Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is one of the most polarizing figures in San Francisco. Since moving to the city in 1984, he’s gone from co-founding the Green Party to graduating from the Police Academy and serving as a City Supervisor. He was also convicted of false imprisonment of his wife, Eliana Lopez, in a highly publicized incident of domestic violence. As a result, San Franciscans have strong opinions about the sheriff. Mayor Ed Lee has made his known, attempting to have Mirkarimi permanently removed from his position. But Mirkarimi has plenty of champions as well, including the majority of the City’s Board of Supervisors who voted to keep him in his job.
The day started inside City Hall on the 4th floor, where Ross Mirkarimi works. He’s agreed for his every move to be followed. I clip a microphone on his tie and check the sound. The sheriff is wearing a basic dark green suit. Everything he’s wearing matches, from the stripes of his tie, down to his green argyle socks. His hair sweeps back in an S-shaped wave that just settles naturally. On his right hip, near his brown leather belt, is a golden sheriff badge.
He’s been up for awhile now, he tells me. “I wake up at 5:45 or 6 every morning, if I can muster the energy I go to the gym for 45 minutes or an hour, jet home and get ready for work and I’m here in the office by 8am,” he says.
Inside his office, shelves line the walls with legal books, criminal justice reports and Click Clack Moo, a book with a cow typing on a typewriter. It’s one of his son’s favorites.
“I’ve read these so many times. This book talks about union labor. This one he can read in English and Spanish,” Mirkarimi says. He slides the books back in place. It’s 8:30am – time for the daily meeting with his Chief of Staff, Kathy Gorwood, Undersheriff Ellen Brinn, and Assistant Sheriff Paul Miyamoto. Mirkarimi waves them into his office and sits behind a large wooden desk. His team sits in front of him with papers in hand.
The department has a lot to oversee: they’re responsible for the management of six county jails; they assist with tracking down people who have warrants out for their arrest; they’re in charge of evictions; they have to be ready to aid the SFPD if needed in any emergency; and, on top of that, the department helps with the rehabilitation of inmates and ex-offenders.
Mirkarimi says, “If you think about 50,000 people come through or have contact with the San Francisco jail system in a given year – sooner or later they will all get out, many are short-termers but repeat offenders.”
Right now, in San Francisco the jail population is surprisingly low. The average daily jail population has been around 1,600 people, one of the lowest counties in California. The sheriff leans over his desk and asks his team in front of him, “Why do you think the jail population is so low?”
Undersheriff Ellen Brinn says it’s not only that there are less arrests for certain crimes, but that the SFPD is “less inclined to keep these folks in jail. We’ve seen a significant decline in the jail population.”
Leaning in closer, the sheriff props his hands under his chin. Nodding in agreement, he adds, “When crime occurs it’s not usually first time criminals unless they are juveniles, it's usually people that repeat.”
They speed through the rest of the meeting agenda: a Restorative Justice model in Oakland that made national news, shuttles for jail visitors. Mirkarimi outlines a plan for a new shelter system to be built so that visitors at the San Francisco County Jail #5 in San Bruno won’t be standing in the rain while waiting to enter for visitation.
Soon it’s past 9am, and it’s time to hit the road. The sheriff scans his desk and pats his pockets. Mirkarimi’s workday often consists of a lot of office work, revising proposals, working on budgets, and plugging into conference calls. But today he’s got a packed schedule outside of the office. On the way out of city Hall, he greets almost everyone he sees. Once he’s outside, the sheriff gets into the passenger side of a white sedan and tells me we’re about 20 minutes away from the San Bruno complex.
He normally drives alone, but today he’s arranged for Susan Fahey, Sheriff Department Spokeswoman to drive so he could talk to me about his job and his history.
“My father is from Iran, my grandparents were Russian. My father was a Shiite Muslim, my mother is a Russian Jew. Ancestry,” he smiles. “I grew up with both in one way and, to mediate those interest I went to Jesuit school,” he laughs. “I have an interfaith background.”
Mirkarimi was exposed to public service at a young age. He grew up with a single mom who worked with the Commission for Human Rights in Rhode Island. He headed west 29 years ago and landed in the Bay Area. Mirkarimi graduated from the San Francisco Police Academy in 1996. He knew he wanted a career in law enforcement but the SFPD still didn’t seem like the right fit for him.
“I already knew that I was a little bit different than others with my left political perspective, but I believe that it just rounds out perspective and makes governments do better,” he says.
It was when Mirkarimi left the department and began to work with the District Attorney’s office that he started to meet with more progressive policy makers. This is where he realized he fit in. He worked for the District Attorney for nine years, then won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, representing District 5 – near the center of town, a place where there was a lot of crime and poverty
“When I ran to be a Supervisor in District 5, I was appalled by how, in Fillmore and other areas of SF, people were resigned that this was how it is, and the level of poverty in a chic city like San Francisco can go unnoticed,” he says.
