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Regional Interests

‘Horrific’ Incidents in Jails Prompt Santa Clara County Supervisors’ Call for Investigations o

Three years after three Santa Clara County correctional officers beat a mentally ill man to death in a jail cell, another group of county officers was confronted with another man suffering a severe psychiatric crisis in a jail unit.

But instead of intervening as 24-year-old Andrew Hogan pleaded for help, they allegedly stood by and did nothing as he beat his head against the metal cage of a prisoner transport van until he knocked himself unconscious.

Hogan was in a coma for six weeks following the traumatic brain injury he suffered on Aug. 25, 2018, according to a legal claim the county settled last year for $10 million. He lives today with long-term disabilities affecting his memory, movement and speech, his attorney said.

That case in particular, county Supervisor Joe Simitian said, prompted him to file a call Wednesday for wide-ranging investigations into longtime Sheriff Laurie Smith and her office. Simitian and Supervisor Otto Lee co-sponsored a legislative referral to be considered for a vote by the full board on Aug. 17.

“Bad things keep happening in our jails,” Simitian said. “It’s just got to stop.”

The pair of supervisors are calling for investigations by the county civil grand jury and state Department of Justice as well as the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

The referral goes beyond citing a series of severe injuries to vulnerable people in county custody dating back to the 2015 murder of Michael Tyree by three correctional officers. It alleges the sheriff has stonewalled attempts at increased transparency and oversight spurred by Tyree’s death.

“I think we have to have new leadership in the Sheriff’s Office,” Simitian said, noting the county has spent well over $400 million on efforts to reform its jails. “And still, we have tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. That tells you there needs to be a change at the top.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

The two supervisors question the sheriff’s accountability and raise the “appearance of impropriety” in the Hogan case in light of campaign spending to re-elect Smith in 2018 by a former high-ranking sheriff’s official reportedly involved in the incident. They’re also seeking public release of documents and video recordings from the case.

‘Bad Things Are Going to Happen’

Hogan, who is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, was supposed to be taken to the psychiatric unit at Santa Clara County’s main jail, his attorney Paula Canny said. But there wasn’t a bed, so he ended up at the county’s Elmwood detention facility, on suicide watch.

Hogan’s condition worsened there, Canny said, and he began banging his head on the wall of his cell. Officers decided to transport him back to the psychiatric unit — about a 12-minute drive back to the main jail.

Instead of transporting Hogan by ambulance, as Canny says should have been done, officers shackled him and put him in the cage of a prisoner transport van.

“He’s begging not to be pushed in and then they push him in and then they shut and lock this door,” said Canny, who said she’s viewed over four hours of video of the incident that has not been made public. “Then he’s screaming, ‘Don’t do it. Bad things are going to happen. Bad things are going to happen. Help! Help! Help! Get me out of here!’”

There’s video from an officer’s body camera of Hogan beginning to bang his head in the van while it’s en route, Canny said, but the officers didn’t stop or redirect to a hospital.

By the time they arrived at a secure entrance to the main jail, “Andy had literally started to bang the brains out of his head,” Canny said.

An as-yet-unidentified sergeant and then-watch commander Lt. Amy Le joined a group of officers outside the van, Canny said, but no one intervened until paramedics arrived.

“For maybe 20 more minutes, Andy continued to beg and scream for help, and not one person did anything,” she said.

Doctors placed Hogan in a medically induced coma and part of his skull was removed.

‘Appearance of Impropriety’

In the summer of 2018, when the Hogan incident occurred, Le was president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association and had endorsed Sheriff Smith in a contentious re-election bid. The correctional officers’ political action committee would make about $300,000 in independent campaign expenditures to re-elect the sheriff by the year’s end, effectively doubling Smith’s campaign funding, Simitian said.

The union’s current president said in a written statement that the SCCCPOA “followed all election laws during the entire 2018 campaign cycle.”

“The decision to endorse the Sheriff was done by secret ballot of the entire membership,” union President Todd Kendrick wrote. “In this vote, the Sheriff received a substantial majority. Amy Le had a single vote in this matter.”

Le was promoted to captain after Smith’s re-election in November 2018. The Sheriff’s Office has not said publicly whether it has investigated the Hogan case or Le’s reported role in it.

“These are law enforcement officers that are tasked with enforcing the law. And this is completely lawless,” Canny said. “And rewarding this kind of bad behavior with a promotion — it is remarkable to me.”

Simitian and Lee are calling for the release of information about the Hogan case, including a 19-page confidential memo prepared by county attorneys for the Board of Supervisors as it considered the $10 million settlement in the case that was finalized last year.

The referral heading to the full board next week charges that taken together, Le’s high overtime pay, her involvement in the sheriff’s re-election and her promotion about three months after Hogan’s injury all raise the “appearance of impropriety” that “undermines the public trust and confidence in government and law enforcement.”

“When there is the immediate proximity to such horrific behavior and no apparent consequences and in fact, promotions in the aftermath of a costly and tragic incident, you really do have to ask yourself what’s going on here and why,” Simitian said.

Through her attorney, Le said poor training for deputies and a failure of Smith’s leadership led to Hogan’s injuries. Le resigned facing discipline unrelated to the Hogan case in 2019. She’s now suing the county for wrongful termination alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation. She said she supports efforts to increase transparency and oversight of the jails.

The supervisors’ call for investigations comes as Smith faces growing scandals on multiple fronts. Higher-ups in her office are facing criminal bribery and conspiracy charges for allegedly arranging concealed carry weapons permits in exchange for campaign donations to re-elect Smith.

And she’s publicly fought against granting unfettered access for an independent oversight agency, the county’s Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring. Simitian said the sheriff recently retained outside counsel in long-stalled negotiations over an information-sharing agreement with the agency.

‘Too Many of These Cases’

After paying approximately $14 million in settlements in the Tyree and Hogan cases, Simitian says the county is facing a further potentially costly Sheriff’s Office case involving yet another grave injury to a man with mental illness in county jail.

A lawsuit pending in Santa Clara County Superior Court alleges that in August 2019, jail staff left Juan Martin Nunez alone in his cell for 24 hours after he’d injured his spinal cord by striking his head against the wall of his cell. The suit alleges jail staff and paramedics then failed to stabilize Nunez before taking him to the hospital, worsening injuries “that left him a quadriplegic, unable to communicate and in need of a ventilator to breathe.”

The county has already agreed to a $50,000 interim settlement in the case to help cover Nunez’s medical costs.

“We’ve got far too many of these cases, any one of which is a stand-alone tragedy,” Simitian said. “We can’t keep letting this happen.”

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