San Francisco has had the same sheriff for more than 30 years, but this November, as the public safety department faces a new major challenge, voters will select a new leader to take over.
Sheriff Michael Hennessey announced his retirement in February, marking the end of an era of steady leadership by a man well-liked and praised for his innovative programs to help the incarcerated turn their lives around.
There are four candidates battling to take over the helm of the Sheriff’s Department, which oversees The City’s jails and security for government buildings such as City Hall and the Superior Court.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has the endorsement of Hennessey to carry on his legacy. Mirkarimi is a graduate of the San Francisco Police Academy and has worked as an investigator for nine years in the District Attorney’s Office.
“I’m running for sheriff to improve public safety and I’m going to do it citywide,” Mirkarimi said. He said the levels of funding to the various public safety departments need to be re-examined with a focus on how best to reduce the rate of recidivism.
Candidate Chris Cunnie has experience both working in the Police Department and as undersheriff under Hennessey. Cunnie has worked as a San Francisco police officer and president of the police union. He was recently hired as an adviser to state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
“I have over 30 years of public safety [experience] in this city,” Cunnie said. “I’m the candidate that can bring everybody together — the community, law enforcement, the civilians, the nonprofits.”
Coming from inside the department is Capt. Paul Miyamoto, who has the endorsement of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. Miyamoto says his 15 years of experience in the department make him best suited for the post.
“What I bring to this race is experience, experience from within,” Miyamoto said.
Former Deputy Sheriff David Wong has served as president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, and has run unsuccessfully against Hennessey in the past.
The three main candidates running for sheriff — Mirkarimi, Cunnie and Miyamoto — hold similar views, but on the campaign trail they attempt to differentiate themselves by highlighting their different backgrounds and breadth of experience.
Mirkarimi has the least law enforcement experience, but he said that shouldn’t matter, especially considering Hennessey, a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney, had never been a cop.
“So this race is not about who can out-cop whom,” Mirkarimi said.
The largest and most talked about challenge facing whoever wins is a state law requiring the transfer of state parolees and lawbreakers who aren’t sex offenders or considered violent back into the local counties from where they came.
For San Francisco, that means on Saturday The City began taking over supervision of 646 criminal offenders from the state prison system. It is projected 225 will actually end up in county jail, while 421 will be in the community under some form of supervision.
The City has received $5.7 million in state funding to pay for the impact of the influx of state inmates and has allocated $4.7 million, including $700,000 to pay for an increase in electronic monitoring of inmates released from jail custody. The City estimates it’s about $1 million short of funding to handle the influx.
No one knows for certain the impacts the realignment plan will have on San Francisco’s budget and public safety. But city officials have said it’s an opportunity to better address the underlying problems of this criminal population. One new initiative is an $860,789 Community Assessment and Service Center for probationers to attend for services and drug testing.
The sheriff can also end up in tough policy debates. Immigration law has become a big issue for the sheriff in recent years, as The City’s policies regarding undocumented immigrants can conflict with federal policies. Hennessey was among the first prominent elected officials in the nation to come out against the federal government’s Secure Communities law, which requires fingerprints of those booked in county jails to be logged into an Immigration and Customs Enforcement database. The federal agency then determines if deportation should be considered.
In June, Hennessey adopted a policy that illegal immigrants booked on nonserious crimes in San Francisco won’t be detained for ICE, even if the agency wants to deport them. Instead, they are released for court appearances just like a U.S. citizen would be.
Hennessey’s immigration policies are supported by the three main candidates.
The sheriff of San Francisco holds “one of the most important offices you don’t hear about,” said one of the candidates running for the post.
This public safety department is often overlooked, perhaps because it is much smaller than the Police Department and the deputy sheriffs don’t do regular patrols in the community, but instead run the county jails and provide security at government buildings.
The sheriff oversees a department with a budget of $176.6 million and a staff of about 950 employees. The Police Department’s budget, by contrast, is about $460 million with about 2,600 employees.
The sheriff runs the county’s six jail facilities and provides security for 79 courtrooms at the Civic Center Courthouse, Hall of Justice and family courts at the Youth Guidance Center. The sheriff also executes civil and criminal warrants and court orders.
About 70 percent of the department’s budget is based on the average jail population — those serving sentences and those awaiting trial.
Those behind bars waiting for their day in court make up about 80 percent of the jail population.
It costs an average of $130 a day to house an inmate. The department also runs an electronic monitoring program where an average of 100 criminals a day are out in the community wearing monitoring devices around their ankles.
The department is about both incarceration and rehabilitation. Sheriff Michael Hennessey’s success lay in how he “married the power of redemption” with being “smart on crime” within the jail system, according to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who’s running to replace the longtime incumbent. The jail system includes a number of services inmates can benefit from, including substance abuse treatment, counseling and job training.
Among Hennessey’s more well-known programs is the Five Keys Charter High School, which opened in September 2003 and lets prisoners earn high school diplomas while in custody.
Current job: District 5 supervisor
Slogan: “New leadership for a safe San Francisco”
Endorsements: Sheriff Michael Hennessey, San Francisco Labor Council
Current job: Adviser to state attorney general
Slogan: “Bringing law enforcement and the community together to meet our safety challenges”
Endorsements: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco Police Officers Association
Current job: San Francisco sheriff’s captain
Slogan: “Experience. Not politics.”
Endorsements: San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd
Current job: Former deputy sheriff
Slogan: “The sheriff San Franciscans need”
$155M: Fiscal year 2010-11 budget
$176.6M: Fiscal year 2011-12 budget
$199,733: Sheriff’s annual salary
$130: Average cost per day to house an inmate
1,434: Inmates as of Sept. 21
2,432: Total jail capacity
646: State inmates and post-release offenders coming to S.F.
850: Sworn employees
100: Civilian employees
Source: City Controller’s Office/Sheriff’s Department