Former opponent challenges embattled Santa Clara County sheriff
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks to media outside the county administrative building in San Jose on May 26. File photo by Vicente Vera.

As Sheriff Laurie Smith battles investigations and demands for resignation, she must now also face a former opponent who wants her job.

Kevin Jensen is running to replace Laurie Smith. Photo courtesy of Kevin Jensen.

Kevin Jensen, a retired captain for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, filed paperwork to run for sheriff in the 2022 election. Jensen squared off with Smith in 2014 and lost. But he believes this time will be different because of growing public awareness about mismanagement of the county jail, which is overseen by the sheriff.

“In 2014, nobody knew the issues that were there,” Jensen told San José Spotlight. “But then everything blew up.”

Jensen filed his papers on the same day the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported a vote of no confidence in Smith. The board also recently requested that state and federal agencies investigate Smith’s office over alleged mismanagement of the county jail, which has suffered three high-profile incidents where mentally ill inmates were injured or killed.

Jensen spoke out during the board meeting Tuesday to criticize Smith for her “retaliatory leadership,” noting that he participated in a blue ribbon commission to testify about failures in Smith’s management of the jail. He also claims that Smith failed to adequately address the needs of mentally ill people in the jail. He told San José Spotlight he agrees with the sheriff that criminalizing mental illness is wrong.

“We need to look at why jails don’t succeed, why the mentally ill are in our jails,” Jensen said. “How do we best serve people with mental illness and keep them out of the jail?”

The sheriff’s office declined to comment.

Jensen said his background allows him to relate to people from all walks of life, including people he would oversee in custody. As a child, his father served time in a Louisiana prison for armed robbery. He said law enforcement officers saved his family, which led him to start working as a correctional officer at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in the mid-1980s. Over the next three decades he worked various roles in the county jail and the sheriff’s office and rose to the rank of captain.

Jensen said he has some endorsements but he’s working on getting more. He believes he will attract significant support from law enforcement associations. In 2014, political action committees for the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association spent tens of thousands of dollars on a committee supporting his campaign. He also received endorsements from police unions throughout the Bay Area.

Given his strong support from law enforcement last election, Jensen said he intends to focus on building support among people in San Jose, and by promoting himself as someone who will be accountable when in a leadership position.

“If we don’t have the trust, and if we don’t earn the trust, we can’t do the job,” Jensen said. “I’ll bring the trust back.”

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

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