Calif. sheriff's woes began before immigrant shooter uproar
In between the domestic violence incident and the latest controversy, SFPD has encountered several other missteps
By Paul Elias
SAN FRANCISCO — Ross Mirkarimi was a rising San Francisco politician when he was elected sheriff — and then the trouble started.
Since his election in 2012 to manage the city's jails, the Democrat who served successfully for eight years on the Board of Supervisors has endured a series of scandals and gaffes in his department that are hindering his campaign for re-election in November.
Shortly after his swearing in, he was charged with domestic violence for bruising the arm of his wife, Eliana Lopez, a former Venezuelan soap opera star.
That incident still follows him to this day, even as he tries to deflect mounting criticism of his department's handling of a Mexican national released from jail despite a federal immigration hold request. That man is charged with the fatal shooting of a San Francisco woman on July 1, an incident that has galvanized opposition to the city's policy of ignoring immigration requests from federal authorities.
For his part, Mirkarimi came out swinging against immigration critics at a Friday news conference. Donning his rarely worn sheriff's uniform, Mirkarimi told a bank of television cameras and a roomful of reporters that his department followed proper procedures when it freed the immigrant, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.
He took on Mayor Ed Lee, who had tried to remove him from office because of the domestic violence charges, for adding to the chorus of criticism. Lee signed the law that Mirkarimi said he was following when the jail released Lopez-Sanchez.
"The mayor is throwing his own law under the bus," Mirkarimi said.
In between the domestic violence incident and the latest controversy, Mirkarimi's department has encountered several other missteps his supporters say were beyond the sheriff's control.
"He has run into the worst luck of any politician in American history," said former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, one of Mirkarimi's key supporters.
In November 2014, Mirkarimi apologized for the sheriff's department's bungled search for a San Francisco General Hospital patient whose body was found in a secured stairwell weeks after she wandered from her room. The sheriff is in charge of the hospital's security, but deputies didn't begin searching the building for the missing patient until nine days after her disappearance.
Earlier this year, San Francisco's public defender charged four sheriff's deputies with forcing inmates to fight and gambling on the outcome. Mirkarimi is trying to fire one of the deputies involved.
Meanwhile, authorities are still searching for a drug kingpin facing a lengthy federal prison sentence who escaped earlier this year from the San Francisco jail after befriending a guard who let him take out the trash. The department launched an internal investigation to determine if protocols revised after a similar inmate escape last year were violated.
But it's the domestic violence incident that still dogs him the most.
Mirkarimi, 53, had hoped to put that behind him when he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment. He was placed on three years of probation in March 2012 and barred from carrying a gun during that time.
He also apologized publicly several times for hurting his wife and spoke out against domestic violence. Nevertheless, friends and foes alike called for him to resign, arguing that a top law enforcement official couldn't stay in office with such a conviction.
When Mirkarimi didn't quit, he alienated many friends and allies who supported him during his time on the Board of Supervisors representing a district with several high-crime neighborhoods. Mayor Lee failed to remove him from office after garnering seven of 11 Board of Supervisors votes when he need nine to sustain official misconduct charges.
"Most progressive activists have been trying to run away from Ross Mirkarimi over the last three years," said Nicole Derse, a political consultant who ran Mirkarimi's successful campaign for county supervisor in 2004. "He has a very, very slim chance of winning re-election."
Earlier this year, the union that represents 750 deputies endorsed Vicki Hennessy for sheriff. Hennessy served 36 years in the sheriff's department, obtaining the rank of captain before retiring in 2011. Lee called her out of retirement in 2012 to serve as interim sheriff while Mirkarimi was briefly suspended after the domestic violence charge.
In March, the 100-member San Francisco Sheriff's Managers and Supervisors Association also endorsed Hennessy.
Mirkarimi's supporters argue that many of the department's problems were inherited or out of his control.
Agnos defended the sheriff, saying Mirkarimi has, among other accomplishments, competently implemented the state's so-called prison realignment process, which shifts responsibility for lower-level criminals from state prisons to county jails.
In March, Mirkarimi's probation ended and he could legally carry a gun again. In April, a judge agreed to "expunge" the misdemeanor conviction and purge it from the records, a common practice for many with misdemeanor convictions who have stayed out of trouble during the probation.
Mirkarimi and his wife have reconciled and live with their son in San Francisco. His wife opened a one-woman play this year in San Francisco. It's called "What is the Scandal?"
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press