Retiring Palo Alto police Chief Bob Jonsen and former sheriff's Capt. Kevin Jensen appear headed to a November face-off for Santa Clara County sheriff, according to unofficial election results.
By 4:46 p.m. Thursday, Jonsen had 33.49% of the vote to Jensen's 30.57%, with 71% of ballots counted, according to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters. Sheriff's supervising Sgt. Christine Nagaye was in third with 18.7%. Sgt. Sean Allen was in fourth place and mother Anh Colton stood at a distant fifth. The county plans to update its results on Friday by 5 p.m.
The contentious race, in which the top two vote-getters head into the November election, pit the two longtime law enforcement professionals in a battle to potentially reform the Sheriff's Office. The office has endured years of controversy and alleged misconduct under outgoing Sheriff Laurie Smith, including a vote of "no confidence" by the county Board of Supervisors and bribery charges against her top brass related to campaign contributions for her reelection in 2018. Then there have been incidents causing injury and death to mentally ill inmates held in the county jail, which is managed by the Sheriff's Office and have cost the county about $20 million.
The primary election marks Jonsen's first foray into elected office. On Tuesday night, he said that he is encouraged by the numbers.
"The reality is a lot of votes still need to be counted," he said.
Jonsen said he and his wife watched the results during a quiet night at home but noted that the wait is also suspenseful.
"I've never wanted a Wednesday to come so fast," he said.
While he was leading in the results, Jonsen said, "I'll be happy to just be in a runoff."
Jonsen said he has a proven record for establishing strong community policing programs and developing strategic solutions.
Jonsen launched the Palo Alto Police Department's his first foray into politics Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) last November, which pairs an officer with a licensed mental health clinician from the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department to provide rapid intervention to people in a mental health crisis. As sheriff, he would advocate for additional funding for mental health programs to help de-escalate crisis encounters.
Jonsen said he would also address lagging recruitment and retention of deputies and staff.
In a previous interview with this news organization, Jensen said he would focus on transparency within the Sheriff's Office and on jail reforms that involve mental health programs.
On Wednesday, he said in a text message that he is thankful to voters for the opportunity to continue what he has been doing for more than 12 years: "Calling out the corruption and mismanagement in order to bring the positive change and ethical leadership that our community and our agency deserves."
Some will try to simplify the race as a contest between an insider and an outsider, but the critical comparison and contrast between him and Jonsen is that he has stayed in the same department that gave him a chance as a young 21-year-old husband and father who believed in the honor of serving and protecting, he said.
He noted that he rose through the ranks into management and executive management command positions and called out "the painful misconduct over many years in our own department and before the Board of Supervisors, the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Jails and in the media" and that he has championed reform and transparency.
"My hope and belief is that the public will choose the most experienced and dedicated candidate who chose to serve his community by staying in the fire at the agency that gave him a chance, and ethically leading it to the excellent public service and public safety partner Santa Clara County deserves," he said.
Nagaye, who ran on a platform of transparency and accountability with promises to hold officers and deputies responsible for their actions, and to improve training in the jails and in the field, has landed in third place, according to unofficial election results posted Tuesday night. She said by phone that she "feels great" about her campaign and that she got out her message of the need for law enforcement reform, additional training and mental health support for jailed inmates.
Being third isn't where she wanted to be, but she will continue to push for reforms in Santa Clara County and in law enforcement nationwide.
"I would like to congratulate Kevin Jensen and Bob Jonsen on moving forward to the general election for the office of Santa Clara County Sheriff," she said further in a emailed statement. "I pledge to do everything in my power to support whoever wins, although I am concerned the much-needed changes will not be made with either of them fulfilling this role.
"We are in desperate need for law enforcement reform in the sheriff's office, and tonight's results have only strengthened my resolve to be a part of that. I will make sure my reform plan and my suggestions for solving the problems in both the custody and law enforcement divisions land on the desk of the new sheriff on day one, and I pledge to my supporters I will do everything I can to hold that person accountable to the community.
"I will not stop fighting for better training and better recruitment policies for our deputies, for more education, vocational training, and job placement opportunities for those in our custody, as well as more social workers, and mental health counseling. I will not stop fighting for programs and policies to help reduce the number of repeat offenders, and I will not stop fighting for law enforcement reform," she said.
Nagaye added that there also must be more outreach to our minority communities.
"Our African American, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and LGTBQ+ neighbors need to feel safe from hate. We need to restore the relationship and trust between law enforcement and our most vulnerable citizens," she said.
This story will be updated as more results become available.