Sean Allen has been fighting for change in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office for years, and he’s about to take that fight to the county’s top cop.
Allen told San José Spotlight on Friday he intends to file papers to run for sheriff in 2022. Allen is a sergeant who’s worked for the department for about three decades, mostly in the jail system. He’s also a former Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association board member and founder of Lodge 65 of the Fraternal Order of Police of California.
Allen said he wants to implement top-down reforms to change how the office is run.
“Whoever gets in there has to have the mindset of immediately creating some strong changes,” he said. “If you don’t, then you’re not going to affect the culture at all.”
Allen is not shy about criticizing Sheriff Laurie Smith for what he describes as chronic problems in the jail, including discrimination and mistreatment of staff. In 2017, NBC Bay Area investigated abuse of inmates and staff issues at the jail in the wake of the killing of inmate Michael Tyree. Eight correctional officers spoke with the media about their experiences at the jail, seven of whom did so anonymously for fear of retaliation. Allen is the only one who talked on record.
“The common theme you’ll hear about me is that if you’re being done wrong, I’ll fight for you,” Allen said. “The system is supposed to be equal, and it’s not, so I’ve had to endure years and years of fighting.”
Allen is the third candidate preparing to challenge Smith for her seat as sheriff, following retired captain Kevin Jensen and sergeant Christine Nagaye. Smith, who became sheriff in 1998, received a vote of no confidence three months ago from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, which is also calling for state and federal investigations of her management of the jail system following the death of Tyree and two other high-profile injuries involving mentally ill inmates.
Smith did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Allen said he understands specific problems that need fixing in the jail and he’s vocal about addressing them. Last year, he spoke out after a cadet died during RedMan training—an exercise where cadets are beaten while wearing padded equipment to learn defensive tactics. Allen, who worked as a training officer, said he received complaints about RedMan training for years.
“They’re literally learning violence is what you use to get people to comply, when it should be a last resort. It should not be a routine thing in your career,” he said.
Allen said he’s acutely aware of the mental health crisis in the jail. He was one of three sergeants working at the Elmwood facility in 2019 when inmate Andrew Hogan bashed his own head against a van while being transported for psychiatric services. That incident resulted in a lawsuit that cost the county a $10 million settlement. He said any new jail the county builds should have additional psychiatric resources for inmates.
“It should be more geared toward those kind of issues,” Allen said. “And if the state doesn’t want to absorb the cost… give people places where they can get the treatment they need.”
Matt Logan, who retired from the sheriff’s office in 2013, told San José Spotlight he’s known Allen for almost three decades and worked with him for years in the department. He said Allen serves as a strong advocate of union members, regardless of whether they dislike him personally. He said Allen tries to expose problems in the system when they arise.
“No one dislikes a bad cop more than a good cop,” Logan said. “And Sean is a good cop.”
Allen said he’s talking to several different unions about endorsements. He hasn’t received any official support from local lawmakers, but said he’s spoken with several about his campaign.
“There’s some interest, I don’t know how far it goes,” Allen said. “But there are definitely some people trying to give me a helping push.”