During this time, Mirkarimi says he learned quite a bit from San Francisco’s longest serving sheriff, Michael Hennessey, who held his post for 32 years and endorsed Mirkarimi before retiring. Hennessey completely re-defined the role of the sheriff’s department. He focused on education in the prison systems and more rehabilitation programs. Most jails in the U.S. didn’t have such a progressive approach to incarceration. Mirkarimi was elected to office in November 2011 and planned to continue his predecessors work, until he says, “this past year it was a little interrupted.”
What he calls an interruption was one of the biggest political scandals in recent San Francisco history. “I was suspended by the mayor in a very high profile incident that occurred between my wife and I, something that I will forever regret and be heartbroken about,” says Mirkarimi.
Mirkarimi made national headlines. He was sentenced to three years probation, fined $590, and ordered to attend one year of counseling and parenting classes. Mayor Ed Lee suspended the sheriff for nearly nine months without pay, until an ethics committee reinstated him last October. Mirkarimi says it was one of the darkest times of his life. I asked him why he fought so hard to remain sheriff.
“Well, I was elected sheriff – the people had elected me – and I very much wanted and vowed to right any wrong and yet still be able to demonstrate that does not disqualify me,” he says, “and you know, at my lowest point, of which there were many, someone would either come knocking on my door – because after awhile everyone knew where we lived – or they would kind of find me and say, ‘You know you've got to fight. It’s not for yourself of just your family but it’s for us too, we want you to be in that office and grow.’” Mirkarimi nods his head and looks out to the distance. “I appreciated that, I’ll never forget it.”
Morning at the San Bruno jail
We arrive at San Bruno jail, which is about 10 miles south of San Francisco. The sheriff greets every person who crosses his path, and tells them to stay warm.
Inside the jail, we pass through a series of locked doors and we enter a long and narrow hallway. It’s so brightly lit that looking up strains my eyes. We’re in a section of the jail housing the Five Keys Charter School, a fully functioning high school for adults. We look through windows where we can see men in orange jumpsuits sitting at desks. Here, they are called clients, or students while they are in class. Their eyes scan the sheriff for a brief moment, then their eyes fix back on their teacher.
We step inside the class where the teacher is talking about the History of Oppression. She stands in the front and her voice echoes: “So the challenge is not to let our emotions our feelings our animal instincts take over just because the question becomes hard. Is it oppression is it compassion?”
The classes here are developed specifically for the prison population. In science class, they teach the biology of addiction; in computer class, they learn to make a resume. So far, they’ve awarded more than 300 diplomas.
“I would argue that stealing milk to feed your baby has a cost,” she tells her class. I notice that no one seems surprised to see the sheriff walk into the classroom today. Mirkarimi says he makes his rounds to the county jails at least a few times per month.
We continue our tour. He wants to visit the English as a Second Language class and asks, “Would it be too disturbing if I went in to say hello?”
A deputy says, “You’re the sheriff,” and opens the door. The students are looking at a colorful booklet that outlines the parts of a car. “The brakes stop the car,” they tell their teacher, who moves on to explain other mechanical terms and asks his class to repeat him.
We return to the hallway and look at two small libraries where books were recently donated. Continuing on we are led into a large room, or what they called a “pod”. It’s oval shaped with three floors, lined with neatly kept jail cells. Forty-eight orange-clad students are sitting in a large circle in the center of the room. Brad Reiss is a former inmate and now an instructor in the Keys for Change Program.
He comes over to greet us and explains his class, Restorative Justice. “We do this every Thursday,” he says, “They do artwork and put their values on the paper in the middle of the circle and try to use the circle to hold that value.”
Mirkarimi stands outside the circle listening. Each student takes a turn expressing what he wants to achieve in life: a trip to Ethiopia; becoming a better jet skier. The sheriff stands with his hands clasped behind his back, nodding with each hopeful story.
The sheriff tries to quietly slip out of the class for his next meeting, but before he can go, one student stops him and points out the high student to teacher ratio.
“We have 48 people in here and not enough staffing. If it’s on your mind, we could really use some more staffing in here,” he tells Mirkarimi.
“It is, it is on our mind,” Mirkarimi responds. “It’s my task to be an advocate on behalf of this department. I agree our staff has to shoulder a lot – you are 48 individuals and that’s a lot to ask. The desire is to give you attention that you deserve.”
Again, Mirkarimi tries to maneuver out of the class, when another hand is raised.
