Candidates for Santa Clara County Sheriff have been squaring off on homelessness, crime, police accountability and the potential new jail in a series of debates and open forums before voters head to the polls on Nov. 8.
Smith announced her plans on March 10, 2022, to retire at the end of her term in January of 2023 in an email to Sheriff’s Office staff. She is currently in a civil corruption trial after allegations were made that Smith favored donors in awarding concealed carry permits. The trial began Sept. 21 and is expected to continue through November.
Robert “Bob” Jonsen worked as a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for 27 years from 1986 to 2013. Jonsen was then chief of police in Menlo Park from 2013 to 2018, and served as Palo Alto’s chief of police until June of 2022, when current Police Chief Andrew Binder was selected to take over the role.
Kevin Jensen also has a more than 30-year history with law enforcement, and worked as assistant chief in the Department of Corrections and in several other positions within the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.
Jensen has the endorsement of numerous police unions and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Santa Clara County, as well as State Senator Dave Cortese and Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman.
While Jonsen isn’t endorsed by any of the police unions, he is endorsed by many members of law enforcement including several former chiefs of police. Jonsen also received a Gun Sense Candidate Distinction from the group Moms Demand Action, a grassroots group working to end gun violence through public safety legislation.
The biggest issue both candidates addressed in debates and forums is police accountability. In the wake of the corruption lawsuit against Laurie Smith, allegations of abuse against inmates in Santa Clara County jail, and increased scrutiny of police use of force in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, both candidates agreed that police accountability is important to public safety.
In a debate moderated by reporter Sue Dremann and editor Jocelyn Dong of the Palo Alto Weekly, Bob Jonsen said transparency about use of force and an open relationship with Mike Genaco, chief attorney of the Office of Independent Review, are linchpins in his plan for police accountability.
“Operationally one of the biggest issues is the lack of progress around accountability and transparency, Jonsen said. “That relationship with Mike Gennaco…is critically important for public trust.”
Jonsen said that he would like to expand the scope of civilian oversight to include all uses of force, and not just the uses of force that lead to an investigation.
Kevin Jensen said that while he agrees with transparency being a key point of accountability, he wants to ensure that any information given over for review doesn’t “run afoul of personnel laws.”
Working with the Blue Ribbon Commission established in 2015 by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to improve custody operations after allegations of abuse at the county jail, Jensen said he was able to give 35 correctional officers the ability to testify without having their identities disclosed, which increased transparency about jail conditions.
“What we’re talking about now is changing the process to say ‘we will be transparent, we’re going to work with you, you’re going to work with us to make sure we don’t run afoul of personnel laws, that we’re giving us something that legally we can’t give out,’” Jensen said.
In discussing crime prevention, specifically and theft deterrence, Jensen said that entities receiving stolen property like auto parts need to be regulated and monitored, creating a database of people bringing in potential stolen property to be exchanged for cash.
“I think we can go further and say hold the stores and the auto industry and the junkyards responsible for the precious metals, and for reporting and creating a database,” Jensen said in the debate, adding that police need to use current and reliable data.
“I believe that the reporting at the state level is so far behind. We need to actually work together and form our databases collectively throughout the county, because criminals don’t have borders,” Jensen said.
Jonsen countered by saying that while Jensen speaks theoretically about using data to reduce crime, he has experience in doing so in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Los Angeles.
“Best practices that Kevin mentions is great…the reality is I’ve actually implemented them,” Jonsen said.
Jonsen mentioned being awarded the James Q. Wilson award for community policing and crime reduction. “This requires tremendous collaboration, commitment and resources,” he said. “and that requires money. There’s $40 million that the Department of Justice has allocated for community policing, in this upcoming year, we have to be very proactive and going after that money.”
In terms of incarceration and treatment of mentally ill people who have contact with law enforcement, Bob Jonsen said access to mental health resources within the carceral system is paramount. However, it may take years before the new jail, which promises to include more facilities for mental health, is built.
“It’s going to take years before we get a new facility built, we really need to create the access to care, that continuum of care for people who need the help when they need it,” Jonsen said in a forum moderated by the League of Women Voters.
He advocated for increasing the ratio of interns to trained clinicians working within the jails to five interns per every clinician, saying it would create a “dramatic increase in access to care.”
Jensen agreed that once a person is detained by law enforcement the jail should have adequate resources to provide them with mental health care, but also said that prevention and increasing mental health resources for people before they have contact with law enforcement would ensure people receive the care they need.