Five contenders line up in sheriff's race | News | Palo Alto Online |


Five contenders line up in sheriff's race

Hotly contested election tests five-term incumbent Laurie Smith

Voters will have a choice between re-electing an incumbent Santa Clara County sheriff for a sixth time, giving her former second in command a chance to sit in the driver's seat or electing new blood altogether.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has held the office since 1998, faces four challengers: her former second in command, John Hirokawa; longtime former deputy sheriff, Jose Salcido; current deputy and former military policeman Joe La Jeunesse; and retired San Jose police officer and former Parlier, California, chief of police Martin Monica.

The Sheriff's Office has been plagued by trouble in recent years, including the 2015 murder of a county jail inmate by three deputies; the 2017 murder of another inmate at the hands of another; the suicides of several inmates; and the escapes of two in November 2016 after they sawed the bars off a cell and rappelled from the second story using rope from bed sheets. On Nov. 6, two inmates appearing at the Palo Alto courthouse slipped away from a deputy in a planned escape. They were later captured.

The 2015 death of Michael Tyree in the county jail led to the conviction of three officers and a Blue Ribbon Commission that outlined recommendations for reform of the jail. The challengers blame Smith for poor leadership; she blames Hirokawa, who was then Chief of Corrections and her undersheriff.

The candidates met with the Weekly to discuss how they would run the department if elected. This week, we review their backgrounds and qualifications. Next week, we will publish their ideas on everything from cooperating or not with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transparency among department leaders.

John Hirokawa

Serving as undersheriff under Smith until his 2016 retirement, John Hirokawa, 61, has the most experience as a manager inside the department of the candidates except for Smith. He worked for the Sheriff's Office for 35 years and in all of the major divisions. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors appointed him as chief of the Department of Corrections after turning the responsibility over to the Sheriff's Office in 2010.

His tenure was marked by Tyree's murder by three deputies, now convicted. Hirokawa has acknowledged some responsibility, but points out he is the only person in the command to have done so. In an interview last week, he said his job as chief of corrections was a misnomer: He was in charge of food service, the warehouse, laundry and administrative booking.

Oversight of deputies in the jail fell to Smith and captains who oversee the San Jose jail and Elmwood Correctional Facility, he said.

Hirokawa said a lack of supervision created the problems in the jails. Despite $350 million dedicated to improving the jails and recommendations for reform by a task force, deaths have continued since he's retired: Inmate Edward Davis Jr. was murdered at Elmwood by another inmate last year, and at least four inmates died by suicide.

Hirokawa has received multiple endorsements, including from Palo Alto's former Police Chief Dennis Burns and from retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who also chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission to reform the jails.

Cordell said in an email this week that she fully supports Hirokawa.

"John Hirokawa has honestly and courageously stepped up and acknowledged that many of the problems in the jails occurred on his watch. Was he a part of the problem? No. John was working on reforms prior to the death of Michael Tyree. He facilitated the hiring of an outside jail consultant before Mr. Tyree's death. John and the County Executive's office were working on grants and proposals to build a new jail to replace Main Jail South. He advocated for and facilitated bringing in outside consultants for medical, mental health, dental, suicide, and classification experts.

"I have heard candidates, including Laurie Smith, blame John for the problems in the jails. But not one of them has identified what he did to contribute to the problems."

Hirokawa supports civilian oversight of the jail. In 2014, he approved the first memorandum of understanding with the Office of Women's Policy, which provided for monitoring of the women's jail. In 2012, he was instrumental in creating the Jail Observer Program.

Hirokawa is a third-generation Japanese-American who came from a family of farmers on his father's side. Relatives were interned at Manzanar and Tule Lake camps during World War II. His parents inspired him and taught him about being non-judgmental, Hirokawa said.

Growing up in San Francisco, he experienced racial profiling by police, who were trying to identify Chinese gang members. After one incident, his mother had asked what he was going to do about it, he said. He decided to enter law enforcement to create change.

Joe La Jeunesse

At 49, Joe La Jeunesse is the youngest candidate for Santa Clara County Sheriff, but he brings a world of experience to the job.

La Jeunesse spent years in military policing and served on the Blue Ribbon Commission to reform the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. military atrocities at Abu Ghraib. La Jeunesse had been there when the torture was taking place. He was in a different section of the prison complex at the time and did not know what was going on in the other part of the prison complex, he said.

"I woke up one day, and there was a new chain of command," he recalled. He also worked at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base working on improving that prison environment.

La Jeunesse sees parallels between the prisons such as Abu Ghraib and the way the Santa Clara County jails are run. The lack of oversight has created an environment in which inmates have died at the hands of officers or other prisoners.

"The sheriff is reacting and is not proactive. You have to think two to three steps ahead," he said.

La Jeunesse joined the U.S. Army at age 17. A third-generation Bay Area resident, his grandparents had been fruit pickers, and his parents had worked to improve their lives, he said.

He chose to work in military policing and spent 10 years in the National Guard. After leaving the military he became a Santa Clara County deputy sheriff.

He was the first in his family to become a military officer and the first to attend college. He retired as a major, he said.

He would like to be the department's first Latino veteran sheriff, he said.

"I believe in team building. I want to leave this community safer for all residents," he said.

If elected, he would only run for two or three terms at most, he said. He doesn't think any sheriff should run the department for longer; the person should be able to accomplish all he or she sets out to do in that time.

La Jeunesse thinks there should be stricter use-of-force laws so that officers will be more inclined to de-escalate situations and not use weapons, he said.

He would also work to improve community policing, which he said isn't working well.