“One more thing, the visiting, there’s only one phone line and our families can’t get through all the time,” someone complains.
“This is one of the reasons why I wanted to be sheriff, San Francisco is forward thinking but we need to do a better job in making it accessible for families and friends who are incarcerated,” Mirkarimi says.
The sheriff mentions that construction will soon start to build an area that will shelter visitors while they wait outside to come in. It’s the same shelter that he was talking about in his morning meeting.
“They don’t have to be distressed, cold, or bothered to come see you. Another thing to improve is that I’m hoping that we can bring in video conferencing,” he says. The group thanks him and we leave.
A late morning simulation
We walk through more heavy steel doors, outside through a part of the prison that is used for overflow, and up some more stairs into a room where deputies in tan uniforms are learning about their new field training program, The Virtra 180. It’s like a giant video game, with three wall-sized screens showing virtual crime scenes.
A deputy instructs us to line up against a wall. We stand in the cold dark room with several deputies who are about to go through their training course. The deputy points to a table with simulated weapons and starts handing them out. The sound blasts into the room and the training begins. An actor on the screen is threatening a deputy with glass. Blood is everywhere.
Mirkarimi leans toward me and says, “This is very realistic.” I stand next to him, our eyes glued to the scene on the screen. If the situation deteriorates, they whip out fake weapons to shoot, pepper spray, or taze their targets.
“Tazer! Tazer!” the deputy screams, and the scene ends. As the next is booted up, the controller tells the deputy he did well. The next scene begins. The sound of muffled walkie-talkies fills the room. We can hear the next scene. This time a shooter is on the loose who’s threatening innocent civilians in an office building. The deputy points his simulated gun at the screen and starts his mission.
“En route,” the deputy shouts, “Give me more back up!”
On the screen, a frantic lady enters the scene. She begs the officer for help and says that a shooter is after George. The deputy points his gun in a direction where he hears more voices, “Help me please!!” someone shouts. Actors on the screens grab their sides, lying on the ground screaming while the deputy tries to find his target.
The lights come on and the deputy is asked a series of questions about his reactions to the scene. Sheriff Mirkarimi and others in the department and I leave the room.
The sheriff turns to me and says, “I never get over the intensity of that no matter how many times I see it. “
Mirkarimi is obviously disturbed by what he sees. The violence doesn’t match up with the personality of the man I’ve been spending the day with. He’s been outgoing and friendly, easy to laugh, concerned about the cold weather. He doesn’t even carry a gun. “The sheriff can carry a gun if the sheriff elects to, but it’s not required,” he explains. Sheriff Mirkarimi was barred from carrying a weapon dueto the restraining order leading up to his false imprisonment charge. His is now allowed to carry a gun again.
We leave the jail and get back into the sedan. Mirkarimi turns to me and tells me “ It’s 11.20 and we are heading toward the Womens Resource Center.”
I take the opportunity of the car ride to ask him about the possibility of a stop and frisk policy in the Bay Area.
“It was a half baked idea, not well received or not well explained,” he says.
“Was this discussed heavily in your office?” I ask him. Mirkarimi turns to me from the passenger side and says, “We were not consulted by the mayor on this and I was a little surprised that an initiative of this magnitude wasn’t launched from a collective perspective.”
The sheriff’s lack of communication with the mayor’s office has been well documented, but Mirkarimi says that he works for the people of San Francisco, like the ones who rallied behind him when he was under fire – people he’d never known were backing him up. They brought food to his house, made “Save Ross” signs for him at City Hall, and cheered him on the streets. But even with the support, there seemed to be just as many who wanted the sheriff out.
“It was just really hard,” he tells me, “but you know, I will do everything I possibly can, everything I possibly can, even to the people who did not want me reinstated, to earn I think, their consideration that I won’t let them down as a sheriff.”
The sheriff who always made eye contact today, now stares down and wipes his eyes. His criminal prosecution was a public fight and anti-domestic violence groups were outraged. Many still are, yet, the sheriff carries on with his job.
Afternoon at the Women’s Resource Center
We arrive at the Women’s Resource Center – also run by the Sheriff’s department. It’s a daytime treatment center offering programs for women who were just released from the San Francisco County Jail. We walk into a room where a large tree is painted on a wall with a little girl swinging from one of the branches. The sheriff is trying to help the center teach classes in an unused jail kitchen.
“I’m glad we’re having this meeting. To revisit some things that had been on our menu, so to speak,” the meeting attendees all burst into laughter.
The sheriff sits on the edge of his seat in this meeting. He’s excited about the center running like a business. Someone suggests maybe they train as baristas and open a café, and the idea is put on the agenda for further discussion.
