Sheriff’s race: Why you should care

Another election. Another position. Among the many government leadership races on a local, state and national level, the Santa Clara County sheriff may seem like it has little effect on your day to day life — so why vote?

The county sheriff’s office primarily is in charge of maintaining law and order, including overseeing deputy forces within the county and managing county jails. But, more importantly, the underlying social justice issues that fall under these umbrellas affect each and every one of us.

With the Santa Clara County sheriff election around the corner, it’s imperative that eligible voters don’t overlook the significance of the position and its impacts on county residents. Sheriff candidate Sgt. Sean Allen said one of the reasons he is running for election involves wanting to improve equity in treatment of individuals in the community through transparency on deputy practices from the top down. “The system is supposed to be equitable for every individual in every group,” Allen said. “And it’s not.” (Photo: Daniel Garepis-Holland)

Deputy brutality, for example, has been an issue in Santa Clara County and nationwide, with the jail system falling under the leadership of the sheriff’s office. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, multiple instances of unnecessary violence towards inmates occurred over the last few years in Santa Clara County jails. A San Jose Spotlight article also revealed county supervisors advocating for increased visibility over sheriff office instructions to deputies, especially as brutality instances have cost taxpayer dollars to settle legal battles over injuries.

In an interview with The Paly Voice last month in the Media Arts Center, sheriff candidate Sgt. Sean Allen said that transparency in sheriff’s office behavior sets a standard for officers under their leadership and their implementation of policies, such as handling protests. 

If we expose these things [law enforcement brutality] and get the public involved, then the public can hold the police leaders accountable, because now there is no accountability,” Allen said.

Allen said one of his ideas to do this is to improve the jailing system, which falls under his campaign’s foundations of accountability, reform and transparency.

The idea for me is to keep people [inmates] who were there for more serious, violent crimes incarcerated and allow them programs and access to better themselves and reduce the recidivism and become a productive member of society,” Allen said.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who announced her retirement on March 10, has been accused of numerous civil corruption charges on top of the multiple police brutality instances that occurred under her leadership. During her time, the county has lost millions of dollars in settlement charges, on the taxpayer’s dime, due to mistreatment of mentally-ill inmates in the local jails. Currently, she is accused of exchanging around $90,000 worth of concealed-carry-firearm permits for donations for her 2018 reelection campaign, according to a 2020 article in Palo Alto Online.

With the mishandling and abuse of inmates as one of the largest problems the sheriff’s department faces, it is important to learn about each candidate’s stance on what solutions they have for it to make informed decisions in the election. Sheriff candidate Kevin Jensen said in an interview with The Paly Voice this month in the Media Arts Center that equity in law enforcement is not only a key element in his campaign but something he has expertise in as well. 

I became known for fairness,” Jensen said.I became known for somebody who was going to help you. I’m out to do my best and we should be doing this together. We have to be genuine but also protect ourselves, which is why I think we need lots of training and I believe we need community members to give some of that training.” 

Another ongoing crisis at the hands of the sheriff’s department: the fight against drugs. According to Allen, around 80% of the county jail population is there for substance abuse-related issues. Santa Clara County reported over 100 fentanyl-related deaths in 2021, nearly 10 times the number of cases in 2018. Recently, a Los Altos High School student passed away from possible fentanyl intoxication. 

With a new county sheriff, changes and adaptations can be implemented to relieve the county of its drug crisis issues. Sheriff candidate Christine Nagaye said in a discussion with The Paly Voice this month in the Media Arts Center that one of her methods to do this is to sharpen ‘cracking down’ on high risk areas in partnership with the FBI while improving rehabilitation sites for access.

“We would have to gather opinions and gather our subject matter experts in that area with fentanyl,” Nagaye said. “It would require working with the FBI and I know they have extensive testing equipment and … they have the capabilities to do the research and to get the task force out there [to catch fentanyl imports].”

Voting in the sheriff’s election race allows you to get your voice heard, by voting for the candidate who best represents not just your values but what you believe has the best solutions for the ongoing issues in our county — from the drug crisis to inmate treatment to diversity issues. And, of course, vote because you can. It’s your right, and your civic responsibility to exercise it.