Santa Clara sheriff candidates vow "transparency" after concealed carry scandal

Paul Sakuma

Now that Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has announced she will not be running for a sixth term after an investigation into allegations of corruption and bribery in the issuance of concealed carry permits by her office led to her indictment by a civil grand jury, there’s no shortage of candidates vying to replace her. But at a roundtable hosted by the Silicon Valley Public Accountability Foundation last week, none of the potential sheriffs took aim at the “may issue” system that allowed for some of Smith’s top deputies to allegedly approve permits in exchange for donations to a supposedly independent group supporting Smith’s last election bid.

Most of the candidates spoke vaguely about the need for greater transparency, which, while important, isn’t really the crux of the problem in Santa Clara County. Everyone wants to play the role of reformer, but based on press accounts of the forum, no one seemed willing to call for the most effective reform of all: adopting a “shall issue” system for issuing concealed carry licenses by recognizing the right of self-defense as a “good cause” to carry a firearm.

[Sean] Allen, who has more than 30 years with the sheriff’s office, mostly in the jail and corrections division, is positioning himself as the most qualified to reform the organization. He cites past discrimination lawsuits against his employer, and what he has described as ensuing retaliation, as proof of his mettle and tangible efforts to improve conditions.

“I’ve identified the problems within our organization and I’ve addressed them, and I knew retaliation was coming,” Allen said.

He said he wants to embrace civilian oversight and tap consultation from top educational institutions in the region — Stanford University and Santa Clara University among them — to diminish what he and many outside observers have described as the insulated nature of the office.

… [Kevin] Jensen is the relative frontrunner in the race, with the backing of the two unions representing sheriff’s deputies, an array of county police and political endorsements, and the experience of having run against Smith in 2014, where he garnered 40% of the vote. He approached the forum emphasizing that pedigree, contending that his experience up and down the organization — including a time as assistant chief of corrections — will restore confidence in the office.

“I’ve never claimed to have all the answers … what I do is bring people together,” he said. “The majority of law enforcement and the major endorsers have endorsed me for a reason.”

Jensen has staked out the ground of being the candidate most ready for day one in office. He supports making the agency more transparent about misconduct, an issue that has dogged the current administration for years.

“A lot of things that have happened have been hidden for so long that it’s hard to find out what happened,” he said. “What I believe in is, work with the people who are supposed to hold you accountable, and you’ve got nothing to hide. If we’ve done something, own it, and move on.”

Look, I understand that this is the Bay Area we’re talking about here, and a candidate who declared they will issue no carry permits at all might very well prove to be more popular with voters than one who promises to adopt a “shall issue” attitude, but this isn’t just a personality contest. There are constitutional principles at stake here, and given the fact that the current administration has been accused of selling access to our right to bear arms in exchange for campaign cash, I don’t think it’s enough to mouth platitudes about increased transparency.

Smith’s office allegedly never even responded to most applicants, leaving domestic violence victims and others desperately trying to legally protect themselves in limbo, and I just don’t get the sense that any of these candidates is as furious about the department’s behavior as they should be.

Happy talk about reform and transparency isn’t enough, but sadly it may be all that the residents of Santa Clara County get from those promising a new day and a new era in the county sheriff’s department.