Sheriff’s office is understaffed, but Santa Clara County says the data is old
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks at a news conference on Aug. 17. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

A new report suggests the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office needs more deputies, but county officials say the findings are outdated and unhelpful.

Santa Clara County recently released a draft that analyzes staffing levels at the sheriff’s office and county jails. The 404-page report, which cost $225,000, was authorized in 2019 and finished late this summer. However, now the county plans to issue a request for proposals to generate a new report.

The report, conducted by CGL Companies, found that the sheriff’s office was understaffed by 60 workers and the jail system was short by 54 employees. The analysis also noted that the understaffing issue was not equally distributed among facilities.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who is facing scrutiny—and demands for resignation—over her management of the jail system, has called for the release of the study. She’s up for re-election in June 2022.

“We are really pleased there was an objective look at our staffing levels by an expert organization,” Smith told San José Spotlight through a spokesperson. “This report demonstrates the sheriff’s office is clearly understaffed. With additional personnel, we look forward to providing enhanced levels of service.”

Smith didn’t comment on the county’s decision to request an updated report.

COVID-19 changes the county jails

The county’s main jail, which incarcerates people who have been sentenced or are waiting to stand trial, had 23 deputies over the needed staffing level. The Elmwood Complex, in contrast, needs at least 76 more deputies to adequately maintain operation. Elmwood consistently lacked 20% of required staff per shift, resulting in extensive use of leave and overtime, the analysis found.

County officials, however, claim data on jail staff collected in early summer 2019 is no longer relevant in the post-COVID world, and plan to redo the study.

“(We were) in a much different environment in the jail,” County Executive Jeff Smith told San José Spotlight. “We’re recommending that we go out again to get another consultant to do a new study based on new data.”

Santa Clara County jails saw a significant drop in incarcerated people in the last 18 months—from 3,239 to 2,342 people, according to the county. County officials anticipate the jail population will remain low because of a recent initiative that allows early release for those with good behavior credits. Plus, its diversion program which releases individuals with mental health and substance use disorders into community services and treatment facilities.

Other prison reforms efforts, such as the California Supreme Court’s decision in March to end cash bail for indigent defendants not deemed dangerous, have also affected the staffing projection in the analysis, especially at the Elmwood Complex, Jeff Smith said.

The population at Elmwood has declined “dramatically,” he said, adding that some barracks are scheduled to be demolished which could further reduce the number of staff needed. The population in the county’s main jail won’t see such drastic changes, he said.

The initial analysis was delayed due to a lack of reliable data from the sheriff’s office, the report said.

“Recently, the (sheriff’s) office has indicated that there is more willingness to participate in an open exchange of information,” a county memo reads. “Thus, there is reason to believe that a reinvestigation with a focus upon accurate and responsive data will provide a more accurate picture now.”

The county won’t consider much of the recommendations from the analysis, Jeff Smith said. According to a county memo, officials will be accepting proposals as of Oct. 12 to generate a new report.

“I wouldn’t say (the report is) a waste,” he said. “I would say that it didn’t give us as much useful information as we were hoping for.”

For some, including those who have called for the sheriff’s resignation, the study is revealing.

“I think the report pre-COVID is still relevant,” Jose Valle, an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, told San José Spotlight.

Valle said the sheriff’s office often blamed the understaffing issue for its shortcomings in jails, but “most of the issues that happened were in main jail south… and the main jail,” which were overstaffed per the analysis.

An embattled sheriff

Laurie Smith said her department is a state leader in jail reforms and best practices. Her office just needs more officers, something the county has continuously denied in the last few years, she said.

Smith’s tenure has been plagued by a series of scandals, including an investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney that led to felony indictments of two deputies on bribery and conspiracy charges.

Three mentally ill inmates were also abused and neglected by correctional officers in recent years. Michael Tyree was beaten to death by three correctional officers in 2015. Andrew Hogan suffered serious brain injury in 2018 after slamming his head in a transport van. Most recently in 2019, Martin Nunez suffered spine injuries after he hit his head in a cell and was left unattended for an entire day. The sheriff disputed claims in the incidents with Hogan and Nunez in a recent exclusive interview with San José Spotlight.

Santa Clara County paid more than $13,625,000 in settlements to Tyree and Hogan’s families. Nunez is seeking damages.

The Board of Supervisors in August voted to pursue multiple state and federal investigations into possible civil rights violations by Smith and her office. The supervisors also unanimously voted to say they had no confidence in her. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called for Smith’s resignation in September.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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