It sounds like one of those only-in-San-Francisco tales: San Francisco's sheriff cannot carry a gun because he is on probation. "That doesn't handicap me from being a sheriff," Ross Mirkarimi told me.
On New Year's Eve 2011, Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez, a telenovela actress from Venezuela, got in a heated argument after the family headed out for a pizza lunch. Mirkarimi bruised his wife's arm. Anticipating a possible split and custody battle, Lopez had a neighbor videotape the bruise. The neighbor later called the police. The district attorney charged Mirkarimi with three misdemeanor counts of domestic violence. In a plea bargain, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to misdemeanor forced imprisonment. The mayor then tried to fire the sheriff, but Mirkarimi fought back. Four of 11 supervisors provided the votes needed to reinstate him. He's still in office and preparing to run for re-election.
Three years to the day after that fateful argument, Mirkarimi and Lopez sat down to talk with me. I asked the couple whether they thought they'd still be married if law enforcement had not intervened. While Lopez and Mirkarimi hesitated, Theo, 5, shook his head no.
In 2012, I argued that a bruised arm does not constitute domestic violence. Lopez maintained that her husband never hurt her; she was angry City Hall would not believe her. Meanwhile, a court ordered that the spouses stay apart for six months because the legal system refuses to believe a woman if she says her husband didn't hurt her.
Was it domestic violence? I asked. "I really don't think that to grab an arm is domestic violence," Lopez answered. It is insulting that people wouldn't believe her; she thinks her ethnicity was a factor.
For his part, Mirkarimi said he was guilty of domestic violence. He was upset that Lopez was talking about taking 2-year-old Theo to high-crime Venezuela. "In my arrogant self, when we were not communicating and I needed to control the conversation, I reached out and I grabbed her arm to say, 'Please listen to me.' And that was wrong, completely wrong. And everything took off from there."
Mirkarimi also faulted himself for not being in touch, "not paying attention." He said: "I was not home for dinner. I was a 24/7 supe and a candidate for sheriff. She rightfully was sending all the signals, and I wasn't paying attention, and it just all spiked" in one day. Mirkarimi admitted to other errors, most notably his failure to cooperate with police in the beginning of the investigation.
Mirkarimi still faults the system for not thinking of the best interests of his wife and son. A court order prevented a boy from having a normal relationship with his father and separated the parents for six months.
If the city hadn't intervened, others have assured me, then Mirkarimi's bad behaviors would have escalated. I asked the sheriff: True? "No, they wouldn't have gotten worse," he answered, "but my arrogance would certainly have continued."
Lopez believes that in many ways, the system worked. "Ross is a better person," she said, "a better husband, a better father."
Of course, Mirkarimi believes that the prosecution was political. Mayor Ed Lee piled on when he charged the sheriff with official misconduct, in a complaint larded with charges that the sheriff had tried to stifle witnesses and Lopez. Because of the mayor's overkill, there followed a city Ethics Commission investigation, which cost the city attorney's office nearly $1.3 million.
Figure this was the most expensive family counseling intervention in San Francisco history. I am glad Mirkarimi is a better family man, but I still say it was wrong for District Attorney George Gascon to charge Mirkarimi with three criminal counts for bruising his wife's arm. In an orgy of political correctness, Lee went too far and spent way too much. And I think the courts were wrong to split up the family against the parents' will. "A person charged with murder gets to see his wife," former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown exclaimed at the time. Dan White, the guy who murdered Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, "had conjugal visits."
For one year, City Hall was embroiled in a fierce crusade to destroy an elected official because he bruised his wife's arm in an argument. To make sense of the ordeal, Mirkarimi cites Ernest Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."