Calif. mayor calls for sheriff's resignation over jail management

"I hate to see the work of good cops undermined by the poor leadership of the sheriff," said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

By Robert Salonga
Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The mayor of the Bay Area's biggest city is calling for the resignation of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith over her management of the South Bay's jails, adding to a chorus of criticism energized by county leaders' pursuit of outside investigations into inmate abuse and neglect.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says revelations last week about multimillion-dollar payouts to settle major-injury litigation from mentally ill men in jail custody, sluggish reforms, his own knowledge of troubling jail practices, and ongoing bribery and corruption scandals besetting Smith have led him to demand the six-term sheriff leave office.

"It may not be obvious to her, but it's painfully obvious to everyone else," Liccardo said in an exclusive interview with this news organization. "Sheriff Smith must resign."

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during a news conference at the Bloom Energy campus in Sunnyvale, Calif., Saturday, March 28, 2020.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during a news conference at the Bloom Energy campus in Sunnyvale, Calif., Saturday, March 28, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED via AP)

A request for comment from the sheriff's office was not immediately returned Monday.

Last week, this news organization reported that the county quietly paid $10 million to the family of Andrew Hogan, who was in the throes of a psychiatric crisis in August 2018 when he was transported unrestrained and repeatedly hit his ahead against the walls of a jail-transport van with no intervention from correctional deputies or staff.

The county is currently assessing an abuse claim from another mentally ill inmate, Juan Martin Nunez, who in August 2019 injured his spine from a fall in his cell. He alleges that jail staff moved him despite his cries that he might be paralyzed, and blames them and paramedics for him becoming quadriplegic. County sources say he could stand to receive a settlement larger than Hogan's family.

That all comes after county estimates show that upward of $450 million has been spent toward bettering jail conditions after the 2015 murder of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate who was beaten to death by three jail deputies, and a federal consent decree spurred scores of reforms.

Liccardo said he felt compelled to speak out in part given the proportion of San Jose residents who are held in the jails, since San Jose accounts for half of the county population.

"The repeated violation of civil rights of jail inmates has damaged and ended lives," he said. "It further undermines the community's confidence in law enforcement more generally. I hate to see the work of good cops undermined by the poor leadership of the sheriff."

Along those lines, Liccardo alleged a troubling longstanding practice he said he has learned happened in the jails: The sheriff's office mandated that officers from police departments turn off their body-worn cameras when booking certain people into jail custody.

"Until June of this year, it was a requirement at the jail for arrestees who appeared to be combative," he said. "Several (police) departments were puzzled and frustrated by this."

Liccardo said it was only after a groundswell of objections by police agencies that the practice ended.

The mayor's calls for the sheriff's resignation follow a request sent to the county Board of Supervisors by supervisors Joseph Simitian and Otto Lee to release a confidential report and video of jail deputies' and staff's response to the Hogan case, and use that information to compel external investigations of the jails by the state Attorney General and the county's Civil Grand Jury.

The civil grand jury has the unique authority to initiate proceedings that could lead to the forced removal of the sheriff, who is up for re-election for a seventh term in June.

Liccardo said the jail controversy worsens public confidence in a sheriff already enduring another major scandal in which one of her key political fundraisers and two close advisers in her office — including her undersheriff — have been indicted on bribery charges alleging that they brokered the issuing of concealed-gun permits in exchange for political donations and favors.

Smith invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in refusing to testify to one of the related criminal grand juries last year. In another criminal grand jury hearing, an employee testified that Smith willfully skirted campaign-finance reporting laws to mask her use of a San Jose Sharks luxury suite donated by a political supporter and concealed-gun permit recipient.

"When she refuses to cooperate in an investigation because she fears her testimony will incriminate her," Liccardo said, "she has to step down."

(c)2021 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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