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They Shot the Sheriff

The worse that deputies screw up on Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s watch, the better their chances of replacing him in November—which is exactly what they want.


Trotting out the severe, clench-jawed expressions and thousand-yard stares reserved for the grimmest of announcements, attorneys from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office prepared to address the throng of reporters and cameramen. The subject of the day’s hastily assembled 12:15 p.m. press briefing was unstated, but every journalist in the room knew full well what was about to be said (and had prepared, beforehand, stories for their respective websites, automated to go live at the agreed-upon hour of 12:30).

The news: Multiple inmates in San Francisco County Jail had allegedly been forced to serve as human pit bulls in a fight ring organized by the sheriff ’s deputies ostensibly tasked with protecting them. According to the inmates’ court-appointed attorneys, combatants were plied with cheeseburgers; reticent fighters, they say, were threatened with beatings, tear gassings, or relegation to more dangerous jail accommodations. Deputies allegedly trained up their fighters via forced calisthenics and laid bets on who could clobber whom.

“I think,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi in a suitably grave tone, “that this is probably some of the most troublesome and outrageous conduct I’ve seen in my 30 years of work at the Hall of Justice.” He paused before concluding with a nifty, if unnecessary, dramatic flourish: “If we can call it that, after this story.”

This, to put it mildly, was not a good look for the San Francisco Sheriff ’s Department. Nor for Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, on whose watch the alleged jail fights occurred. As the public defenders dissected detail after lurid detail of this latest departmental scandal, the persona of the embattled sheriff began hovering over the briefing like Banquo’s ghost. And there, looming in the rear of the room with a severe, clench-jawed expression of his own, was the uninvited sheriff himself. Despite having crashed the proceedings, Mirkarimi ended up speaking extensively, railing against a corrupt and noxious culture that he claimed “remains deep and burrowed into” the department he oversees. “The thin blue line,” he said, referring to the code of omertà that binds law enforcement officers, “extends into prisons and jails.”

An old political saw contends that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. And in the run-up to Mirkarimi’s uphill, if not Sisyphean, reelection bid this November, a progression of foul acts by his deputies has left him with much to explain. Prior to the March 26 fight-club allegations, sheriff’s deputies were faulted in the death of Lynne Spalding, a patient at San Francisco General Hospital who in 2013 wandered away from her bed and was found dead in a stairwell 17 days later. In November 2014, a gaggle of deputies was caught on video pummeling a prone homeless man who’d been dozing in a hospital waiting room. An inmate named Timothy Midgett ambled out of the Hall of Justice in June of last year while taking out the garbage, the first successful escape since 2002. And only days before the allegations of jailhouse blood sports surfaced, Alexander Santiago-Gonzalez—an accused high-level drug trafficker facing federal charges who’d inexplicably been given the same cushy garbage detail—out-hustled an unarmed deputy, sprinting away while clad only in his boxer shorts. Unlike the hapless Midgett, who was tracked to a homeless shelter 0.3 miles from the jail after 10 days of “freedom,” Santiago-Gonzalez remains at large (and presumably clothed) as of press time.

All that would be plenty for any politician to walk back, let alone a man who pleaded guilty three years ago to false imprisonment following a physical altercation with his wife. While Mirkarimi somehow survived the municipal soap opera that ensued, during which Mayor Ed Lee attempted—and ultimately failed—to wrest him from office, it’s not likely that he received many congratulatory notes from his workforce. Deputy Sheriffs’ Association president Eugene Cerbone was coy when asked the tally of a recent union vote endorsing Mirkarimi’s 2015 challenger, Vicki Hennessy, but did describe it as “several hundred to a few.” Plus ça change: Of the 367 deputy sheriffs who voted in their union’s 2011 endorsement process, a total of two backed Mirkarimi. Clearly, he has never been the rank-and-file’s guy. And now, through a bizarre concatenation of careless and/or ruthless actions, the deputies seem well on their way to winning themselves a new boss—a boss they’d far prefer.

After bemoaning the behavior of his charges at the aforementioned press conference, Mirkarimi doubled down in an email correspondence with San Francisco: There he emphasizes that only he—not Hennessy, the 30-plus-year department veteran against whom he will face off this November—would take on “an entitled culture” that “doesn’t believe they can get into trouble for misconduct.” He goes on to slam “those in the department who are resisting the type of needed change I am bringing to the Sheriff ’s Office.”

In Mirkarimi’s vision of a reformed department, deputies would be given additional training and public safety gadgetry and then be flushed out of the jails and into the streets on “foot patrols, riding Muni, patrolling parks, and helping the city commit to true community policing.” He says that he’d favor scuttling plans to erect a new jail if the city’s incarcerated population continues to decrease in size. “That’s a threatening subject to people whose livelihoods depend on full jails,” he writes. (It’s also a fairly dramatic reversal: Last year, Mirkarimi was aggressively stumping for the construction of a new facility, at a public cost of some $630 million. Now, he writes us, this decision “needs to be a moving target.”) Hennessy, meanwhile, has said that a new jail should be built regardless of inmate population trends.

