On the record, Q&A with John Hirokawa

Former county undersheriff says it is time for a change

Why did you decide to run for sheriff?

I want to restore the integrity, fairness, transparency, community trust and balance to the elected position of sheriff. This is critically important to our community because the culture of the sheriff’s office starts at the top. The sheriff is a public servant leading by example. I believe that I have in-depth knowledge and experience and have had diverse responsibilities.

What do you think are the top two public safety issues in unincorporated portions of Santa Clara County?

Probably the number of supervisors and deputies that are assigned to the area. And then how those shifts and especially the special assignments needs to be flexible to the needs, especially in more rural areas. How they’re deployed and how the shifts are arranged are probably important.

I have been talking to the rank-and-file. I believe that it’s important to have that communication with the community groups in the South County to determine how to best serve this community. The best ideas come from, guess what? The rank-and-file in the community. What I’m looking for is to create more supervision at all the shifts to make sure there’s complete coverage.

Outreach is important, not just at certain election periods, but consistently throughout the term, and that’s why I’ll continue to do it. But on top of that is the training with regard to certain crimes that are more unique to the South County area. Fish and game issues, things like that.

Because of the growth of the area there is a lot more traffic on alternate commuter routes. Is there anything you think the sheriff’s office could or should do to kind of curtail that?

Helping the Highway Patrol is key. But the other thing that you do is that when there is no sure concurrent jurisdiction, we can enforce traffic laws just like Highway Patrol. And you talk to those chiefs—you collaborate with them: Can we help? Can we do things? Are you going to be OK? So again, I’m about communicating, talking to the community and talking to other law enforcement agencies about how to address these issues. There’s nothing stopping the sheriff’s deputies from enforcing traffic laws.

There is a sheriff’s substation in San Martin. Do you think you think it’s adequately staffed?

I think it could be again. I think it could be better staffed in regards to supervision and manpower. But I think the first order of business is to look at the ratio of supervision and when the supervisors are on duty.

You were part of the sheriff’s senior management for at least five years. Did you ever come to the sheriff and say, ‘We should be doing this,’ and she said, ‘No we can’t do this?’

I would say she [Sheriff Smith] was disengaged or sleeping. So what she would say is, “You do do what you think is best.” OK. But when I was bringing things to her attention, especially about the jails, there was no response. So I had to take it. And that was in late 2014 early 2015, before the death of Michael Tyree. She had received letters and phone calls from the prison law office that had gone nowhere.

Were you aware of any incidents that came to your attention?

Complaints about the incidents that came to my attention were given to internal affairs and to the criminal division.

Were you aware of a culture there that would lead to brutality?

I was unaware of any issues that came up during the Michael Tyree investigation. However, in early 2015 before Michael Tyree was killed, I had already hired an expert consultant to review some of the issues that we were having in the jails.

I asked her [Sheriff Smith] if we can do these things. There was no response, so we went ahead and did it anyway. I’m advocating for oversight, independent oversight, an independent body, an inspector general, to say to the Board of Supervisors—who’s operating the jail?  I brought this up.

Who should be in charge of the county jails?

The Sheriff’s Department has no operational authority in the jails. There was somewhat of a contract agreement that put supervisors in command of a lieutenant in the jails to help oversee it. Everything’s now under the chief of corrections.

Who is operating the jail? Is it the board supervisors or is it the sheriff?

OK, but if the Board of Supervisors is operating, running the jails, then there should an oversight report to the Board of Supervisors. That’s an independent oversight. The sheriff was responsible for, was reported as saying the sheriff has been operating the jails (since the merger). The sheriff is responsible, is a live person operating the jails. If that’s true, they’re pointing it out.

That’s how it’s been and that’s how it should be, then really then the board should have oversight and have that inspector general report to the board.

Under what rules should Tasers be used by deputies in the field?

I think the first thing that has to be done is an evaluation of what might have come into play if we had them. There has to be within the use-of-force continuum something short of using deadly force, a firearm, OK?  Other than using deadly force, you may be able to use the Taser, but that has never been spelled out.

What about Tasers in the jail?

The correctional deputies want Tasers in the jail. But they don’t want oversight.

Some people use the restrainer carotid hold.

I think it’s past its day. They’re going to make mistakes in regards to how it is employed nationwide.

Who would determine when an officer’s body cam footage could be released, so the public can get some confidence that procedures were followed?

With regards to privacy: A body cam doesn’t just capture the person who may be the subject of the reasons why we’re having contact. There may be other people also within our views or maybe other people in the background. OK, so they have privacy rights.

So I believe that in general that the video itself, because there are privacy issues for the people being filmed, that there is an expectation of their privacy and how we go about releasing it. Now when you come to a controversial subject, a controversial subject, you most likely use force, right? Now I know you guys are in the newspaper business, right? So it’s a public record for you. You believe that there should be more transparency disclosure. OK. Only on certain circumstances do I believe that the video can be released.

So I think I’m the only candidate who’s gone to the unions and has advocated for oversight, independent oversight.

Could you provide some clarity for the public and for the deputies about how the sheriff’s department should cooperate with immigration enforcement agents?

OK, so we are not supposed to ask about immigration status or documentation. Also that creates an environment where we have a part of our community now who will not, who don’t trust us in regards to our intent, in regards to what we may do if we start asking those questions.

There was a directive from the county that no ICE agents or immigration people can come and go into the jail. But that information wasn’t passed down to the people. She [Sheriff Smith] let them in. So there needs to be a clear, unambiguous position from the top executive about where they stand.