Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Mirkarimi faces
tough re-election race


Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi addressed the media at an April news conference about allegations of a fight ring inside the jail. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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The hotly contested race for San Francisco sheriff has seen a retired chief deputy take on incumbent Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who is fighting to hold onto his job in the wake of several scandals.

The former city supervisor and district attorney staffer has been the subject of controversy since even before he took office, adding to his re-election challenges.

Mirkarimi, 54, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to a false imprisonment charge stemming from a fight with his wife, Eliana Lopez, escaped being officially removed from office when four Board of Supervisors members voted in October 2012 not to sustain Mayor Ed Lee's official misconduct charges against him. He won a judge's order this spring to expunge the conviction from his record.

Lee had appointed Mirkarimi's main opponent, Vicki Hennessy, to serve as interim sheriff while his case against Mirkarimi was pending. Now, Hennessy wants the job, and has secured top endorsements.

Other issues Mirkarimi has had to confront as sheriff include the death of a patient in a stairwell at San Francisco General Hospital, which is guarded by sheriff deputies; allegations of a fight ring in a county jail run by sheriff deputies; and low morale among the rank and file of the safety agency.

Making international headlines was the killing in July of a woman on a city pier, allegedly by a man in the country illegally who had been released from custody by the sheriff's department after a long ago drug possession charge against him was dismissed. Due to the city's sanctuary city policy, the sheriff's department released the individual without alerting federal immigration authorities, a decision that came under blistering criticism from Lee and other officials.

Last month, the headlines focused on how Mirkarimi's driver's license was suspended earlier this year after he failed to properly report a fender bender he was involved in last October while driving a city-issued vehicle to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Mirkarimi's office said soon after he learned of the suspension, he "contacted his insurance representatives to determine why the proper report was not submitted to the DMV." The matter has since been resolved, he said.

Asked about the troubles that have plagued him, Mirkarimi said in a Tuesday, September 1 interview, "It's incumbent on me to get our message out about all the wonderful, positive, and significant accomplishments we've achieved that make us a national leader."

Among other achievements, the sheriff recently announced that he plans to stop classifying transgender inmates who have not had surgery according to their birth sex. That policy would mean that trans women would no longer be housed with men. The same would be true for transgender men, but the jail population generally sees more trans women inmates.

A finalized policy dated Tuesday says that in "an unprecedented action," Mirkarimi has directed that transgender people currently housed at County Jail 4, a men's facility, will have opportunities to participate in programming at County Jail 2, which houses cis women.

Mirkarimi said he aims to start moving transgender women out of male housing before the end of the year.

During the interview Mirkarimi said the policy is "both the spirit and the tangible result of our joint cooperation" with community advocates, and he called it "a significant milestone."

He said when he's met with people during the campaign that have included "fence sitters" and people who oppose him, "they leave with a very different impression" than what they've received from the media. However, he acknowledged, the list of problems "portends for a challenging race."

"We're running on our record," Mirkarimi said. "The significant advances we're making are not just unique to San Francisco, but are now being replicated or mirrored" in other counties and across the country.

Besides his work on transgender housing in the jail, Mirkarimi pointed to several of his administration's other achievements, including enrolling inmates in health care under the Affordable Care Act before they're released, expanding educational opportunities, lowering the age of unaccompanied minors who are visiting their incarcerated parents or guardian from 18 to 16, increasing visiting hours, and cutting the cost of phone calls between inmates and their families.

Among the goals he has for the department is addressing practices that are "criminalizing poverty," such as high bail amounts that keep people incarcerated.

"The San Francisco bail schedule is one of the highest in the state," he said.

Many of his efforts have met with skepticism, though, including the transgender policy.

There's been "resistance internally in our own department," Mirkarimi said, including recent discussions with people who are "well meaning" but also "obsolete or arcane in their thinking."

"We have to recognize this has been a population that's been left behind" the advances other communities have seen in jail, the sheriff said.

It's time to demonstrate "we're sincere in bringing the transgender population up to the same level of standards as everyone else," he said.

Mirkarimi said of his efforts during his tenure, "It's going to take a reformer" who is "independent of law enforcement unions" but willing to bring them along "to see the wisdom of how this will improve rehabilitation and ultimately public safety."

