SANTA CLARA – Santa Clara County voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to replace former Sheriff Laurie Smith – who resigned shortly before being found guilty on six counts of corruption and willful misconduct — with a candidate who has prior history in the county’s sheriff’s office, or someone from the outside.
The candidates, former Assistant Sheriff Kevin Jensen and former Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen, both have pledged more transparency and accountability after Smith, who served as sheriff since 1998.
“We have to own what we’ve done before we can have a seat at the table of trust,” Jensen said in an interview. Jensen, speaking of his time working under Smith, said she’d created an environment “of fear and intimidation.”
“I’ve always said that kind of power abuse will give you temporary gains, but it’ll give long-term disaster. She’s now suffering that, and our department suffers from it,” Jensen added.
Jensen approaches the candidacy with nearly three decades of service within the sheriff’s department. He attributes his career choices to his experience growing up with a father who was imprisoned for years and “watching all this, going through it, and seeing what law enforcement should be.”
In 2010, when Jensen was the assistant chief of his department, he testified before the Board of Supervisors against Smith, disavowing her oversight of the county’s jails. In 2013, he ran for Sheriff against the then-incumbent Smith, finishing with 41% of the vote.
Jensen’s key endorsers include State Senator Dave Cortese and Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman, along with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Santa Clara County. Bob Jonsen, Jensen’s opponent, said one of the biggest issues is the lack of progress around accountability and transparency. “I’m going to open that door from day one,” Jonsen said in the Palo Alto Weekly’s publicized Sheriff Debate.
Jonsen did not respond to email requests for an interview.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he believes Jonsen will bring the “fresh take” that the office needs to reform their organization. “Who do I really think is going to be a force for reform? I think that’s Bob Jonsen. He is the necessary outsider who can plausibly claim that he won’t perpetuate the status quo.”
The Sheriff’s Department has faced its fair share of challenges in the last decade, dealing with several lawsuits regarding staff misconduct. In 2015, three correctional officers in Santa Clara County Jail were charged with second-degree murder for beating inmate Michael Tyree to death.
Jensen attributes these management failures in part to Smith’s “hiring correctional officers with her kind of fear and intimidation model.”
In 2018, a 24-year-old man named Andrew Hogan suffered from a severe mental health crisis and was left with near-fatal brain injuries, as officers failed to restrain him from harming himself during his episode. Smith failed to investigate this incident and refused to cooperate with outside investigations. Her leadership “failed at nearly every level,” according to a statement by the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring in a presentation to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Public records show that approximately $14 million in settlements were made by Santa Clara County to the families of both Michael Tyree and Andrew Hogan. As costly legal fees grew, another lawsuit emerged. In 2019, jail staff left inmate Juan Martin Nunez alone in his cell for 24 hours after he’d injured his spinal cord, which left him paralyzed and permanently in need of a ventilator to breathe. In 2022, the Nunez settlement was made public, revealing that the county settled for $7 million.
This string of jail incidents led Simitian to open investigations against Smith, which resulted in the Board of Supervisors’ vote of “no confidence” in the former Sheriff.