The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved on Tuesday a vote of no confidence in Sheriff Laurie Smith, an unprecedented act that serves as sharp condemnation of her leadership of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.
The decision marks the most significant rebuke the board can make against Smith, who is an elected official and oversees law enforcement and jail operations in the county. Supervisors say a culmination of apparent negligence and malfeasance in county jails, along with a lack of transparency and alleged ethical violations, have forced them to lose faith in Smith's ability to carry out her job.
The seven-page resolution lists numerous concerns about jail operations, including the injury and death of inmates that resulted in multimillion dollar settlements, and worrying allegations that department leadership participated in a gun permit bribery scheme that helped funnel money into Smith's reelection campaign.
There are also serious concerns over transparency and the sheriff's willingness to participate in jail reforms, with county officials stuck in an ongoing battle to get the sheriff's office to share information. The Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM), created to audit custody operations, has not been permitted to access documents needed to exercise independent oversight, requiring the board to vote last year to give OCLEM subpoena powers.
Supervisor Joe Simitian said these problems, taken together, require the board to call out the misconduct and make clear that it is unbecoming of a public official, a law enforcement professional and a leader of the sheriff's office.
"We simply cannot let these behaviors continue," Simitian said. "At some point we have an obligation as a governing body to simply speak up and call out this behavior as unacceptable."
Smith fired back at the Aug. 31 meeting, insisting that many of the problems cited in the resolution are of the board's own making and that she is being used as a scapegoat for systemic problems forced on her office. County jails are being used as a mental health facility, she said, which is both wrong and inhumane, and that the board is "looking for someone to blame" for a homelessness and mental health epidemic.
"The county jail should not be used as a mental health hospital, which is what the board has asked of me. You've tasked me with being your Band-Aid, now you're placing blame and not taking responsibility," Smith said. "Joe (Simitian) apparently needs to find a blame for inadequacies instead of addressing the real root cause of the problem."
The county has faced three serious incidents in county jail facilities that have resulted in lawsuits over the last six years. In 2015, three correctional officers murdered inmate Michael Tyree by beating him to death, resulting in a $3.6 million settlement. In 2018, jail staff transported mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan without safety restraints or protective gear while he was transported between jail facilities, causing serious injuries and leading to a $10 million settlement.
More recently, a pending lawsuit alleges that in August 2019, mentally ill inmate Martin Nunez suffered injuries due to self-harm and was left unattended and without medical care for 24 hours, leaving him quadriplegic.
The county launched a blue ribbon commission following Tyree's death to spur reform and root out systemic problems in the county jail system in order to prevent similar incidents. Former Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who chaired the commission, said little has changed since then, and that Smith's actions to date have amounted to ineptitude bordering on criminal indifference.
"Five years later, nothing has changed: inmates have suffered traumatic injuries, costing the county multi-million dollar settlements, inmate-on-inmate violence continues, and the sheriff's resistance to transparency remains unrelenting," Cordell wrote in a letter to supervisors. "The one thing that has changed is that under the leadership of Laurie Smith, the management and operation of the jails have worsened."
Kevin Jensen, a retired sheriff's captain who worked under Smith, said he agrees with his former boss that it's a scourge to treat mental illness as a crime. But he said that doesn't excuse poor treatment of mentally ill inmates once they're in custody, and that the agency needs Smith to move on and "get back to ethics."
"Yes, let's get mental illness dealt with before we get to the jails. But if they're there, they are ours to care for," Jensen said.
The Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers' Association did not take a position on the vote Tuesday, instead telling supervisors that all allegations raised in the resolution should be fully investigated. Todd Kendrick, president of the association, said in a letter that the rank-and-file employees who work for the county are devoted to implementing the recommendations from the blue ribbon commission, and have tried their best to accommodate jails being used as mental health facilities.
In sharp contrast to the union's conciliatory tone, Smith blasted the county for depriving her department of resources and adequate staffing only to turn around and blame her for the resulting problems. She drew comparisons to the recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and said county supervisors are seeking to undermine the will of the people by voting "no confidence" over a job they know little about. She called many of the allegations in the resolution "outlandish" and outright false.
Smith targeted Simitian, saying defiantly that she would withstand his "coordinated wrath," and that he and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo are trying to push her out of her job without acknowledging their own shortfalls.
"The mayor of San Jose asked for my resignation — what does the mayor know about our progress in the jails? He doesn't acknowledge his role in helping those with mental health crises," Smith said. "I submit he should take care of his city and look in his own mirror, look at the ghost guns prolific on the streets and address his serious homeless issues."
Simitian, responding to Smith, said he was disappointed and somewhat appalled that the mental health crisis would be used as a means to "divert, deflect and deny responsibility" for all of the problems enumerated in the resolution, particularly the problems that have nothing to do with mental health.
"It is not a mental health issue that three people have already pled guilty to participating in a contributions-for-gun-permits scheme," Simitian said. "It is not a mental health issue that an inmate was thrown in with 31 gang members and beaten to a pulp for five and a half to six minutes."
In an unusual move intended to keep a positive relationship between the board and the sheriff, Supervisor Otto Lee proposed a second resolution that encourages Smith to retire at the end of her term in 2022 and support a smooth leadership transition. It also calls for immediate fixes to problems cited in the vote of no confidence, including full cooperation with the independent auditor for the jail system. Supervisors unanimously approved Lee's resolution.