Newly elected Santa Clara County sheriff starts early after Laurie Smith found guilty

Santa Clara County Sheriff-elect Bob Jonsen will take on the role one month early. Photo courtesy of Bob Jonsen via San Jose Spotlight

Santa Clara County Sheriff-elect Bob Jonsen will assume his duties one month early after his embattled predecessor abruptly resigned in October.   

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to appoint Jonsen as sheriff before officially taking office in January. 

Jonsen will start on an interim basis Thursday -- after the election is certified by the county Registrar of Voters. 

He'll officially be sworn in as sheriff on Jan. 2.  

Jonsen said he's ready to take on his new job, adding he's already set up meetings to connect with the force.   

"I'm very excited about this and the organization is excited about moving forward," Jonsen told San Jose Spotlight. "This is an opportunity to really engage with the workforce and hopefully ease any anxiety (when) there's a transition."   

Supervisor Otto Lee said the appointment is necessary to fill the vacancy.   

"There's a lot of healing to repair the distractions that need to happen in the sheriff's office, and the sheriff-elect should be given the opportunity to start the healing now," Lee said at the meeting. "This is just the first step in getting back that trust (that) has been lost over the years."   

Jonsen, former Palo Alto police chief, emerged victorious after a hard-fought election last month. 

He beat out four other candidates, including retired sheriff Capt. Kevin Jensen in the November election. 

Jonsen will be the 29th sheriff of Santa Clara County and the first new sheriff since 1998.   Jonsen served as chief with Palo Alto Police Department starting in 2018, following five years as police chief in Menlo Park. 

Before that, he worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for roughly three decades.   

The county's decision to appoint Jonsen one month ahead of his start date comes after his predecessor, former Sheriff Laurie Smith, resigned Oct. 31 ahead of the verdict of her civil trial for corruption charges.   

Smith, who announced in March she would not seek reelection, has faced a saga of scrutiny over a pay-to-play scheme -- including formal corruption charges from a grand jury. 

A jury found Smith guilty of corruption and willful misconduct last month for failing to report gifts and awarding concealed carry permits to friends and campaign donors. 

Undersheriff Ken Binder has served as acting head at the sheriff's office since November.   

Smith was also at the center of another controversy involving a spate of inmate injuries and one death at county jails -- resulting in supervisors voting no confidence in her leadership and the California attorney general opening an investigation into the injuries.   

Some residents expressed concerns with the appointment, citing allegations that Jonsen was a member of a deputy gang known as the Grim Reapers when he worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.   

But Bob Nunez, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, said the organization looked into the claims and found them unfounded.   

"I see no reason not to appoint Bob Jonsen as the interim (sheriff) until he is sworn in," Nunez said. "We are supporting this (appointment)."   

According to county rules, supervisors must find a replacement for Smith through an appointment process or an election. 

Because Jonsen won the November election, county officials said it makes sense to let him take the helm of the department early.  

"Public trust in the sheriff's office must be restored, and I commend Bob Jonsen's expressed commitment toward that goal," Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San Jose Spotlight. "Our community expects transparency and accountability, and I look forward to Bob's leadership."   

The Deputy Sheriffs' Association of Santa Clara County, which has 500 members in the sheriff's office, said the union is ready to work with Jonsen.   

"It is imperative that the transition to new leadership be as seamless as possible," President Ryan Elder told San Jose Spotlight. "We have already had a productive conversation with the new sheriff and pledge to work together to improve the safety of Santa Clara County residents."   

Jonsen, who has roughly 40 years of combined experience with three law enforcement agencies, promises to address the mental health crisis in county jails. 

In Palo Alto, he oversaw the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) launch, which operates under Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services, pairing mental health clinicians with officers to respond to mental health distress calls.   

The sheriff-elect also vows to bring transparency to a law enforcement agency mired with yearslong controversy.   

"The department wants leadership that's engaged in the organization, setting the expectations, making the modifications that need to be made so that we can continue to serve the community," Jonsen said. "One of the biggest issues that we're gonna be working on is obviously enhancing the transparency and accountability measures. That's gonna require a lot of collaboration with the unions and community stakeholders."