The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a recommendation Tuesday calling for outside investigations into Sheriff Laurie Smith and the public release of records from the jails she oversees.
The proposal from Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee cited the slow pace of jail reforms in the wake of Michael Tyree’s 2015 beating death, along with more recent incidents that left inmates permanently injured and taxpayers on the hook for millions-of-dollars in legal settlements.
“It’s just unfortunate and it’s really unacceptable that these issues have still not been resolved,” said Lee, who served on the Blue-Ribbon Commission that called for significant changes at the jail after Tyree’s murder at the hands of three deputies.
Lee said just 10 of the 80 summarized recommendations from the commission have been fully implemented.
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“I really hope that through this process that we are working right now that these long-overdue changes will be made to better serve our community,” Lee said.
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, who chaired the Blue-Ribbon Commission, spoke at public comment and echoed San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo's Monday call for the Sheriff to resign.
Tuesday’s Board vote sets in motion a series of actions by the county, including the call for investigations of the Sheriff and county jails by the U.S. Department of Justice, the state Attorney General’s Office, the Fair Political Practices Commission, and the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.
“This is not something I’ve undertaken lightly,” Simitian said.
The county now plans to release a trove of records, including hours of video from a 2018 incident that left mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan with brain damage and cost the county $10 million after settling his family’s legal claim.
Even Michael Gennaco, the county’s civilian jail monitor with the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, said he hasn’t been given complete access to those records despite multiple requests to the sheriff's office. Gennaco previously told NBC Bay Area he was similarly left in the dark about a November gang beating of a police witness at Elmwood Jail.
Hogan suffered a massive traumatic brain injury after repeatedly beating his head against the wall of a jail van while being transported by deputies from Elmwood Jail to the Main Jail. The family and their attorney, Paula Canny, say Hogan should have been strapped to a gurney and given a medical transport given the psychiatric crisis and previous instances of self-harm at the jail.
“The problem was the jail staff made a decision regarding transportation that was fatally flawed,” Canny said. “Rather than do a medical transport, they did a prisoner transport and put him in a locked cage in a prisoner transport van and he literally banged his brains out while he was in the cage.”
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Sheriff Smith welcomed any outside investigations into her department but said she was not going to resign.
“We’re going to do these investigations,” Smith said. “Let’s see what the truth is. At this time, no.”
Smith also said she would continue to push back against the release of investigative records, adding she hoped the county would consider Hogan’s family before releasing the video.
“Their concerns should be of the highest order,” she said.
But Smith evaded questions about another scandal plaguing her office: The criminal indictments of two top sheriff’s office officials in the pay to play concealed gun permit probe.
Smith was called as a witness before the criminal grand jury during the District Attorney’s investigation, but she took the fifth and declined to testify.
“That is my right,” Smith said. “And I’m glad I did it.”
She declined to answer follow-up questions on the matter.
Smith also had an unlikely supporter at her press conference in Hogan family attorney Paula Canny, who stressed the family should be allowed to view the video before it’s made public. So far that hasn’t happened, she said.
“Hurting Sheriff Smith doesn’t help mentally ill people,” Canny said, who mostly works as a criminal defense attorney.
Canny called the county’s mental health system “broken” and said people suffering from mental illness should be placed in a treatment setting rather than a jail.
She also credited Smith for arresting her own deputies following Tyree’s murder and said Smith has no control over who’s placed in her jails.
“People are there in the jail because somebody has ordered them to be there, not because the sheriff wants them there,” Canny said.
While Simitian agreed the Sheriff doesn’t have a say in who winds up at her jails, he said she's still responsible for providing care to those incarcerated there.
“Whoever shows up in that jail, our sheriff and her team have to take care of them in a responsible way,” Simitian said. “We can’t have people losing their lives. We can’t have people who are left brain damaged. We can’t have tens-of-millions in settlements.”
The supervisors are also directing county counsel to provide the Board with an update on a 2019 incident at the jail that left mentally ill inmate Marin Nunez paralyzed.
The case has received little media attention and Nunez’s attorneys have not responded to NBC Bay Area’s interview requests.
But Nunez’s lawsuit against the county says he was suffering from “psychiatric distress” while in custody in August of 2019 and ran head-first into the door of his cell, injuring his spine.
He recently filed a lawsuit against the county alleging he didn’t receive medical attention for those injuries for 24 hours, even though he told deputies he might be paralyzed and was crying out in distress.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple interview requests from NBC Bay Area to discuss the Nunez case, the Hogan case, and whether any sheriff’s office personnel were disciplined after either incident.
The Hogan case records are expected to be made public sometime before the Board’s September meeting.
This is a developing story, check back later for more details.