Paul Miyamoto is sworn in as San Francisco sheriff by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra with his family present at City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

California’s first Asian American sheriff sworn in to office in San Francisco

Paul Miyamoto faces challenges including planned jail closure, recruitment crisis in first term

Paul Miyamoto became the first Asian American sheriff in California history Wednesday afternoon when he took the oath of office in San Francisco.

Miyamoto, the successor to retiring Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, was sworn in by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra during a ceremony at City Hall.

During his speech, Miyamoto told a story of resilience about his family and his 23-year career with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

After his father’s family immigrated to San Francisco and started a dry-cleaning business, they were sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

They lost everything, Miyamoto said, but his father still grew up to become an attorney and later an appellate judge for the state of California.

“The Miyamotos became the change they wanted to see,” Miyamoto said. “They embodied resilience.”

That resilience inspired him to join the Sheriff’s Department, Miyamoto said. He has since worked every rank in the department up to assistant sheriff.

Miyamoto has no small number of challenges ahead, among them “an increase in the number of individuals who are incarcerated who suffer from behavioral health issues,” he said.

Miyamoto said the department developed psychiatric sheltered living units in response to the issue, where trained deputies and public health specialists create treatment plans for the inmates.

“It’s making a positive difference in their lives, creating new hope for their successful re-entry into our community,” Miyamoto said.

Another challenge on the horizon is the deadline set by Mayor London Breed to close the seismically unsafe jail at the Hall of Justice by July 2021.

Though the sheriff does not have control over who enters the jail system like police and prosecutors do, Miyamoto will have a voice in the conversation as the jail moves toward closure.

If San Francisco cannot reduce its inmate population enough, city officials have so far considered rehabilitating an old jail facility in San Bruno, or shipping inmates to Alameda County.

In his first months as sheriff, Miyamoto will likely be focused on rolling out hundreds of policies that the Sheriff’s Department has been updating for years to reflect current law enforcement standards.

The policy overhaul began last week when deputies began training and culminates in the department officially implementing the new guidelines in April.

Miyamoto will also inherit training and recruitment problems that Hennessy and other law enforcement leaders have been grappling with for years.

“Law enforcement across the nation is suffering from a recruitment crisis,” Hennessy wrote in a farewell newsletter on Monday. “We are no exception.”

Hennessy said her department had more than 100 sworn vacancies when she became sheriff in January 2016. “There had been little to no hiring the previous five years,” she said.

Hennessy has since hired 264 deputies and 134 non-sworn staff, but lost 206 sworn staff and 133 civilians to retirements and resignations, she said.

Miyamoto is taking office after running uncontested in the November 2019 election with the endorsements of Hennessy and Breed.

A lieutenant in the department, Ron Terry, initially sought to oppose Miyamoto, but pulled out of the race in August before the election could heat up.

Miyamoto’s campaign was the second time he had run for the office.

In 2011, he lost against Ross Mirkarimi in a bid to succeed then-retiring Sheriff Michael Hennessey, who held office for more than 30 years.

“I lost my first election for sheriff in 2011,” Miyamoto said. “Eight years later, I am the first Asian American in history to be elected to sheriff in the state of California. Never give up.”

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