He would collaborate with other agencies such as the San Jose Police Department to learn what has worked for them, he said.

Martin Monica

Martin Monica, 63, is a retired San Jose Police Department sergeant and a former police chief in Parlier, near Fresno; he is currently a fifth-grade teacher at Lairon College Preparatory Academy in San Jose, which is in a high-gang area, he said.

He grew up in Palo Alto and attended Ohlone Elementary School, Wilbur Junior High School and Cubberley High School. He has a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's in education and is working on a doctorate in police leadership.

He became a police officer in 1982 because he wanted to help the community, he said.

"I saw the good and the bad side of police. I thought I could get in there and make a change," he said.

He applied to the Palo Alto Police Department but was rejected.

"They said I wasn't aggressive enough," he said.

Instead, he was hired immediately by the San Jose Police Department. He worked in patrol and as a canine officer on the SWAT team. A family man with a wife, son and daughter, he preferred to work on the street rather than in more rarified divisions such as narcotics and homicide, which would have taken him away from home for long periods of time. But there were other reasons.

"I wanted to work with the uniform on and work with people so they could see another side of law enforcement," he said.

Making connections and building trust enabled him to bust a child-pornography ring, he said.

Monica continued his pursuit of child molesters. In Parlier, he brought down a police sergeant who had been molesting kids.

"Everyone knew it for 10 years. When they said, 'They're immigrant kids' (so it didn't matter), I almost had a heart attack," he recalled.

Although officials accused him of mismanagement and booted him after eight months on the job, Monica said he was fired because the sergeant he arrested was well-connected.

Monica assigns blame for the poor conditions in the San Jose jails and the murder of Tyree by three officers on Hirokawa, who was the chief of corrections at the time. Although Hirokawa has said he shoulders some of the blame, he has also downplayed his role by saying his responsibility was focused on making sure the jail had things like food and other supplies.

But Monica disagrees.

"He was put in charge of the jails by the (Santa Clara County Board of) Supervisors, so it was his job. If he didn't know what's going on, then shame on him. Even if he decided he just wanted to deal with the food, he's still responsible," he said.

Monica is not big on using force against inmates or people on the street unless it is necessary. Using reason and understanding the people a deputy serves are usually more effective, he said.

"The problem is everyone wants to have some weapon to go after people. What's the most powerful weapon you have? It's your mouth," he said.

Jose Salcido

Before he began a 32-year career with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, Jose Salcido wanted to be a priest. He attended seminary, where, ironically, he met his wife. Leaving the seminary, he attended San Jose City College and then decided to follow his older brother into law enforcement.

"What I really enjoyed was working as a homicide detective," with all of the intricacies and the intensity, said Salcido, 63. "Once a homicide takes place you are working 48 hours straight."

After retiring from the Sheriff's Office as a lieutenant, he spent 5 1/2 years with then-Mayor Chuck Reed's office as a public-safety adviser working with the San Jose Police Department. There, he saw how the department interacted with different nonprofit groups and how the police were expanding their role to one of helping people improve their quality of life.

"The Sheriff focused more on the black and white, to make an arrest," he said.

Salcido wants to take the lessons he learned and apply them to the Sheriff's Office. Social and neighborhood programs such as Neighborhood Watch and the STOP crime-reduction program for businesses helped solve problems, he said. The Gang Task Force helps officers develop an understanding of the socio-psychological issues that affect gang members and families.

As sheriff, he would focus on programs to help inmates with mental health issues and services to prevent released inmates from becoming homeless.

A former president of the Deputy Sheriffs' Association, he is currently the public safety adviser to San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis.

Laurie Smith

Smith, 66, has served five terms as sheriff, having been first elected in 1998 — the first female sheriff elected in California history. She has been with the sheriff's department for 45 years. During her tenure, her department captured Antolin Garcia Torres, who was convicted of killing teenager Sierra LaMar, and arrested and secured the conviction of two teenagers in the sexual assault and online "slut shaming" that led to the suicide of teenager Audrie Pott.

Three correctional officers were also convicted in Tyree's murder.

Smith has come under fire for allegedly creating an environment of fear and intimidation within her department and has been blamed for the poor training and conditions that led to Tyree's death, inmate suicides, inmate homicide, and escapes from the jail and from custody at the Palo Alto courthouse.

"I take the blame" for what happened in the Tyree case, she said, but she blamed opponent Hirokawa for failing to move forward on a reform plan she and a team had created, she said. Hirokawa was in charge of the jails as the chief of corrections.

"He ran it entirely," she said. "I was his boss" but not part of the oversight.

As a result of Tyree's murder, about 10 to 15 people were fired.

Smith has the endorsement of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers' Association but not the Deputy Sheriff's Association. She also has union endorsements and the support of many county supervisors and city councils. Within middle management there hasn't been much divisiveness, she said.

When she began her public service career in 1973 she was sworn in as a deputy sheriff matron — the only full peace-officer position available to women, according to her campaign biography. Until 1976, female sworn staff members were only allowed to work in non-enforcement positions. She was one of the first female deputies to work in patrol and undercover.

Smith points to numerous initiatives the department has underway during her command. The department has focused on youth and gun violence and active-shooter training. The department has been working with the nonprofit Prison Law Office to correct the defects in the jails and improve prisoners' rights.

She would like to bring mobile mental health units to the jails.

Smith is working on an advanced-degree thesis that looks at hiring standards and psychological backgrounds of deputies to discern characteristics in deputies that lead to excessive use of force, she said.

Read part two in this two-part series.


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