Two Santa Clara County Sheriff candidates — an insider and an outsider — each sought to convince voters they would be the better choice for the position during an hourlong Zoom debate co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Weekly and Mountain View Voice on Tuesday night, Sept. 27.
Kevin Jensen and Robert "Bob" Jonsen, two seasoned law enforcement professionals, discussed a wide range of topics that included transparency, jail reform, police misconduct, crime reduction, gun violence, zero bail and how they would transform a sheriff's department that has been rocked by lawsuits and alleged corruption. Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong and crime reporter Sue Dremann co-hosted the event.
Jensen, the "insider," served 37 years in the Sheriff's Office, retiring as a captain in 2013. He was an outspoken critic of his boss, Sheriff Laurie Smith. Jonsen, the "outsider," is the former Palo Alto police chief who also served as chief in Menlo Park and in Lancaster, California and has been in law enforcement for 36 years, including at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
Jonsen said he would bring a fresh perspective and has leadership experience, having led three agencies. He cited improving efficiency and making deputies more visible in communities as two of his priorities to combat crime. Having deputies stay in their communities would also be an advantage in every city, he said.
Jensen said he came from humble beginnings in a family that survived on Medi-Cal. His father and his wife's father had been in prison, and he saw how people convicted of crimes could be rehabilitated.
In the Sheriff's Office, he served in all of the upper management areas: running the courts, running the jails, and running patrol. He claims his insider status is a strength; he understands the agency and he has the deputies' trust, and he fought for 12 years against the alleged corruption of Sheriff Smith. He would work to change the culture of the organization. He would build more alliances with other agencies and make the Sheriff's Office a resource center for other local agencies so they can collaborate to fight crime.
Jonsen regarded his time as an executive in the departments in Menlo Park and Palo Alto as transparent. He was part of a Department of Justice review that he led in Menlo Park, and entered into the Obama initiative for an open-data process. Menlo Park Police Department was the first in San Mateo County to put its entire policy online. and Palo Alto's entire policy is also now online with few redactions, he said.
During a segment related to readers' questions, Jonsen was asked about his own transparency during his tenure in Palo Alto. He unilaterally encrypted the police scanner without warning in January 2021 without informing the city manager, a move that curtailed public access to police dispatches and was strenuously opposed by the media.
The department, while coming under a state mandate to encrypt certain private information that is broadcast over police radio, had two options: to either completely encrypt its transmissions or develop alternative methods that would encrypt just the private information while broadcasting about incidents that are in the public interest. The department encrypted all of its communications.
The encryption was a complex issue because the county is under a regional "interoperability" agreement that requires agencies to be able to communicate with one another. Palo Alto was the eighth city in the county to encrypt its radios, he said.
His department was also experiencing major staffing reductions at the same time, including technical services and communications managers and was asked to increase its workload to add new technical data systems, he said.
"I was also the only chief in the county that wrote a letter to the Department of Justice, asking to be excluded from that while we work towards options," he said.
Under new Palo Alto Police Chief Andrew Binder, the department in early September reversed course, unencrypting its communications without sacrificing privacy. Jonsen attributed this to the restoration of its communications and technical services manager positions, which Jonsen said was done prior to his departure.
Jonsen admitted he could have communicated better. He said he apologized when he realized how important the encryption issue was for the community.
Jensen said that his competitor was faced with a difficult task regarding encryption.
"The only difference that I think he could have made in the beginning is to bring it before the group and say there's one question: "There's two options."
"I think that was the part that people got mad about. You have to let them know that you actually received a memo that said there were two options. If one of them is difficult, just tell them that and then get their help working through it. That's it. I think it's a tough situation to be in, but you have to let them know the exact wording of the memo and why you're doing what you're doing," he said.
"Nothing will ever take the place of the truth," he said. He noted that he put his own career in jeopardy by going against Smith's push to take over the jails.
Jonsen was also asked to clarify his December 2019 recommendation of the independent police auditor's contract that moved internal investigations of officers from the auditor's oversight to the city's human resources department. He maintained that internal investigations were never formally a part of the contract, so the 2019 contract was not a removal of responsibility.
"I think all incidents that are investigated involving law enforcement personnel should go to the independent auditor," he said.
Jensen noted that he spent 12 years fighting for honesty and transparency in Smith's office, both while on her staff and after his retirement, and he would make transparency a major part of his policy. Jensen said he taught ethics and leadership and professionalism for 15 years, and honesty has been a cornerstone of the teaching he instills in his students.
Jensen said he would work with all the different partners to implement reforms that are recommended by the county's Blue Ribbon Commission and to increase transparency — as long as they don't run afoul of personnel laws. He supports supplying all the information the department can legally supply.
Jonsen said that operationally, one of the biggest issues for the Sheriff's Office is a lack of progress around accountability and transparency.
"I'm going to open that door from day one. That relationship with Mike Gennaco, who oversees the Office of Correction, Law Enforcement Monitoring, is critically important for public trust.
"One of the things that I'm going to do operationally is look to expand his scope of work just like we did here in Palo Alto to not only include all uses of force, because right now (Gennaco) is only looking at use of force that leads to an investigation," he said.
Jonsen wants to make public all cases of use of force. He also wants the police auditor to do a comprehensive review of the hiring process to make sure the department is implementing the best practices.
"Because we're going to be recruiting for the future, I want to have a mechanism in place that ensures we're recruiting the best," Jonsen said.
Jonsen said he would work to reduce recidivism in the jails by helping funnel inmates into programs to build skills such as education or trade certification through partnerships within various industries. He anticipates there will be considerable funding through the Inflation Reduction Act and other sources to pay for certification programs.
"And that can also be an alternative to incarceration. If somebody is already educated and capable and qualified to do specific jobs, they should be able to go into that intern program as part of their sentence to again have the ability to be productive in our society," he said.