He said Hennessy is "entirely about the status quo" and "an insider" who wouldn't be "independent at all of Mayor Lee and the law enforcement union influence."

"I'm an outsider who resists any attempt to consolidate the power of the elected office of the sheriff under the thumb of the mayor," he said.

The sheriff indicated he'd defend the department from being "subordinate" to agencies including "the police department or to the whims of the chief executive of the city."

"Our boss is the people," he said.

In response to Mirkarimi's comments, Hennessy, 62, said in an email, "Ross is desperately looking for a narrative to deflect from his shortcomings – his lack of personal accountability, poor judgment, lack of leadership, and lack of support within the department."

She added, "I'm offended, though unfortunately not surprised, by his sexist comments that I cannot think and act for myself, but must be a tool of Mayor Lee. I served in the sheriff's department for over 30 years, [and] I have a long record of accomplishments, trust, leadership and accountability, as well as the support of the working men and women in the department."

In response to emailed questions, PJ Johnston, the spokesman for Lee's re-election campaign, said Hennessy "is a former chief deputy and interim sheriff, who has earned the support of the rank-and-file in the Sheriff's Department. Mayor Lee agrees with the rank-and-file members of the Sheriff's Department who say they need stable, competent leadership. It's as simple as that."



Mirkarimi does have some strong supporters.

Former Sheriff Mike Hennessey, 67, whose retirement opened the job for Mirkarimi, said he's contributed $500 (the maximum allowed) to his successor's campaign.

"With over 800 sworn officers and tens of thousands of prisoners every year, mistakes by staff are bound to happen, sometimes with tragic consequences, but those errors or misdeeds by staff should not be confused with the work of the policy maker which is the essential role of the Sheriff," Hennessey, who's not related to Vicki Hennessy, said in an email. "... Since the Sheriff's Department does not have any civilian oversight, I believe it is imperative that the department leader be more aligned with the community than with the rank and file of the agency."

Former Mayor Art Agnos, 77, said in an interview, "If people look at the job that he has done as sheriff, building on the legacy he inherited from Mike Hennessey, who also supports him, the issue is very clear. He's been an outstanding sheriff."

Agnos, who's contributed $500 to Mirkarimi's campaign, said his achievements "have been unfortunately diminished because of the outside, often politically motivated, issues that have gained so much attention."

He said there's "no question" Lee had seen Mirkarimi's popularity in the 2011 election as a threat.

The sheriff was "a political threat for Ed Lee, and they wanted to diminish him, and they got an extraordinary opportunity with the domestic issue that has now been resolved."

Johnston, the spokesman for Lee's campaign, responded, "I don't think Sheriff Mirkarimi has been a political threat to anyone since the day he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment."

Retired gay San Francisco journalist Larry Bush, 70, said that Mirkarimi "has addressed the issue of the misdemeanor that he pled to, and I also think that entire episode was clearly selective enforcement by the mayor, and was wrong."

Bush, who's also contributed $500 to Mirkarimi's campaign, said that through his efforts, the sheriff "has really recognized that simply putting people in a cell and locking the door isn't going to address how we change criminal behavior."



Also Tuesday, the family of Kate Steinle, the woman who was killed at the pier, filed claims against Mirkarimi and others, according to media reports.

Mirkarimi said he couldn't comment specifically on the claim, but he said the "tragedy" has shown "a spotlight on the significant incongruity between local, state, and federal immigration policy as it intersects with the criminal justice system."

He said there's been much "misinformation" about the case, stating among other things, his agency "did not seek" Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the man accused in the killing who has pleaded not guilty. He wondered why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hadn't deported Lopez-Sanchez before he was sent to San Francisco.

"How do we make sure violent criminals who are undocumented are properly transferred to the federal agency that is responsible for their detention or deportation?" he said.

The responsibility lies with local and federal officials, Mirkarimi said, but while his agency has tried to help with a solution, the feds "haven't fixed the problem."

John C. Robinson, a retired sheriff's deputy who now owns a private security company, is also in the sheriff's race.



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