Hennessy fills sheriff's spot
by Seth Hemmelgarn
As elected San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi fights his suspension by Mayor Ed Lee, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy has been filling the top job.
Nobody knows how long Hennessy, 59, will be sheriff but she said, "I'm working very hard to keep the department going forward, and doing the day-to-day work of the department and trying to plan for the future as much as possible."
(Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
Assisting Hennessy is Undersheriff Ellen Brin, an out lesbian who joined the department in 1986.
The future of the department's leadership is uncertain. Mirkarimi, who represented District 5 on the Board of Supervisors for seven years before being elected to the sheriff's post last November, pleaded guilty in March to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. The charge stemmed from a December 31, 2011 incident in which Mirkarimi allegedly bruised the arm of his wife, Eliana Lopez, who's defended her husband in the press.
Lee suspended Mirkarimi without pay on grounds of official misconduct in March. He's asked that Mirkarimi be removed from his job and has transmitted charges to the city's Ethics Commission and the Board of Supervisors. Lee appointed Hennessy to serve as interim sheriff.
Mirkarimi is trying to hold on to his job. The next Ethics Commission hearing is set for Wednesday, July 18. Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix said, "I expect we'll finish sometime in August."
Hennessy, who spoke to the Bay Area Reporter this spring and declined to discuss Mirkarimi, started work at the sheriff's department December 24, 1975. She said she'd been looking for "a nontraditional job."
At the time, the department "actively recruited people from every community, including the LGBT community, and today, our department reflects that diversity," Hennessy, who is straight, said.
Brin, who's 53 and who became undersheriff in February, said, "We have LGBTs throughout the ranks.
When Brin joined the department more than 25 years ago, the agency was recruiting in the gay community at bars and other venues. Brin talked to several people and thought, This might be a good fit.
She was right.
"Every day I feel very lucky," Brin said in an interview this spring. "It was a fantastic opportunity. It's a great department."
She said, "I've been out since day one," and LGBT staff have always been treated very fairly in this department, and I credit a lot of that to Sheriff Michael Hennessey. Hennessey retired in 2011 after 32 years in office.
Hennessy said department staff's attitude toward LGBT inmates is "just like their attitude toward any other inmates."
The department's treatment of transgender inmates has been questioned over the years, but Brin said the agency is "very, very sensitive" to that population.
"One of our main mandates is to keep everybody safe that's in our custody," said Hennessy.
Vulnerability, which may be determined by factors such as age and criminal history, is among the factors used to select where inmates are housed.
In guidelines issued in 2003 and last revised in 2010, sheriff's department policy is "to manage transgender prisoners in a respectful manner and to provide for their safety in the jails while affording them reasonable access to jail services."
The rules cover topics including name and pronoun usage, searches, and housing assignments.
"Transgender prisoners should be housed with other transgender prisoners of the same gender identity or with prisoners of the same anatomical gender," the guidelines say.
A transgender person who identifies as female but has male genitalia wouldn't be placed with the general male population against her will, and the same is true for female-to-male transgender people, according to department staff.
Theresa Sparks, a transgender woman who was formerly president of the city's Police Commission and now serves as executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, said in an earlier interview that the sheriff's office has "done a good job" of addressing treatment of transgender inmates, and she hasn't heard of a lot of issues today, but monitoring of the situation needs to continue.
Sparks said she didn't know much about Hennessy, but she called the department veteran "an approachable person" and "a very good choice."
Hennessy, who had retired from the sheriff's department in 2010, said she's not concentrating on the next election, and she hadn't made any decisions as to whether she'd run for the sheriff's post.
The sheriff's department, which has a budget of about $174 million, has about 880 sworn staff and approximately 125 civilian personnel.
One area of particular importance lately has been realignment. In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 109, which aims to send some California prisoners to county jails.
Brin said they haven't seen the population increases they were expecting as a result of the law, and the process has been "going really well for us." However, there has been a rise in parole violators. Previously, when someone violated their parole, they typically would have returned to state prison, "but now they're staying in our custody," she said.
Still, over the last 20 months, the average daily jail population as of late June had dropped from about 1,900 to around 1,550.
"We don't know why that is," Brin said of the declines, but "it's definitely good news."