San Francisco voters have not had to think about the office of sheriff for more than three decades — such has been their steady reliance on the man who has held the job for 31 years, Michael Hennessey.
But Hennessey’s pending retirement is coming at a critical time for the county jail system, as officials seek to grapple with the impact of “realignment,” the new state policy that will shift the responsibility for incarcerating and rehabilitating thousands of nonviolent felons to California’s counties.
That is a huge transition, one that will require a savvy manager and law enforcement official to oversee in the months and years to come. Only one candidate running to replace Hennessey has the organizational skills and experience to deal with this seismic shift in public policy. And that’s why Chris Cunnie is our choice for San Francisco sheriff.
Cunnie is a seasoned veteran of The City’s streets, where he worked as a police officer for 17 years. He later served as head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, handling delicate negotiations with The City’s political leaders. He has a criminal courts background, working as the chief of investigations under former District Attorney Kamala Harris.
He also served as the head of emergency communications for Mayor Gavin Newsom and, most importantly, as undersheriff for Hennessey, becoming the No. 2 in the department. He understands the necessary balancing act that is going to be required in the state’s revolving criminal justice system.
And, as if he needed another bullet point on his résumé, Cunnie also served as a top executive at Walden House, The City’s acclaimed drug treatment center. That post will serve him well in dealing with the abuse and rehabilitation programs that will be a core part of the state’s response in dealing with the new inmate population.
Having held so many key roles, it’s no surprise that Cunnie’s support comes from across the political spectrum. That will help him considerably as he prepares for the challenge of positioning the jails for the coming changes.
The two other candidates in the race both bring different skill sets. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is a sharp politician with an understanding of law enforcement. But he has never been a manager of a major agency and has no experience with jails.
Sheriff’s Department Capt. Paul Miyamoto understands the issues facing his department and has the support of fellow deputies, but he doesn’t have nearly the level of experience that Cunnie possesses, nor the leadership skills required for such a critical job.
To their credit, all three candidates have talked about putting an emphasis on reform programs focusing on rehabilitation, essentially carrying on the legacy that Hennessey built during his many years at the helm. Hennessey was a tireless advocate for education and treatment programs for inmates, and his handling of the department essentially assured that he had the position as long as he wanted.
His departure will leave a considerable void, but only one person in the race can fully and adequately fill it. Chris Cunnie brings a remarkable résumé to the job, credentials that will be necessary to deal with an unknown future in handling the tremendous shift in the state’s prison population. His connection and service to the Police Department, the criminal courts and the sheriff’s agency will be vital during the upcoming transition.