By Ross Mirkarimi
Let the people run for sheriff! It was once a tried-and-true practice in California, until the era of mass incarceration engendered a companion criminal justice system that demanded a different kind of sheriff.
In California, from 1850 to 1988, the only state law qualification for the office of sheriff was being a registered voter in the county. My predecessor, Michael Hennessey, was never a cop, but in fact, a prisoner rights attorney, first hired by Sheriff Richard Hongisto; later, he won his races for San Francisco sheriff. Mike was the longest serving sheriff in modern state history (1980-2012), a soft-spoken progressive who was ahead of his time, and yet, today he wouldn’t be eligible to run for sheriff.
In 1987, local and state sheriff unions waged a campaign in Sacramento to change state law. California Government Code Sec. 24004.3, signed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, required that all elected sheriffs have a law enforcement background as certified by the State Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). This legislative slight was but a footnote in the state’s revving up on the war on drugs, lengthening mandatory sentencing, criminalizing mental illness, and targeting a combination of deterrence and retribution on mostly Black, brown and low-income communities. Public anxiety over high crime rates fueled the growth of the prison industrial complex — a legacy still churning today.
Mike took on the traditional duties of sheriff while he also set his administration apart by tackling recidivism, humanizing people caught up in the system, and using legislation to improve incarceration outcomes.
Working in law enforcement, and then as a member of the Board of Supervisors, it troubled me that capable professionals were prevented from running for sheriff. When Mike called me about his impending retirement, I couldn’t imagine a city without his reformist vision. During my own campaign for sheriff, I amplified the need to correct misguided state laws including the POST requirement for sheriff candidates. Members of the state legislature then weren’t in the mood to touch the issue, but now, they are.
In this era of reining in law enforcement misdeeds, state Sen. Scott Wiener has sponsored Senate Bill 271. It modernizes how California counties elect their sheriff and removes the POST requirement.
In all but two California counties, jails are under the jurisdiction of the sheriff. SB 271 goes to the heart of opening an impenetrable wall where many sheriffs run unchallenged or are less motivated to substantiate their other role, not as the crime fighter, but as the recidivism buster. I remember when one well-known sheriff confided to me during a meeting about State Prisoner Realignment with Gov. Jerry Brown, “that talking about reentry programs made him feel, well, less than a sheriff.”
Since leaving public office in 2016, I’ve led in-custody death and misuse of force investigations and have seen up close how preventable tragedies in California jails remain off the public radar. Accountability becomes even more challenging when 41 out of the 58 county sheriffs in California also serve as the county coroner, investigating and ruling on in-custody deaths. I’ve seen official death certificates designate an inmate’s demise as “natural causes” when new evidence pointed to the contrary.
In practice, the sheriffs are a feature of local law with state protection, thus rendering any meaningful state oversight as weak. The default for accountability has shifted to mostly resourceful municipalities that are installing independent civilian-led police and sheriff oversight bodies, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Clara County and more.
In response to calls for transformative change with how law enforcement operates, redefining what it means to be sheriff would be a significant start with the passage of SB 271.
Ross Mirkarimi served as San Francisco sheriff and on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.