In two decades as the county’s sheriff, Laurie Smith’s legacy includes both accomplishments and mistakes, and as she runs for a sixth four-year term, her challengers have sought to direct attention to the latter.
Smith’s department’s investigation led to the successful prosecution of Sierra LaMar’s killer and she’s been out front on women’s issues—from rape cases at Stanford and De Anza College to the suicide of a West Valley high school student shamed on social media.
Much of the controversy surrounds the management of California’s fifth largest jail system, which was returned to the sheriff’s control in 2010 after a failed 13-year effort to run an independent Department of Correction. The Board of Supervisors stripped Sheriff Robert Winter of that responsibility in 1987 after a judge sentenced supervisors to jail for mismanaging the overcrowded system, and costs spiraled out of control. Eight years ago, the board had enough confidence in Smith to consolidate both departments under the control of a single executive.
The county’s perpetually troubled correction system is a thankless, no-win assignment, and the current administration now owns the mess. In 2015, mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree was beaten to death by three guards who regularly pulled prisoners out of cells and roughed them up for sport. The next year two prisoners sawed bars and lowered themselves to a few hours of freedom using bedsheets.
John Hirokawa, who is running against Smith, says it’s time to change the department’s leadership. That’s a fair argument, but is the alternative better? Hirokawa ran the jails for six years as Chief of Correction, including the time when the culture spiraled out of control and resulted in Tyree’s beating death.
Hirakawa now claims that he was only in charge of laundry, janitorial services and booking, and was just taking orders from Smith when Tyree was killed. At the same time, he says the disengaged sheriff let him do whatever he wanted. His title was Chief of Correction, he reported to Board of Supervisors and he accepted responsibility at the time of the 2015 incident. Now he wants to shift the blame to Smith. Is he running as a leader with experience, accountable for his actions, or as an ineffective flunky who took orders and failed to speak up? He can’t have it both ways and speak out of both sides of his mouth.
While Hirokawa doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing his former boss, he stumbles and lapses into confusing bureaucratese when trying to articulate how he would do anything different. As a spokesman for a major law enforcement agency, he just isn’t ready for prime time.
Another candidate for sheriff, former deputy sheriffs’ union leader Jose Salcido, has shown stunningly bad judgment during the campaign by associating with a released felon and registered sex offender. His tenure as law enforcement advisor to former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed was a low point in relations with that city’s police department, and while Salcido doesn’t deserve all the blame, there’s few accomplishments to take credit for.
Santa Clara County’s population growth continues to tilt south and into the unincorporated areas under the protection of sheriff’s deputies. Smith has demonstrated an ability to grow, and to support her deputies in their battles against crime in a rapidly growing metro area. She’s moving ahead with jail reform and is willing to hold her deputies accountable, which has earned her critics amongst former sheriffs who perennially back failed challengers.
We’ll stick with Smith until a credible, next-generation leader enters the arena. She can do the job. The others have yet to demonstrate that they can.