Editorial: Kevin Jensen for Sheriff | New

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After nearly 25 years as sheriff of Santa Clara County and many failed attempts to defeat her at the polls, Laurie Smith is finally about to go.

Coincidentally, a jury is currently hearing the civil misconduct and perjury case against her, while voters decide which of the two candidates with nearly identical last names can best restore public confidence and employee morale in this important law enforcement agency.

Former Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen, 59, casts himself as the outsider who can bring needed reforms to the sheriff’s department. He was police chief in Menlo Park for five years until he was hired by Palo Alto four years ago, stepping down this summer to run for sheriff. Prior to moving to Menlo Park, Jonsen was a captain with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department overseeing Lancaster, a low-income community where there was much controversy over police misconduct before, during and after the Jonsen’s tenure.

Jonsen faces former Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Captain Kevin Jensen, 58, who left the department in 2013 tired of Smith’s leadership and ran unsuccessfully against her in 2014. During the For the past 12 years, he has publicly worked to expose his dysfunctional management. Since leaving the department, Jensen has consulted and taught for police departments, including providing ethics training to new recruits and managers from other agencies. Although much of the staff has changed since he worked there, he says he has maintained contact with those who remain and will be able to quickly assemble a team willing to reform the functioning of the department and the prison and to end Sheriff Smith’s oppressive and autocratic leadership style.

Jensen has overwhelming support from law enforcement and other labor and PAC organizations and has received more than $700,000 in direct and indirect support, according to campaign fundraising reports released in late September. Jonsen, on the other hand, had to rely primarily on individual donations. His campaign directly raised about half of Jensen’s $240,000 campaign.

It is concerning, but not surprising, that the unions prefer the candidate who has risen through the ranks and is well versed in the controversies Smith created and the angst she created for most rank-and-file MPs.

As we did in the primary in June, we recommend Kevin Jensen as the top pick. While not as good a talker or self-promoter as Jonsen, we believe the task of addressing the issues Smith leaves behind is urgent. Changes in staffing and management practices cannot wait for the time it will take Jonsen to learn the intricacies of operating the county jail and sheriff’s office and earn the trust of the unions.

We are also troubled by some of Jonsen’s campaign speeches. For example, he said he was “the only Democrat in the race” (Jensen says he is an independent) but declined to explain his relevance in a nonpartisan election or why he made that statement. He boasted that he was endorsed by elected officials in 87% of towns in the county, leading one voter to think he meant 87% of elected officials supported him rather than Jensen. In reality, he simply has at least one elected official in 13 of the county’s 15 cities who approves of him, an unconvincing statistic. (Voters should note that Jonsen’s predecessor as Palo Alto police chief, Dennis Burns, endorsed Jensen, noting his honesty, integrity and ethical leadership.)

And Jonsen has repeatedly described Jensen as “retired,” even though he is not retired and operates his own consulting business.

Jonsen has come into this race as an innovative police reformer who embraces public accountability, oversight and transparency. But that’s not the record he built as a chef in Palo Alto. He chose to eliminate the ministry’s public information station, blocked the media from accessing his command staff for information on criminal incidents, and forced journalists to submit questions via an online form, unilaterally encrypted all radio communications, delayed responding to requests for public records, and made no effort to publicize what it now says were public meetings of its citizens’ advisory committee.

Both Jonsen and Jensen are seasoned veterans of law enforcement and could competently run the jail and the sheriff’s department. But these operations are in dire need of effective new leadership, and Jensen’s history with the two, and the support he has received from the unions, the best team to win back the trust of the 1,700 employees and public. In contrast, it could take months or even years for Jonsen to understand the intricacies of the operation and establish necessary new relationships.

The next sheriff will face a monumental challenge to improve transparency, accountability and communication after Smith’s years of mismanagement. Jensen is the candidate best qualified to make it happen.

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