Jensen said he would focus on mental health funding as a starting point.
"We cannot wait until somebody ends up in the jail because they've committed a crime based on something that could have been treated earlier," he said.
He would also develop job training programs, which are crucial. The computerized jail management system in process will create the ability to track inmates, know their needs and start planning for their release ahead of time with the supports and skills they need.
Mental health in the jails
Jensen said the jails are understaffed and it's been impossible to give inmates with mental health needs the kind of services they require. Any new jail needs to be designed with mental health professionals to create an environment that can help inmates with mental illness. He also wants to create programs that will help mentally ill inmates.
Jonsen said that building new facilities will take years.
"We have to start addressing these issues today. We need to invest in that continuum of care for individuals who are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse," he said.
He would partner with educational institutions and offer an intern program that's expansive and inclusive so students studying to be clinicians, psychologists, psychiatrists can intern at the jails and thus increase inmates' access to care.
Santa Clara County has paid out at least $20 million in settlements for the serious injury and deaths of mentally ill inmates under Sheriff Smith. The city of Palo Alto, under Jonsen, settled $857,500 in three lawsuits due to police misconduct.
Jonsen said he took steps to reform the department.
"It doesn't matter whether it's Palo Alto or the county, what it comes down to is accountability. Training is definitely a factor," he said.
"I'm proud of the work we've done here in Palo Alto over the last couple of years. We have more accountability measures in almost any agency and the region," he said.
He would bring the same policies to the Sheriff's Office, working with ad hoc committees as he did in 2020 and 2021. All use of force incidents that result in injury should be public information and accessible, he said.
Jensen said that it's important to build trust with any group one wants to train so they will follow the leader. As a member of the FBI National Academy, he has access to 17,000 contacts around the world to call on for best practices.
"But I think that the biggest (solution) is to get the community involved," he said, saying that hearing from people who've had encounters with deputies can be powerful.
The department should have these conversations as part of the comprehensive training of officers.
"If we can get people to come in, and actually invite them and open our doors, I think then we get (deputies) who are motivated to do the right thing based on something that just clicked inside of them. Or maybe it was already there but has now been reinforced," he said.
The candidates were asked what innovative policies or programs they would use to reduce crime and prevent recidivism.
Jensen said he would start with surveys to identify crimes of concern in neighborhoods and to determine who were the repeat offenders.
He noted that many crimes, while nonviolent, impact communities and can cost much money, such as the recent spate of catalytic converter thefts. He supports creating databases that would require junkyards, stores and the auto industry to register the names and identification of people who bring in this type of property for sale, which would discourage the thefts and track the movement of the properties and who is bringing them in.
As far as other crimes, "I think we need to start using actual data. I believe that the reporting at the state level is so far behind — two or three years," he said. "We need to actually work together and form our databases collectively throughout the county because criminals don't have borders."
Jonsen agreed. He added the importance of collaborating with the community to fight crime. He noted his department in Antelope Valley received an award for building community relationships and reducing crime.
"And with everything that we faced here locally over the last few years, I'm very proud of our accomplishments in Palo Alto and reducing crime in each of the past three years ... even with the rise regionally property related crimes" through a partnership with residents and businesses," he said.
He would take a strategic approach of collaboration, commitment and resources, he said. The Department of Justice has allocated funding for community policing in this upcoming year. Jonsen said he would go after that money.
Jensen said more and more guns are "ghost" guns made with parts from kits and by 3D imagers. The best way to control the proliferation is through collaboration and databases to be shared with other agencies with the sheriff's office being a resource for all.
He supports harsher sentences for defendants convicted of making ghost guns.
Jonsen said he has a history dating back to working on gun violence reduction programs with the Los Angeles County Office of Education Safe School Center. They developed a weekend immersion program for first-time women offenders.
"I think we need to get back to educating young men and women about why they shouldn't carry a gun in the first place," he said.
He said he wrote the recommendation report for the LA County Sheriff's Department on school safety protocols. "Many of those protocols were implemented and are still in place today to keep our schools safe," he said.
Jensen said he supports rehabilitation, but at the same time there's a need for consequences. The system should be mindful of how and who it incarcerates, and he supports alternative sentencing. But he also takes into consideration when someone is a repeat offender. He would also look at disproportionate minority sentencing.
Jonsen said that low level, first time, property-related offenders should be able to be released, especially if they meet criteria such as having a job or a family they must care for.
"Incarcerating them is going to create a lot of suffering for all involved. I have no problem with citing individuals out, hoping that they come to court. But where we have the repeat offenders — and some of these are the organized crime that's occurring that are hitting multiple locations ... then I think there needs to be accountability. And especially with violent crime, we need to start holding people to not only protect the community but to protect all involved," he said.
He would support expanding the use of remote monitoring devices while defendants await their trials, he said.
Jonsen took aim at Jensen's endorsements by 11 police unions. "I think when those unions are putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign, (they are) actually sending a message: 'We want to shut this door and make sure it stays closed,'" he said.
But Jensen noted his 12 years of publicly fighting for accountability and transparency, a stance that would normally not be popular with unions and police associations.
"I guess it depends on what spin people want to put on it because the reason they've endorsed me is because I think fair," he said. "They have been under a rule in our area, there's been disparate treatment. If you endorsed or gave money to the sheriff, you had a lot better shot at promotion, just like you got a lot better shot at a gun permit," he said.
In talks with police associations, the only promise he has made is that he would treat the deputies fairly, he said.
"I told them that when we negotiate, if it's fair and reasonable, we will come to an agreement. If it's not, we will not. And so I think that having somebody that they trust is the only way that people can actually make these reforms that can be accountable. They want to be led, but they want to be led by somebody who claims that and does it themselves," he said.