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Regional Interests

Amid Accusations of Jail Abuse and Calls for Resignation, Santa Clara County Sheriff Refuses to Step

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to call for multiple investigations of Sheriff Laurie Smith and her office, questioning whether “political influence” affected discipline in cases of people with mental illness severely injured in custody.

Smith said that she welcomes probes called for by supervisors, including from the U.S. and state justice departments, the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the county civil grand jury.

“Since there continues to be a lot of speculation and certainly inferences, I welcome any and all investigations,” Smith said at a press conference Tuesday. She also suggested the FBI should investigate her office.

Supervisors also voted for the public release of information related to the case of Andrew Hogan, a man with schizoaffective disorder who in 2018 suffered a traumatic brain injury in sheriff’s custody. The county settled a legal claim in the case for over $10 million last year.

In a so-called legislative referral passed on Tuesday, supervisors question the “appearance of impropriety” in the aftermath of Hogan’s injuries. It notes the promotion of former sheriff’s Captain Amy Le three months after she was present at the Hogan incident. She was also president of the correctional officers union at the time, which raised over $300,000 for Smith’s 2018 re-election campaign.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian criticized a lack of transparency in that and other cases, calling for “a fuller understanding of what is and isn’t happening, what consequences there have or have not been.”

He said the Sheriff’s Office has stonewalled the county’s relatively new oversight office.

“The sheriff has repeatedly declined, over the course of more than a year now, to enter into an information sharing agreement with our Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring,” Simitian said. “I just don’t see that we’ve been left with any other choice.”

Supervisors directed the oversight office to prepare reports, video and audio files from the Hogan case for public release by Sept. 14.

“Change is long overdue. The issue is over the lack of oversight, accountability and transparency in our sheriff’s office and our county jail,” Supervisor Otto Lee said. “Let’s not let these tragedies continue.”

Raj Jayadev, head of social justice nonprofit Silicon Valley DeBug, called for Smith to resign and stop the proposed construction on a new 535-bed jail, which he said will only allow for continued abuse of incarcerated people.

“The resistance from the sheriff to be transparent or cooperative with independent oversight has left us stuck as a county but is also indicative of the lack of accountability that is inherent to jails,” Jayadev said during a public comment session. “This call for transparency and accountability in jails is the right step, but ultimately, we will find ourselves in the cycle again.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called for Smith to step down on Monday, and voiced support for the investigations requested by county supervisors.

“Regardless of whether corruption or incompetence best explains Sheriff Smith’s failures, either suffices to compel her resignation,” Liccardo said. Last year, Smith refused to testify in a Santa Clara County criminal grand jury probe investigating an alleged scheme to trade concealed weapons permits for campaign donations to re-elect the sheriff in 2018. Liccardo said that alone should raise red flags to the public.

“That should disqualify anyone from serving in any law enforcement capacity, let alone the highest ranking,” he said.

Smith said she does not plan to resign.

“Or to quote a general, ‘Nuts,’ she said. “There’s a lot still to be done.”

Smith defended her refusal to testify before the grand jury.

“That is my right, and I’m glad that I did it,” she said.

Undersheriff Rick Sung and Captain James Jensen were indicted, among others outside the sheriff’s office. Smith has not been charged in the case.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Smith defended jail reforms instituted under a pair of court-ordered consent decrees and in the aftermath of the 2015 murder of Michael Tyree in a jail cell by three sheriff’s officers.

“We have made meaningful change,” she said, citing millions spent to upgrade facilities, decreased use of solitary confinement and an updated use of force policy. She said construction of a new jail, as well as more staffing, is needed to better care for people with mental illness who are arrested.

Attorney Paula Canny, who represents Andrew Hogan and his parents, joined the sheriff at the press conference to caution against the immediate release of video from the case. She said Hogan and his family should have a chance to see them first.

Canny said the sheriff has been “super responsive” in trying to improve conditions for people with mental illness held in jails, but any long-term solution goes beyond law enforcement.

“Hurting Sheriff Smith doesn’t help mentally ill people,” she said. “The only thing that’s going to help mentally ill people is to fund public health mental health facilities. That’s what’s going to solve this problem.”

Copyright 2021 KQED