New sheriff Robert Jonsen takes the oath
SAN JOSE >> Newly elected Santa Clara County Sheriff Robert “Bob” Jonsen formally took his oath of office as the South Bay's first new top cop in a quartercentury during a formal ceremony Feb. 3.
Jonsen was sworn in at the Board of Supervisors chambers, which was filled with elected officials and law enforcement leaders from throughout the region. Longtime Bay Area Rep. Anna Eshoo formally introduced the new sheriff before he gave the oath administered by Judge Theodore Zayner.
Jonsen said after the swearing-in that he is “grateful for all the support that is going to be required to move our sheriff's office to where it needs to be so we can serve these communities in the most excellent fashion of public safety.”
In the general election last November, Jonsen, a former police chief in Palo Alto and Menlo Park who spent most of his career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, edged out retired sheriff's captain Kevin Jensen — who also ran in 2014 — by 1.6% of the ballots cast, or about 7,000 votes.
Jonsen is the 29th sheriff in the county's history, and claims lineage to the job through his great-uncle Jonathan Sweigert, who served as the South Bay's sheriff from 1887 to 1891.
Jonsen has already been serving as sheriff since the Board of Supervisors voted in December to install him before the start of the new year rather than appoint an interim sheriff for a matter of a few weeks.
The call for an interim appointment arose after Laurie Smith, who had held the office since 1998 and claimed the distinction of the state's first woman sheriff, abruptly resigned Oct. 31 in an attempt to nullify her civil corruption trial that could have forced her ouster. A civil jury ultimately
found her guilty anyway of abusing her authority in her issuance of concealed-carry weapons permits, evading giftreporting laws and resisting civilian oversight.
Jonsen ran on a platform of bringing an outside perspective to reform the office, which had been weighed down over the past decade by political scrutiny from an array of critics — often on the county board and including other elected leaders — that hung a cloud over Smith's management, particularly with jail operations.
In his remarks Feb. 3, Jonsen said he envisions a jail environment that gives those in custody “the opportunity to graduate from incarceration rather than just being released back into an environment which may invite recidivism,” and improves the jails' mental health response.
Those who have long clamored for leadership change in the sheriff's office might have expected Jonsen to install his own handpicked commanders to help him with his transition into office.
But that hasn't happened, and most of the top-of-the-office leadership under Smith remains in place.
That includes Undersheriff Ken Binder, who took over the second-in-command role after the previous undersheriff, Rick Sung, was indicted on bribery and corruption charges based
on many of the same allegations and investigations that led to Smith's civil verdict.
Jonsen promoted Binder — who emceed the ceremony — as his permanent undersheriff. As it happens, Binder's brother Andrew was assistant chief under Jonsen in Palo Alto and is now the police chief for that city.
Away from the ceremony, when asked by this news organization why so much of the top of the agency remains, he said, “Now that I'm getting to know people and having conversations, I'm realizing their skill set, their strengths and weaknesses, I'm really impressed with some of the management in place.”
Jonsen added that he will seek outside consultation on a strategic plan for the office, to “get somebody to look at the organization.” But regarding the minimal movement in leadership, he suggested that the very top of the agency, his stepping in, was the most needed change.
“I think the organization was very ready for change; they're all very much in alignment with the direction I want to head the organization,” Jonsen said. “If I … felt there was going to be resistance to the change and direction I want to head, absolutely I would have (changed commanders).”
The new sheriff emphasized that one of the most immediate changes was to enter into a new information-sharing agreement with Michael Gennaco, cofounder of the OIR Group that serves as the county's civilian law-enforcement watchdog. The subject of an information-sharing agreement was the source of a yearslong political dispute, and Smith was later found guilty of intentionally impeding negotiations to keep from disclosing comprehensive records for civilian oversight.
“He's going to be very much part of our team,” Jonsen said of Gennaco.
Back at his oath ceremony, Jonsen asserted again his aspiration to reinvigorate the agency and break away from the inertia of the past 25 years.
“I didn't run for sheriff to be a placeholder for the next four years. … I ran not to hide behind the ways of the past; I ran to find out the promise the future holds. To see what we can accomplish together.”