In any case, these issues are not the sort that inspire cavalcades of voters to swamp polling places. But that stuff about the human pit bull–blood sport–fight club–gladiator camp? That resonates.


The fact that Mirkarimi—a cofounder of the state Green Party with an impressive knack for stirring up antipathy in his colleagues—has been an unwelcome leader in the Hall of Justice (if we can still call it that) comes as little surprise. What is surprising is that this whole strange episode carries a strong whiff of déjà vu. Stardate 1970s: San Francisco is a hell of a place. Radical liberation groups pepper the region with bombs. The Zebra Killers murder 15 people over six horrifying months. An elected supervisor, in a scene befitting the Wild West, shoots dead the mayor and a fellow legislator at City Hall. The natural grass at Candlestick Park is replaced with Astroturf. It is a time of madness.

Among the surreal memories of the city’s disco era, few now recall the series of mysterious jail escapes in the days and weeks leading up to municipal elections in 1979 that reduced appointed sheriff Eugene Brown to a figure of ridicule. But those incidents loom large in the current contretemps, and not just because they cleared the way for lawyer Michael Hennessey to become sheriff, a post he’d hold on to for more than three decades, until being succeeded by none other than Ross Mirkarimi.

During the sheriff’s race of ’79, Hennessey—much like Vicki Hennessy today—was all but certainly preferred by deputies over the incumbent. Brown irked progressive department employees by opting to curtail jail social programs, and he put off reactionaries by virtue of being black. While the simple story line from that time was that voters dumped Brown because they saw him as incapable of running his department, the perception among political insiders was more insidious: They suspected that the rash of eerily timed escapes was an orchestrated campaign by deputies to undermine their leader as the election neared. If so, mission accomplished. On election night, the new sheriff pinpointed the key to his victory: “I didn’t let anybody escape!”

Today, nobody is claiming that the series of misfortunes that has again befallen the Sheriff’s Department is in any way contrived—there is no conspiracy here. But for Mirkarimi, the effect is much the same. He was politically wounded by his own actions even before assuming his post, and now his adversarial workforce’s misdeeds have essentially served as a coup de grâce.


So, once again, the troubled leader of a troubled department finds himself bound in a political straitjacket. And the person who benefits most from this dynamic is, of course, the challenger: Hennessy. Asked about the irony that the deputies’ misbehavior could be rewarded with the ascension of a longtime department insider, Mirkarimi concurs and Hennessy bristles. “I’m not sure that’s a reward,” she says, arguing that she will bring the hammer down on ill-performing employees. She’d have no trouble reforming a department that she worked within for more than 30 years, she continues, because “I didn’t hang out with the deputies. They weren’t my friends off-duty.”

Her ability “to work with people collaboratively,” Hennessy continues, constitutes the main difference between her and her rival. She faults Mirkarimi not for his intentions but for his “lack of ability to execute.” In his defense, she concedes, running a large department is difficult. She would know: Hennessy was director of the Department of Emergency Management when a pair of dispatchers sued the city, claiming that “new hires are hazed and treated poorly” and that bullying is “heavily weighted toward the women.” A settlement for $762,000 was reached in 2012. By then, however, Hennessy had moved on to a different post: serving, at the mayor’s behest, as sheriff during Mirkarimi’s suspension.

In his correspondence with San Francisco, Mirkarimi refers to Hennessy as a mere “proxy” for the mayor, whom, it seems, he sees as his real opponent. The mayor’s costly and excruciating gambit to remove Mirkarimi from office failed on its face, but pragmatically it was a rout: The sheriff was rendered so politically toxic that the fallout irradiated the careers of the progressive supervisors (notably Christina Olague and David Campos) who voted to spare him. But Mirkarimi, ever pugnacious, doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Perhaps nobody is bothering to tell him (you’d be hard-pressed to find an elected official in this city more ostracized and isolated than he). Or perhaps the sheriff with the framed poster of Angela Davis in his office just wants to stick it to the man.

It’s the mayor, Mirkarimi maintains, who treats the jails as a de facto mental asylum; it’s the mayor who refuses requests for crisis intervention training or body cameras; it’s the mayor, he says, “who thinks these requests are luxuries, not staples.”

“The mayor’s way of doing business subverts our progressive vision while playing politics with public safety,” he continues. “I am fighting against this new oligarchy that’s embedded itself inside City Hall.”

Sadly for Mirkarimi, the villainous oligarch inhabiting City Hall enjoys appreciably better public support than he does—so much so that Lee figures to face no serious opposition this November. Mirkarimi, on the other hand, is finding it hard to scare up allies or gain momentum in this particular crusade. The fight-club scandal offers even his political buddies on the left—a fickle bunch in the best of circumstances—cover to disassociate from him. The city’s jailer is a man under siege.

At the March 26 press conference, as the sheriff took in the hideous allegations regarding his department, bystanders appeared to cut him a wide berth. And that was fitting. As ever, Ross Mirkarimi remains a man alone in a crowd.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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