When the meeting is over, Mirkarimi heads into a large room at the center where a cooking class just finished and a handful of recently released women are having lunch. The Sheriff joins them. He sits next to a woman who works at the center and points out the food on his plate. “I’m having this amazing rosemary chicken, carrots, green beans, and Caesars salad – and it’s delivered by the Women’s Resource Center, Sheriff’s Department,” he says proudly.
We eat lunch and go. Outside the sun is shining bright. The sheriff takes off his jacket.
I ask the sheriff where we are off to now and he tells me” 70 Oak Grove, it’s an alleyway where our community programs are housed.”
We don’t get far before a woman who was in the center stops us. She says she has a problem. Mirkarimi stands, listening carefully
“My mom passed away in May. I’ve been going to the shelters and I have bipolar and depression issues,” the woman says. Mirkarimi listens to her story and then tells her she should go back to the Women’s Resource Center for help.
We keep walking. He says being stopped in the street and being asked for help is something that happens all the time. “If it was less than 10 in a day, that would be a really light day, a really light day.”
A meeting and a muster
We walk fast to the next meeting, but Mirkarimi seems very relaxed now, like he’s found his pace. I ask him how he feels his day is going so far and he smiles, “I like it bam bam bam,” he claps his hands, “You know like, on the clock, half hour, I like it. These are the kind of days I like. And these are routine, in many ways. I just have to alternate between our different properties because we really do cover quite a lot of territory.”
For the rest of the walk, the sheriff tells me he considers himself spiritual. He meditates. He says he tries not to watch the news just before he goes to bed, because all negativity weighs heavy on his mind.
“But I often wake up in the middle of the night,” he says, “so I keep a tablet right by my bed and I’m always going through ideas and I feel like it’s there’s just ongoing generator. But as Eliana, my wife says, ‘you’ve got to quiet your mind,’ so I try to practice that now in different ways.”
We enter a building on Grove Street. The sheriff meets with the community programs department, and the Executive Director of the Five Keys Charter School, Steve Good. They talk about how they need to consolidate programs. The building layout wasn’t inviting and functioning the way Mirkarimi would like. “Do we need to break some walls down in here?” he asks. Mirkarimi thinks that the departments are scattered throughout the city and they could be working together. An hour later the meeting ends and we’re headed back out toward on the street.
It’s 2:45pm and we’re off to the Hall of Justice, where the sheriff will attend a muster, the roll call where the Sheriff deputies are assigned posts and given other updates.
“We’re going to crash the muster!” he says, excited.
These musters happen in five locations, three times per day, so Mirkarimi attends a different one every week.
About 15 minutes later we walk back out to his car with his chief of staff Kathy Gorwood. The heels of the sheriff’s shoes are worn out from the concrete. He looks really relaxed as he walks down Bryant street. The day is winding down.
“I saw the deputy in the front eating candy corn and when I was a kid I used to eat candy corn and I saw him eating it out of a plastic bag,” he says nostalgically.
Mirkarimi’s sleeves are rolled up showing peeling skin on his forearms from a recent Venezuelan vacation. His cell phone still on mute, he says he’s normally on the phone quite a bit, and normally he drinks a lot of coffee, but today he’s chosen not to. We take a car for a quick ride to City Hall.
The sheriff spots supervisor John Avalos and gives him a warm handshake. Soon after we enter the building and head back up to his 4th floor office.
Mirkarimi sits down at his desk. He nervously arranges pens, checks his phone and runs his fingers through his hair. Suddenly the day feels completely different, as he responds to emails, phone calls, and deadlines. Behind him is a framed picture of him snuggling up to his son.
“That’s the day he was born. We had a home birth, we had a midwifes. I was just the co-pilot, you would say, but that’s Theo. Jesus, one of the best days of my life,” he says and puts down the frame.
He tells me his son is in Venezuela on vacation with his wife. He says tonight, he’ll read some books to his son via Skype, and he’ll have dinner alone. And what’s for dinner?
“This is not going to be the answer that Eliana will want to hear,” he says. “I had a healthy lunch, but I love Trader Joe’s mac and cheese. I want some comfort food, they are coming home, but I’m being honest I’ll probably eat Trader Joe’s tonight.”
After spending a day with Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, that’s not surprising at all. His idea of a power lunch is sitting down with non-profit organizations to find solutions to San Francisco’s crime problems. In fact, At times the sheriff’s department, itself, felt like a non-profit organization, with constant talk about grants and budgets, partnerships and brainstorming.
The department has a history of being one of the most revolutionary in the country, with a determination to remain that way regardless of who its sheriff is. Mirkarimi is supported and he’s contested, he’s praised and he’s despised. He has a past that will shadow him forever, but it seems like he’ll hold his ground no matter how shaky it is.