SF vote to restore sheriff brings further division

AP News
Posted: Oct 10, 2012 8:32 PM
SF vote to restore sheriff brings further division

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A day after embattled San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was able to avoid losing his job, the district attorney questioned his ability to oversee the department while on probation for a criminal conviction in a domestic violence case that has created great divisions across this traditionally liberal city.

"I have grave concerns about Ross Mirkarimi's ability to manage the Sheriff's Department," District Attorney George Gascon said Wednesday. "What I will not accept is any compromise of public safety as a result of his reinstatement. ... I am calling upon Ross to recuse himself from the duties in his office that relate to the custody, supervision, safety and rehabilitation of domestic violence offenders."

Gascon's statement came after the Board of Supervisors voted late Tuesday against upholding official misconduct charges and removing the suspended sheriff from office.

Mirkarimi, who is expected to take control of the department next week, could not immediately be reached for comment.

After his election last fall, the sheriff was mired in controversy before his swearing-in ceremony. In March, Mayor Ed Lee suspended him without pay after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge related to a New Year's Eve argument with his actress wife, who suffered a bruised bicep.

Mirkarimi was sentenced to three years of probation and fined. He is undergoing court-ordered counseling and parenting classes.

Lee then took the unprecedented step of trying to remove Mirkarimi permanently as sheriff. In August, the city's Ethics Commission voted 4-1 that Mirkarimi committed official misconduct, setting the stage for the supervisors' long-awaited vote.

Even as Mirkarimi's wife, Venezuelan soap opera star Eliana Lopez, came to his defense, the newly elected sheriff found himself under siege by anti-domestic violence groups, the mayor and others who could not stomach the idea of the city's chief jailer having a misdemeanor charge on his record.

The divisions were no more apparent than Tuesday night, when Mayor Ed Lee could not muster enough votes from the Board of Supervisors to find Mirkarimi guilty of official misconduct and remove him from office. More than 100 people, many of them Mirkarimi supporters, weighed in on the issue, passionately and sometimes tearfully.

On Tuesday, after the board vote restored him as sheriff, Mirkarimi said the ordeal has been both incredibly agonizing and humbling. He said he plans to mend fences within the city and anti-domestic violence advocates.

But high emotions continued Wednesday as Lee lambasted the four supervisors — all progressives like Mirkarimi — whose votes blocked his ouster, which required nine votes of the 11-member board.

"I believe they sought out an excuse for an inexcusable act that was confirmed by the criminal courts," the mayor told reporters.

Lee said Mirkarimi's return to office tarnishes the city's nationally recognized programs designed to combat domestic violence.

"Domestic violence has been a bulwark, a very strong principally held policy for this city that we do not tolerate," the mayor said.

One of Mirkarimi's attorneys, Shepard Kopp, said Wednesday that it appears Lee and Gascon did not hear what the board said during Tuesday's hearing. "Almost every one of them said that no matter the vote, the city needed to come together and move past this unsettling course of events," Kopp said.

San Francisco's sheriff does not have broad law enforcement powers as sheriffs do in other jurisdictions. The position mostly entails overseeing an organization of more than 800 sworn officers and a civilian staff of about 100.

The department runs San Francisco's jails with an average daily inmate population of 2,200, provides City Hall and courtroom security, carries out court-ordered evictions and warrants, and aids San Francisco police in enforcement actions.

The case unfolded from a Dec. 31 argument between Mirkarimi and Lopez, over whether she could travel to her native Venezuela with their toddler son. During the dispute, Mirkarimi grabbed and bruised Lopez's arm. Lopez turned to a neighbor who later contacted police after videotaping Lopez's tearful account of the incident.

The four supervisors said that while they agree domestic violence is a serious matter, each felt that Mirkarimi's behavior was not official misconduct under the city's charter. They also thought that his removal could make it too easy to oust other duly elected officials in the future.

"We must interpret this provision (of official misconduct) narrowly or open the door, open the door wide for potential abuse," Supervisor David Campos said before his vote.

Anti-domestic violence groups, which had called for Mirkarimi to step aside, were crestfallen and angered by the vote Tuesday.

"I think they are wrong," said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres. "It sends a terrible message that domestic violence is not a serious problem and that we don't take it seriously in San Francisco.

"We deserve a law enforcement official who meets the highest standards."