SF Sheriff Vicki Hennessy stepping down after 40 years with department; what lies ahead

Sheriff Vicki Hennessy says the decision to not seek re-election was not easy. 

She says she has enjoyed the challenges of the job, but health problems and her family ultimately are taking priority. During the past year, she lost her husband and had to have knee replacement surgery, with more surgeries needed in the future.

"The warranty on the joints is over, so I had to figure out some way to take care of that," Hennessy said with a wry smile, "I've been in the department for over 40 years and I figured that was a pretty good run and I thought about it and I think it's time for me to change my life and change my work schedule and probably be a lot healthier."

It's a difficult step for a woman who's always loved challenges. Sheriff Hennessy is a native San Franciscan who graduated from Lowell High School. 

She says she didn't even know there was a Sheriff's office until her friend showed her a recruitment flyer.

"I was athletic, I thought I'd be a good fit for the sheriff's department so I took the test," said Hennessy. 

She passed that test and in 1975, she joined a new class of recruits.

"That included lesbians and gays, people of color and women, specifically, in addition to men on one combined list. Up to that time men and women had been on separate lists," said Hennessy.

"My first day on the job was Christmas Eve. I was told to wear blue pants and a white shirt, and go to the jail at San Bruno and go to work, the old women's jail in San Bruno....just like that," she said, noting how times have changed. 

She said she loved proving skeptics wrong.

"You had to prove yourself, yes, there's no doubt about that," said Hennessy, "I remember during one event, there was a huge demonstration and I went in and worked with some people and one of the guys came out and said, oh, I didn't know if you could do this but you're doing fine." 

She retired once before, but answered the call in 2012 when then Mayor Ed Lee brought her out of retirement to run the department while former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was investigated for domestic abuse.

"I had never thought I was going to run for sheriff," said Hennessy. 

She decided to run for the job and won, being sworn in January 8, 2016 as San Francisco's first female sheriff and the first sheriff who wasn't an outsider or politician, but instead rose through the ranks of the department. 

"I don't think I'm a very good politician. I'd like to be a better politician," she laughed, "Perhaps then I might get a jail."

National politics have also put her tenure in the spotlight, with critics condemning San Francisco's sanctuary city policies. 

"I think there is some room for more middle ground. But I think that the Board of Supervisors was very clear to me when I took office that there was no appetite for doing anything differently than what we're doing right now. I will continue to comply with that because I'm elected in San Francisco and those are the people I serve," said Hennessy, "I also think there's a lot of good that comes out of that as well because I think it is important for people who are undocumented to feel free to complain or bring witness to those who are preying on them or preying on others." 

One disappointment, she says, was not getting funding to replace the aging County Jail Number 4 in the Hall of Justice for some of the 1,300 inmates the Sheriff's Department oversees.

"I try to house them as safely and humanely as I can and that's almost impossible to do on the 7th floor of the Hall of Justice," said Hennessy.

She says she's proud of the things she has accomplished. That includes her campaign promise to create the first transgender policy for jail inmates to declare their own gender and the state's first law enforcement training for handling transgender inmates.
She says she's also proud of reaching a staff of 850 sworn deputies, which she's helped grow from a deficit when she took office.

"We've hired 236 deputies in three years. That's a lot for a department our size," said Hennessy.

She has also shifted internal investigations of deputy misconduct to an external investigators.

The city's 35th sheriff says there are still things she hopes to do before leaving office. 

"One of my things that I haven't been able to do is create a community advisory board which is something I wanted to do when I was running. But I have really found transparency costs money," said Hennessy.

She says finding funds has not been easy, but she says the department needs to expand the body-worn camera program, upgrade the web platform so the department can post policies online and allow the public to see records of deputies guilty of misconduct.

As for what she'll do when she leaves office?

"I'm a grandmother now and I have grandchildren and I want to see more of them and work with my family," said Hennessy, who added she might also take some art classes, "I was an art major at one time in college."

"I think it's time for me to step down and let the next generation come in and do the work," she said.

Sheriff Hennessy says she has not yet endorsed anyone to replace her, but plans to make an announcement in the next few weeks.