Ross Mirkarimi Fights to Stay Sheriff

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Ross Mirkarimi, San Francisco’s sheriff, is a hard man to get a hold of.  An interview with a View reporter was rescheduled twice through his office.  But then he provided his personal cellphone number and email address, and invited the reporter to his Potrero Avenue home. Despite the digital and physical contact information, Mirkarimi remained hard to pin down for an interview, and ended up communicating through email instead.   

Mirkarimi said he loves living in Potrero Hill with his family; wife Eliana Lopez, a telenovela actress from Venezuela and son, Theo. “[There’s] great charm. Our son went to preschool in the community, and now is at Daniel Webster. We’re all dialed into the DW scene. Our family hangout has been McKinley Park, among other outdoor spots.” The family frequents the space with their energetic rescue dog, Savannah, a Boxer mix brindle.

Mirkarimi, one of the highest-elected Iranian-American officeholders in the U.S., has lived in the City for more than 30 years, all in wonderful neighborhoods, he said in an email. “Now with our growing bilingual family, we sought change where we have some good friends, warmer weather, and community, adorned with its urban beauty and challenges.”

Mirkarimi has a “can’t keep a good man down” attitude in the face of the scandals that have dogged him over the past few years. He made headlines in 2012 when he and Lopez got into a heated argument as the family headed out for a pizza lunch, during which Mirkarimi bruised his wife’s arm. Afterwards a neighbor videotaped Lopez, who showed her bruise and said, “This happened yesterday…This is the second time this is happening. I tell Ross I want to work on the marriage, we need help. I have been telling him we need help. And I am going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me. Because he said that he’s very powerful and he can do it.” Later, Lopez refused to cooperate with the ensuing domestic violence investigation, and said public release of the video was “perpetually damaging” to her and her family.

The district attorney charged Mirkarimi with three misdemeanor counts of domestic violence. In a plea bargain, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment, which was expunged from his permanent record earlier this year after he petitioned the court to do so.    

Lopez recently turned the incident into a one-woman comedy show that premiered at the Mission Cultural Center last month.  Mirkarimi called her performance “courageous. She wasn’t heard and now through her skill and on her terms, she can be. Eliana was well known for her theater work in Venezuela. I think it’s great she’s back to the stage.” 

In the most recent scandal, inmates at a City jail were forced into “gladiator-style fights” by sheriff’s deputies who bet on the outcomes, something Mirkarimi called “completely unacceptable.” The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs Association tried to minimize the misconduct as “horseplay.”  

“I made it clear that there is no room for nuance, even if the allegations are half-true,” said Mirkarimi. “So in an unprecedented move, I invited the FBI to investigate; they’ve accepted and it’s underway. I’ve already issued my intent to terminate based on our Internal Affairs investigation. The vast majority of our deputy sheriffs are hardworking public servants. But the behavior exhibited by some is not something that develops overnight. It cooks over the years. This is why I seek wholesale reform for greater transparency and accountability.”

In an effort to create more transparency the Sheriff’s Department approved a plan to place cameras on deputies. Mirkarimi said that he requested funds from the Lee Administration for body cameras two years ago. “Nothing materialized,” he said. “Finally, due to the fiscal responsibility of my staff, we’ve scrambled funds to pilot 30 cameras for our oldest and most challenging jail. We are the first county jail system in state. I do not think that body cameras are the end-all. They are a slice of a much larger strategy that must be accompanied by better training, creating an early warning system for problem deputies, and better community policing inside the jails. It’s a serious misstep for the national discussion on community policing to not include prisons and jails.”

The Sheriff’s Department is one of five finalists that competed for the Harvard University Government Innovation Award, the only law enforcement agency being considered for the honor.  Kennedy School recognition is based, in part, on the fact that the City’s county jail system is the first in the country to offer high school courses, and has experienced declining jail population and recidivism rates.   

Despite the bad press – and the fact that his opponent, Vicki Hennessy, has been endorsed by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association – Mirkarimi is optimistic about his re-election campaign. When asked what he plans to do if he doesn’t win, he said, “Perhaps we’ll talk then. After everything that’s transpired over the last several years, I know how rapidly this City is changing and how that change will influence a mean-spirited campaign, but that doesn’t deter me or my family or supporters. We’ll aspire to run a positive and future-focused campaign.” 

“In 2011, I ran as a reformer with the support of Sheriff Mike Hennessey and now I run for re-election with Mike’s support again,” Mirkarimi said. “I am an outsider and that’s why we’ve been so effective in making sure our department and this City’s criminal justice system is moving forward. It was no surprise that the deputy union supports my opponent. They only supported Mike twice out of the eight terms he ran and won. They want one of their own; that’s endemic with law enforcement. It’s also very politically cliquish. In 2011, I defeated the deputy union-backed candidate, whose treasurer then is my opponent in this current race.”

Mirkarimi is a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, serving nearly two terms in District 5. “It was a labor of love that I carried forward in my capacity as sheriff, and invariably, I extend that critical thinking toward the challenges facing our Potrero community.”

Some of the challenges Mirkarimi sees facing the Hill, as well as the City writ large, are retaining affordability and class diversity, providing quality public education, housing for the working class and middle class, and reforming the criminal justice system while increasing public safety.