Santa Clara County supervisors may soon take dramatic action to potentially hold Sheriff Laurie Smith and her department accountable for a series of controversial incidents that have left inmates dead or severely injured and have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
An agenda released Wednesday in advance of next week's board meeting show a series of recommendations from Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee that could lead to the release of previously undisclosed sheriff records surrounding an incident involving a mentally ill inmate in 2018.
According to the proposed agenda item, Simitian and Lee also want the county to provide records on Smith and her department to the California attorney general for a potential investigation into a “possible pattern or practice of unconstitutional corrections conduct and/or civil rights violations and/or other violations of state or federal law.” They're also calling for potential investigations from the Fair Political Practices Commission, as well as the local civil grand jury, to investigate
Smith’s management of the jail has been a point of controversy going back to at least 2015, when mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree was beaten to death by three deputies. Other incidents have followed in ensuing years.
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“We can't just keep going along business as usual and expect that things are going to get better,” Simitian said. “It has been six years since a mentally ill man was murdered in our jails. And yet the tragedies keep coming.”
The supervisors also raised questions about potential political influence within the department, which is already under scrutiny over pay-to-play allegations surrounding concealed gun permits and political donors.
“The jail has been the scene of a series of tragic and costly incidents, sometimes without explanation, and without apparent accountability,” the supervisors wrote in their recommendations as part of the agenda for the board’s August 17, 2021 meeting. “Answers are few and far between. And in the absence of greater transparency, the question of possible political influence looms large.”
The recommendations seek to make public a previously unreleased 19-page county report and hours of recordings from a 2018 incident during a jail transport involving Andrew Hogan.
Hogan, who suffers from mental illness, 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.
“Officers drove the van into the Main Jail sally port, all the while Andrew Hogan was banging his unprotected head against the van walls literally banging his brains out of his now broken skull,” the Hogan family's legal claim stated.
Paula Canny, the attorney who represented the Hogan family, said deputies filmed Hogan while he banged his head against the wall but made no effort to intervene. Once arriving at the Main Jail, Canny said it took about 20 minutes for an ambulance to get to her client.
The county settled that case for $10 million in March of 2020, according to county records.
“That's money we can't spend on health care or homelessness or housing issues,” Simitian said. “The question obviously is what happened? And were there any consequences? Was there an internal affairs investigation? Was there any discipline?”
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for an interview to discuss the Hogan incident or whether any personnel involved faced disciplinary action.
“Our offices are unaware of any meaningful disciplinary actions taken against the correction officers involved in the delay between Mr. Hogan’s arrival at Main Jail and his eventual transfer to the hospital to receive medical care,” the supervisors write in their proposal.
In fact, Simitian and Lee raise the possibility that a former jail lieutenant, on duty as the watch commander at the time of the incident, was potentially promoted to captain several months later for helping raise money for Smith’s 2018 reelection campaign.
Lieutenant Amy Le was the head of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association at the time of the Hogan incident. The union endorsed Smith in her bid for re-election and contributed $300,000 to her political coffers through its political action committee, campaign finance records show.
In December, following Smith’s victory, Le was promoted to captain. But Le was later placed on administrative leave for reasons that remain murky.
When reached for comment, Le defended her role in the Hogan incident and said her promotion was based on merit alone.
In the Hogan incident, Le said she immediately called for medical personnel to respond when she learned of Hogan’s arrival at the Main Jail and said she was not responsible for planning or executing his transport to her facility. Le said Sheriff Smith failed to properly train deputies on how to transport mentally ill inmates and said she’s supportive of any efforts to increase oversight and transparency at the jail.
“[Smith] failed to do that job as a leader of the department,” Le said. “That’s why the incident happened. Unfortunately, my name is tacked onto this because I was the watch commander at the main jail.”
In a lawsuit against the department, Le contends she was forced to resign after reporting sexual harassment allegations against a high-ranking sheriff’s officer.
The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to the allegations that came out in Wednesday’s board of supervisors agenda packet, including the potential quid-pro-quo allegations.
The supervisors also brought to light another incident at the jail involving an inmate with mental health issues that, so far, has received little public scrutiny.
They say Martin Nunez 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 filed a lawsuit against the county this year alleging he didn’t receive medical attention for those injuries for 24 hours, even though he told deputies he might be paralyzed. According to the lawsuit, Nunez is now paralyzed.
Within their recommendations, Simitian and Lee cite a lack of transparency going back years as one of the driving forces behind their proposal. They say the sheriff continues to withhold information from county supervisors, the board’s independent auditor, as well as the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM), the civilian oversight group formed in response to recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission assembled in the wake of Michael Tyree’s death.
As NBC Bay Area reported last month, OCLEM was never notified by the sheriff’s office when a police informant was beaten by 31 inmates at the jail for nearly six minutes. In a statement, the sheriff’s office told us in part, “[Jail staff] assigned to these posts are often responsible for multi-tasking and conducting other non-supervision duties, which typically occur out of eyesight of those incarcerated…” and added they hoped the victim received justice.
This is a developing story that NBC Bay Area will continue to follow