds available per 100,000 people, while San Francisco has 36.6 beds for the same number of people. She accused supervisors of wasting tens of millions of dollars building a new jail when they should be creating a new mental health hospital.
“You are responsible, first, (for) acknowledging there’s a problem, and then understanding that you must deal with the problem,” Smith said. “It’s a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis. Instead, you’re placing blame—how does that help? Where do we go from here?”
Supervisors Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg proposed the no confidence vote last week, citing continuing problems with Smith’s management of the jail system. Simitian said during the hearing the no confidence vote is necessary because the various investigations of Smith and her office will take three to four years to complete.
Calls to resign
Public pressure to investigate and remove Smith has ramped up over the last two weeks. Over the weekend, more than two dozen residents and advocates protested the construction of a new jail and called for Smith to resign. Two weeks ago, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a request for investigations into management of the jail system by the U.S. Department of Justice, the state attorney general and a county civil grand jury. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also called on Smith to resign.
“What does the mayor know about our progress in the jails?” Smith asked. “For the Board of Supervisors, I guess blaming others for your failure is the direction you wish to take. It must be tough to find a person to blame instead of looking in the mirror at yourself.”
Simitian countered that Smith is focusing on mental health issues to avoid the other issues raised regarding her management of the jail.
“I’m disappointed and frankly somewhat offended by the fact that folks with such great need would be used in this way, in an effort to conflate the issue, in an effort to divert and deflect and deny responsibility,” Simitian said.
Ellenberg agreed with Smith that people with mental health issues shouldn’t be in county jails. But she took issue with Smith’s refusal to take responsibility for her role in management of the jail system.
“What I haven’t seen are words aligned with actions,” Ellenberg said. “Sheriff Smith has had nearly sole and complete responsibility for what happens in the jail.”
Supervisor Cindy Chavez cautioned the public against interpreting the resolution as a one-and-done solution to the challenges of managing the county jail.
“We’re not close to that,” Chavez said. “What we have to make sure we can do over the next 16 months is, even in a very contentious environment, continue to work together. And really, what I’m acknowledging is we the board can’t do that by ourselves. We need the partnership and collaboration of the sheriff’s department, and the men and women who work for the sheriff’s department as well.”
‘Blaming the sheriff misses the point’
Residents broadly agreed with the sheriff’s assertion about the county needing to prioritize mental health treatment instead of warehousing mentally ill people in jails. But the majority of people who spoke at the meeting also supported the no confidence vote.
Kevin Jensen, a former assistant chief at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, said Smith should leave her position in light of problems at the jail.
“I think what we have to do is accept responsibility for change,” Jensen said. “I wish her to move on and for the jails to heal.”
Molly McCloud, a resident who said she benefited from work done by criminal justice reform group Silicon Valley De-Bug, agreed.
“The lack of responsiveness to the Board of Supervisors’ requests for information about the quality of services (in the jail)… all of that shows this is a stone in the road that needs to be removed,” McCloud said.
One notable exception was attorney Paula Canny, who spoke in defense of Smith. Canny represents the family of Andrew Hogan, an inmate who in 2018 suffered serious injuries after he slammed his head against the wall of a transport van and was left unattended for a period of time. Law enforcement officials say it was about 20 minutes.
“Santa Clara County, like so many other counties, has completely failed to address the problem of mental illness in the jails,” Canny said. “Blaming the sheriff misses the point… I have confidence in Sheriff Smith.”
The no confidence resolution will be forwarded to the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury for consideration, and to the other state and federal agencies asked to investigate Smith’s office.
Ellenberg told San José Spotlight prior to the vote that the resolution is part of a two-pronged approach to create long-term structural changes for the jail system. She and Chavez introduced a separate proposal to have the county attorney come up with options for improving jail management, re-sizing the jail population and alternatives to jail.
The no confidence resolution includes a litany of scandals tied to Smith’s office, including an investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney that led to felony indictments of two deputies on bribery and conspiracy charges related to the issuance of concealed carry weapon licenses.
The resolution also cites three high-profile incidents where correctional officers abused and neglected mentally ill inmates. In 2015, three officers beat Michael Tyree to death. In 2018, Hogan suffered serious injuries after he slammed his head in a transport van. In 2019, an inmate named Martin Nunez suffered injuries that reportedly left him a quadriplegic after he hit his head in his cell and prison workers left him unattended for an entire day.
Santa Clara County paid more than $13,625,000 in settlements to Tyree and Hogan’s families, and Nunez is seeking damages, according to the resolution.
The resolution also notes a lengthy assault by 31 inmates against another inmate that lasted for nearly six minutes. The sheriff’s office allegedly failed to report the beating through internal procedures, and supervisors only learned it occurred through local media six months later. Smith’s office said in a previous statement that the DA’s office did not disclose the victim of the assault was a witness for the prosecution of a gang murder case — and as a result did not receive special protection — as would be the norm.