Santa Clara County supervisors demand investigation of sheriff’s jail oversight
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks with other personnel at the Sheriff's Office in the aftermath of the May 26 shooting at a VTA light rail yard. Photo by Vicente Vera.

Two Santa Clara County supervisors are demanding an investigation of Sheriff Laurie Smith and her office concerning a death and injuries that occurred in the county jail that cost taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements.

Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee issued recommendations Wednesday night as part of the agenda for the next week’s board meeting. They’re seeking records related to an inmate who suffered a catastrophic head injury in 2018 and calling for the state attorney general to investigate whether there was a pattern of unconstitutional corrections conduct or civil rights violations in the jail. The pair is also requesting investigations by the Fair Political Practices Commission and a civil grand jury.

“The jail has been the scene of a series of tragic and costly incidents, sometimes without explanation, and without apparent accountability,” the item reads. “Answers are few and far between. And in the absence of greater transparency, the question of possible political influence looms large.”

Sheriff Smith’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the probe. In a scheduled media interview with KPIX on Thursday, Smith said the county jail suffers from several problems, including a lack of resources for inmates with mental illness and aging infrastructure.

“People with serious mental illness do not belong in jail. It’s a custodial environment. And so we really need to address that,” Smith said.

Since 2010, the sheriff’s office has been responsible for most jail functions in Santa Clara County.

Simitian and Lee are requesting that county counsel publicly release a report and audio records about Andrew Hogan, an inmate who suffered significant brain injuries in August 2018 after he repeatedly banged his head against a jail van while being transported from Elmwood Correctional Facility to the main jail. Hogan was restrained by shackles, but not belted. Hogan was left unconscious and unattended for a period of time after the van arrived at the main jail.

The county settled with Hogan and his family for more than $10 million last year, according to county documents. The supervisors were unaware of any meaningful disciplinary actions taken against the officers who transported Hogan. They cite payroll records to show that the watch commander on duty during the incident was promoted to captain and received a pay raise three and a half months later.

Simitian told San José Spotlight that after the Board made its settlement in the Hogan case he hoped it would lead to some sort of greater accountability.

“That proved not to be the case,” he said.

Simitian added that he’s reviewed the 19-page report from County Counsel on the Hogan incident, and 4 1/2 hours of video.

“(It’s) one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in my many years as an elected official,” Simitian said. “I think the public has the right to see those documents and video, now that the case is closed.”

Supervisor Otto Lee said reading the report was a punch in the gut.

“I think that’s why transparency and oversight would really help illuminate these issues, and help prevent these things from happening again,” he added.

The supervisors also cite in the agenda item two other noteworthy incidents that occurred in the jail.

In August 2019, an inmate named Martin Nunez who allegedly suffered from psychiatric distress ran head-first into his cell door, injuring his spine. According to his lawsuit against the county, officers left Nunez in his cell for an extended period of time and moved him roughly, worsening his injuries.

In August 2015, three correctional officers beat a mentally ill man named Michael Tyree to death. The officers were later convicted of murder and the county paid a $3.6 million settlement to Tyree’s family.

The Tyree incident prompted the Board of Supervisors to impanel a Blue Ribbon Commission that generated 623 recommendations for jail reform and the spending of about $78 million annually—and $370 million in one-time funds—to improve jail conditions. The supervisors note that the surge in funds had “demonstrably insufficient impact.”

Raj Jayadev, a criminal justice advocate and founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, applauded the investigation and said he hopes officials are held accountable.

“There’s been an absolute resistance from the sheriff’s department for any transparency, even after the death of Michael Tyree,” Jayadev said.

The Board of Supervisors also created a civilian oversight body to address the problems in jails, he said, but its members have been locked out of doing their jobs because of reluctance from the sheriffs department.

The probe comes as the county wrestles with the possibility of building a new jail. Advocates have pushed for building a mental health facility instead.

“It is completely contradictory for us to say, ‘It’s important for us to acknowledge the danger inherent in our jail’ and still even entertaining the idea of investing money to build a new jail,” Jayadev said. “This probe and what gets exposed by it and what fueled it only cements the fact that our county needs to find some non-carceral alternative, particularly for those who have mental health needs, which a number of these cases have been about.”

In a statement to San José Spotlight, Smith said the county is authorizing funding to demolish “a 1950’s era maximum security jail” and is working toward a new replacement facility that will have medical, mental health, re-entry and rehabilitation program space.

“Both Mr. Nunez and Mr. Hogan were in a serious mental health crisis when they injured themselves,” Smith said. “These incidents were tragic and the impact to them and their families cannot be understated. Both were in custody for minor charges and should have been placed in treatment facilities, not a jail. I have long been a proponent of mental health treatment for individuals suffering from mental illness, not incarcerating them in a jail environment.”

The supervisors also single out problems with transparency in the jail system.

They criticize the sheriff’s office for failing to sign an information sharing agreement with the county’s Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, even prompting a discussion about issuing subpoenas. Smith has retained outside legal counsel using county funds to represent herself in this matter, the supervisors state. The sheriff’s office also failed to turn over information requested by the Board of Supervisors’ independent management auditor. The supervisors cite the sheriff’s lack of transparency when she refused to provide testimony when called before a criminal grand jury in 2020.

The supervisors also claim the lack of transparency in the sheriff’s office is possibly rooted in political influence. They note that the watch commander during the Hogan incident, Amy Le, was president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association.

After the incident in August 2018, the association’s political action committee raised and spent roughly $300,000 in support of Smith’s reelection. Le was promoted to captain in December 2018 following Smith’s reelection.

“Coincidence alone is certainly not proof of causality, but in this instance the apparent coincidences merit further scrutiny,” county documents say.

Reporter Lorraine Gabbert contributed to this report.

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

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