Santa Clara County sheriff failed to investigate inmate injury
Santa Clara County Main Jail is pictured in this file photo.

    An explosive new report on the severe injury of a mentally ill person in sheriff’s custody has determined department leadership purposefully undermined the investigation of the incident.

    In a presentation to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, a representative of the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) said it found Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office leadership failed at nearly every level while handling and later investigating a 2018 incident in which a county jail inmate, Andrew Hogan, suffered severe head injuries.

    Among these failures is the premature end of the investigation into the incident by then-Undersheriff Rick Sung, the report found, who may have tried to destroy the evidence afterward. Sung has been on paid leave with the department since late 2020.

    “This is certainly one of my most striking examples of how things can really get off the rails when accountability isn’t appropriately questioned,” Michael Gennaco, who led the OCLEM investigation, told San José Spotlight.

    While the report commended the department for making some changes since the incident, Gennaco said those changes need to become official department policy. OCLEM recommendations include: mandating that jail staff provide immediate medical aid to injured detainees, keeping data on facility transfers and stipulating when an investigation can be terminated prematurely.

    The board unanimously passed a motion asking county counsel to report whether the board can force the sheriff’s office to implement policy changes suggested by OCLEM in response to the investigation.

    In August 2018, Hogan suffered major head injuries after he repeatedly slammed his head into the sides of a holding cage while being transferred between county facilities. Hogan’s parents sued, and the county later settled for $10 million.

    Three years later, the board unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in Smith’s jail supervision in part because of her handling of the incident. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo demanded her resignation, and earlier this year California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his own probe into whether the sheriff’s office committed civil rights violations against inmates.

    Sung ordered the investigation closed without a legitimate reason for doing so—less than two months after it was opened and a month after Sheriff Laurie Smith was reelected, the OCLEM report found.

    Though it seems likely Sung ended the investigation on Smith’s orders, Gennaco said, both the sheriff and undersheriff refused to cooperate with OCLEM, making it impossible to confirm this.

    After county supervisors began asking questions about the incident, Sung requested the original copy of the investigation report from the department’s internal affairs division, the report found. Worried that he would destroy the file to protect himself, internal affairs staff gave Sung a photocopy instead of the original report.

    Sung’s copy of the report has since disappeared, Gennaco said.

    His office had to subpoena records after the sheriff failed to provide documents in response to four requests for relevant investigative records, Gennaco added.

    Supervisor Joe Simitian called the report “thorough and disturbing.”

    “The conduct that you have reported to our board has been absolutely unconscionable, it’s appalling,” Simitian said at the meeting. “I don’t know how we can ever hope to attract good people to a department that accepts, and in fact normalized, such shameful misconduct.”

    Sung is currently facing pending charges related to his alleged involvement in a pay-to-play scheme with Smith. An inquiry by Simitian during the meeting revealed Sung is still on paid leave with the sheriff’s office and has earned nearly $1 million in wages and benefits since being placed on leave in 2020.

    The board requested more information as to whether the county could end the practice of offering paid leave to sheriff’s employees who had been indicted.

    The sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.

    Board discusses new jail

    Supervisors also considered how to move forward with a repeatedly delayed new jail that would replace existing, outdated facilities.

    The new jail has appeared on the board’s agenda several times since the Hogan incident, which underlines the need to reform the county’s treatment of mentally ill inmates. But the project has sparked controversy with residents concerned that a new facility won’t change the culture they say is the root cause of injuries like Hogan’s.

    In a statement to the board, advocacy group Silicon Valley De-Bug said the county was rushing through important planning steps in its plans for the facility, and had ignored residents in the past.

    “There still is little trust between the county administration and the community as to why any future engagement processes will be different,” the statement said.

    The board agreed to gather more community input before moving forward, but Supervisor Mike Wasserman warned if the county doesn’t move soon, the project will be delayed yet again, leaving detainees in “inhumane conditions.”

    “At some point, you’ve got to do something and go with what you’ve got,” Wasserman said.

    Supervisor Susan Ellenberg stressed that hearing community voices is a necessary step in rebuilding the public’s trust and pressed the board to build out mental health care programs before moving forward.

    “Investment in our mental health systems must come first before additional investments are made in a justice system that further damages people to ensure this never happens again,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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