Sheriff-elect aims to build bridges

Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 11, 1998

ELECTION '98: Sheriff-elect aims to build bridges

Palo Alto's Laurie Smith plans to focus on family violence, youth, department morale

by Charlie Breitrose

A year ago, Laurie Smith thought she would be finishing her career with the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department as an assistant sheriff, the department's second-in-command. On Nov. 3 she found out she would not just be working in the sheriff's department, but running it. Rather than keep the status quo, Smith plans to make changes in how the department is run, both internally and on the street.

She plans an inclusive management style, taking input from everyone in the department, and hopes to use groups of deputies in specialized task forces to target problem areas such as domestic violence and youth crime.

Smith didn't think seriously of running for sheriff until the current sheriff, Chuck Gillingham, decided not to run. Even then it was not a quick or easy decision.

"First I talked to my husband (Brannan) and daughter (Shannan)," Smith said. "They said, 'Let's go for it.'" Brannan said it still took his wife a few weeks to put her hat in the race.

Her family were her biggest supporters and her hardest campaign workers. But she had help from many volunteers, too, including Shannan's friends from Palo Alto High School. She has her daughter to thank for one of her early endorsements.

"(Former Palo Alto councilman) Ron Anderson was one of my daughter's teachers," she said. "He endorsed me even though he had never met me. He told my daughter it was `because she has got to be good because you are such a nice kid.'"

In January, Smith will be sworn in as the first woman sheriff in the county, but she doesn't make a big deal about this fact.

"I think my whole career I've worked very hard. I think I have proved myself," Smith said.

Proving her mettle included proving that, as a woman, she could be effective in law enforcement. She began her career in the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department 25 years ago as a deputy matron. The matrons were limited to working only on the women's wings of the county jails.

"Our only uniforms were skirts," Smith recalls. "I remember we had special purses that had a built in holster and a pocket to put hand cuffs."

In 1975, women in the department were reclassified as deputy sheriffs. The change in rank was not as simple as a name change. The move was opposed by many male deputy sheriffs.

On the day of the union's affirmative vote, "I remember men standing on tables (at a union meeting) yelling, `Women can't be cops,'" she said.

When she was promoted to deputy sheriff, Smith worked many undercover investigations, including drug and prostitution investigations.

Smith moved up the ranks to lieutenant and became assistant sheriff in 1990. She has helped create a number of programs, including the Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement Team and the Regional Auto Theft Task Force.

Even though the sheriff's department does not have jurisdiction in Palo Alto, Smith hopes it would be involved in the area through its county-wide task forces.

Cooperation with the Palo Alto Police Department might be aided by the fact that Smith is an old friend of Chief Pat Dwyer.

One interagency group that may have a role in Palo Alto is the high-tech crime task force. "We need to be more user-friendly with the high-tech community," Smith said. "This is a changing area of crime."

During her campaign, Smith focused on youth crime and domestic violence. She already has some new programs planned to address these problems. She hopes to increase the rate of prosecution for domestic violence cases, which was 38 percent in 1997, she said. Part of the problem, as Smith sees it, is the limited time investigators have to collect evidence to make their cases.

She would like to have a team of investigators to examine victims, interview witnesses and collect evidence as soon as possible after a crime so that witnesses don't become afraid to give testimony later.

As for targeting youth crime, Smith will continue the department's Juvenile Impact Program, which works with first-time offenders. Instead of sending the youths to juvenile hall, the program gives them alternative forms of discipline, such as community service, and assigns law enforcement officers as mentors. Parents have to be part of the solution, too, she said.

"I firmly believe that intervening early diverts them away from (getting involved with more petty crimes) before they become immersed in a pattern that often leads to more serious crimes."

Smith also plans to work to unite officers within the department. The sheriff's department has had its share of internal strife over the last few years. The county Board of Supervisors' decision to remove the jail system from the department's control in the late 1980s caused much division among the ranks.

Prison guards, who were removed from the sheriff's office for a time, and governed by a separate corrections department, have often said they felt like second-class citizens because they weren't allowed to carry weapons. Deputy sheriffs had little opportunity for job advancement because openings were filled by prison guards who wanted to return to the sheriff's department, Smith said.

Smith says she will institute a "participatory management" style to help bring her department together. Decisions will be made by a team of people made up of anyone from the sheriff herself to the officers on the street. Her goal is to build trust and morale.

"I think I have a very hands-on style," she said. "I'd like to have more informal meetings so we can have good communication. This is something that has been lacking in the past." 

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