Santa Clara County

Blue Ribbon Jail Task Force Chair Says Sheriff Was ‘Indifferent' or ‘Incompetent,' Recommends Sheriff Be Replaced

The commission submitted 120 recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The head of the Blue Ribbon Commission tasked with finding ways to improve Santa Clara County's jails is recommending the county replace Sheriff Laurie Smith.

Commission chairperson LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge and former independent police auditor for San Jose, submitted 120 recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The recommendations follow 10 public meetings and a six-month review of the county jails. 

The push for change began with the death of a mentally ill inmate in August 2015. After three guards allegedly beat Michael Tyree to death, the county decided to form a Blue Ribbon Commission made up of former law enforcement officers, inmates, judges and experts in areas like mental health.

"The jail crashed when Michael Tyree was killed," Cordell said. "The sheriff's conduct has created a chilling effect on the public."
The recommendations include more oversight by hiring an inspector general, a better system for inmates to file grievances and improving the inmate welfare fund.

Smith said she agrees with many of the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations, but admits more can be done.

"I'm not a quitter. I want to do it, I want to get it done. We've made great progress. We started before the tragic death of Michael Tyree and we will continue to make changes," Smith said. "I think there's improvements we can make everywhere."

Supervisors voted to accept the recommendations for review and promised the public that improvements will be made.

In the report released Tuesday and written by Cordell, there was no shortage of harsh comments directed at Smith and her department.

"A defective plane that’s crashed, piloted by someone in charge who was “indifferent, incompetent or a combination of both,” Cordell wrote.

Cordell also wrote that the department was uncooperative in giving the requested documents, often giving them in “data dumps” the day before or day of a meeting, making it difficult to get the desired information.
Cordell outlined another example of trouble getting information on the Sheriff’s Department’s policies and procedures in place during recent inmate fights, despite public commitments from Smith, herself, to help the commission with its work.
The issue of security at the jails has been in the spotlight beyond Tyree’s death. The county says so far in 2016 there are already about 80 inmate fights compared to 225 in all of 2015.
A week ago, 10 or so inmates got into a fight in a medium security area of the main jail, forcing a lockdown. This was after a bigger brawl involving 20 to 30 inmates in March.
The Blue Ribbon Commission leaders say they asked the Sheriff’s Department for information on the implemented practices during these fights, only to get no cooperation.
The report states in part:
“The BRC directed its consultant Aaron Zisser to obtain the policies and procedures that were in effect at the time of the fight. The Sheriff’s Department has refused to provide this information to Mr. Zisser, in spite of the commitment from the BOS and the Sheriff’s Department to allow the BRC “to examine all records and accounts thereof with timely access to public records that are not privileged or would not infringe on any employee rights or compromise administrative or law enforcement efforts.”

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