SAN JOSE, CA – Sheriff Laurie Smith came under more fire over her handling of Santa Clara County’s troubled jails when the union for her rank-and-file deputies accused her Monday of sharing details about internal investigations of deputies with the head of a jail-reform commission after a high-profile inmate brawl earlier this month.
In a letter to County Executive Jeff Smith and County Counsel Orry Korb, the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association asked the county to investigate Smith on allegations that after the brawl, she sought to preserve her re-election prospects by trying to dissuade commission chairwoman LaDoris Cordell from recommending Smith be stripped of her command, which the commission ended up doing anyway.
Most of the letter is based on characterizations made in a March 4 email Cordell, a retired judge, sent to several county supervisors, officials and select media, as she and the sheriff clashed over how readily preventable the jail fight was.
“Unfortunately, Judge Cordell’s allegations, if true, would demonstrate that, beyond her public theatrics, Sheriff Smith is more concerned about being re-elected than trying to address the issues with the county jails that have been identified by the commission and the community,” the union letter stated.
Smith fired right back. She is no stranger to harsh criticism from the deputies’ union, which called for the investigation even though jail officers are represented by a different union.
“Their accusations are untrue, I am focused on implementing meaningful reforms throughout our jail. I would’ve hoped that instead of slinging mud trying to protect the status quo, the union leadership would offer some ideas for improving custody operations,” Smith said in a statement. “Clearly, the reforms are headed in the right direction if those that want to cling to the past are on the attack.”
The commission was formed last year in the wake of the August beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree, leading to the swift arrest of three correctional deputies who were later charged in his death. –
The controversy stems from a March 3 brawl in the maximum-security housing pod at the Main Jail on Hedding Street in San Jose. The fight involved more than 30 inmates who had been released to a common area for mandated recreation time.
But the timing of the fight raised some eyebrows given that a day earlier, Smith bypassed county bureaucracy to purchase 12 surveillance cameras for the facility at Costco, using her personal credit card. (She was later reimbursed.) Hours after their installation, at least one of the cameras recorded much of the brawl in question.
Cordell promptly questioned why black and Latino inmates with a history of tensions were allowed to have their rec time together that afternoon, which many, including Smith, took as an implication that the fight might have been induced. That prompted Smith to lash out at Cordell, calling her remarks disgraceful and reckless.
Cordell responded with an email that detailed a private meeting at a Palo Alto restaurant the morning before the brawl. In that meeting, Cordell asserted that Smith pleaded with her to soften the commission’s criticism on Smith’s performance. Cordell wrote that the sheriff showed Cordell correspondence from the correctional officers union and DSA to prove they were “after” her — the unions have long been critical of Smith — along with illicit text messages Smith purportedly said were authored by deputies under investigation.
One of the scandals the Sheriff’s Office has had to weather included texts exchanged among guards that made racist slurs against blacks, Vietnamese, Latinos and Jews and led to the president of the correctional union being placed on leave. At least 10 correctional deputies are on leave in connection to assorted investigations.
It was the text-sharing claim that appears to have incensed the union and spurred their actions Monday. How much traction their request will have remains to be seen. Korb declined comment on the union letter.
Cordell said that even with the commission disbanding — Saturday marked the end of its six-month term — members must keep pressure on officials to ensure a similar brawl does not occur again.
“That melee happened under our watch,” Cordell said, referring to the commission. “It is our duty to find out what policies and procedures were in effect that could have led to it … If not, we dishonor the memory of Michael Tyree.”