On the record, Q&A with Sheriff Laurie Smith

There’s obviously a lot of growth in South County. Do you see any need for changes in manpower strategies for handling this increase?

We always look at cost for service. And if we need additional staffing for calls for service, we base our staffing on that. And you know, we have two rural crime deputies that work here with the ranchers and the cattlemen and everything down here. But our South County statistics? I was actually literally surprised. Auto theft in 2016 it was 138. Last year, 47. Everything [in crime stats] is significantly down [in 2017-18]. Everyone’s concerned about thefts from vehicles, which is just really really high in 2016, when it was 40 and in 2017 it was 27 [incidents].

I never take credit for good crime rates, because I think that law enforcement doesn’t have the biggest impact on crime rates. The economy, the employment rate, alcohol, drugs, socioeconomics are factors.

Is there anything the sheriff’s office could or should do to curtail the proliferation of accidents and traffic violations on rural roads like Watsonville Road that have become commuter routes?

I think it’s increased. I think that we’re going to work on traffic enforcement. We’ve talked to the Highway Patrol about it. We’ve got a great relationship and they’re going to work with us on it, and they don’t mind that we do traffic enforcement, because in unincorporated areas the traffic enforcement is CHP. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t write as many tickets as wherever we want. People think we can’t write tickets on the freeway, but yes we can. We don’t generally, because it’s not our responsibility, but we certainly have the authority.

What of the allegation from the 1990s, accusing you of sexual harassment?

Basically, I say it is false—and you know, it is very hurtful. For generations to come, you have to read about how this guy made these salacious allegations against me that are not true.

So may we ask you something about your former undersheriff, John Hirokawa? Was he responsible for the 2015 death of Michael Tyree in the Santa Clara County Main Jail?

In July of 2010 he was chief of correction—with no correction. Now he’s saying apparently he has taken full responsibility for the murder [of inmate Michael Tyree]. I can call them murderers now because the three jailers were convicted of Tyree’s death. [Hirokawa] was there during that time and he froze—he didn’t want to do any media, didn’t want to talk about. We were writing a reform plan and he didn’t want anything to do with it. I think he just panicked. He was chief all the way up until he retired [in 2016].

And he’s saying that he had no authority, that he had to do whatever you wanted.

You know that’s a great thing to say right now, but that’s that’s factually inaccurate. He reported to the Board of Supervisors. He met in closed session with the Board of Supervisors. And he set goals and objectives on the entire jail with the Board of Supervisors. The fact is, that he was running the jails. It’s very convenient now for him to say that and place blame somewhere else.

Are you satisfied with the current setup for administration of the jail?

It does need to be changed because it’s somewhat convoluted. My current undersheriff, Carl Neusel, is also the interim chief of corrections and reports to the Board of Supervisors in closed session and is evaluated by the board. It really should be a more clear-cut command. I think if you ask jail employees, they say that they don’t know whom they work for, necessarily. There really needs to be needs to be a clear chain of command.

Ultimately, everything is under me, because the undersheriff position is there and I’m the appointing authority for all the deputies. But in functionality, it’s the chief of correction (who runs the jail).

Do officers in the jail wear body cameras, and are those helping?

Yes, and we’ve seen our complaints really go down. I was pretty unhappy that the county told me that a camera system in the jail would cost something like $20 million. I bought one system that was I think 15 cameras. We put them up in this one housing area and the next day there was a major, major serious fight. And just having those cameras there, we were able to get criminal charges on the actual offenders. After that, the county went out and bought the same system. I’m also a big proponent of Tasers in the jail. I think that we have to do everything that we can protect our deputies.

What’s your thought about when or if deputies’ body camera videos should be released?

That’s a really hard question and I’ve wrestled with that a lot. I believe in that and also in privacy. I think that people really have the right to privacy. I know we can always hide behind the investigation exception. But I think there are going to be some court decisions. I think the courts are wrestling with that as much as the rest of us are—how does privacy and transparency mix, and what is the right answer?

So do I think it should be released the day after the investigation ends? That’s the problem: Is the investigation done? But then the district attorney has to review it to find whether or not they’re going to indict. When they do that very detailed report of the summary, and (report) their findings, they should release the tape at the same time. The DA’s office should have to weigh in on that within a couple of months, instead of a couple of years.

Do your officers use the carotid restraint?

No. It’s in our use-of-force policy, but it’s very high up, where it can rarely be used. Most people don’t know the carotid restraint is blood, and not air—This is what kills people [uses her hand to demonstrate pressure on the front of her windpipe].

How do you keep excited about your job? What is it that drives you, that keeps going?

The people. We have the greatest deputies in the world. What they do every day I think it’s wonderful. I’m very passionate about the job. I will stay as long as I think I’m productive, or don’t get elected. I really believe in the service that we provide. I’ve been in the sheriff’s office for almost 45 years. So it’s been a long time—I’ve had a great career. When I started at the sheriff’s office my title was “Deputy Sheriff Matron.” Our uniform was only skirts, and we were paid 15 percent less.

So you expect, if you’re re-elected, to serve out the full four years?


Was the Sierra LaMar case a success?

I think we were very very successful. The initial call came out: “My teenage daughter did not return home.” We called out our search-and-rescue team, a group of really highly dedicated volunteers, and along with technology we were able to find her cell phone and then within 48 hours they were able to find her backpack. Had the deputy who responded to the scene not had the intuition that this is not just a teenage girl not coming home, I don’t think we would have been so successful, because the backpack was where we identified the suspect. I think that our investigation into the case was exceptional. We had a first-degree conviction of murder without ever actually finding Sierra, and that’s one thing I hope we can do some time, is to find her.