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‘When I First Started, They Didn’t Even Have Uniforms for Women’

Vicki Hennessy, the new sheriff in town, is also a department lifer, and much has changed since the ’70s.

Vicki Hennessy, already a Sheriff’s Department veteran in 1983.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Vicki Hennessy
Job: Sheriff-elect of San Francisco
Age: 62
Residence: Outer Sunset

Your first day in the Sheriff’s Department was Christmas Eve 1975. I imagine that much has changed since then.
When I first started in the department, there hadn’t been a test for 12 years. The people who were recruited were friends of the sheriff at the time. I had no training. I had to buy my own uniform; they didn’t even have uniforms for women. Blue pants and a white shirt.

Your first day as sheriff will be January 8. What will you do?
I’ve been pretty vocal that I want to rescind the March 13, 2015, memo that the current sheriff has in place regarding not contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

What will you replace it with?
I am working with experts within the city. Most likely, [undocumented immigrants] with felony convictions will be looked at on a case-by-case basis for contact [with ICE], but not for detention—detention is not allowed because of our sanctuary city policy.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the undocumented immigrant accused of shooting Kate Steinle, had a long history of middling crimes. Would you have notified ICE of him?
I wouldn’t call it “middling crime.” I would call it being convicted of a number of felonies, indicating that he was a career criminal. I think you have to [assess whether to notify ICE] on a case-by-case basis. When a career criminal has no ties to the community, you have to really look.

That shooting was just one of a litany of debacles that marred the term of your predecessor, Ross Mirkarimi: There were allegations of forced inmate fights. There were a series of escapes—including one by a man clad only in his underwear. Can you turn things around by simply changing who’s sheriff?
I can’t say that—that’d be Monday-morning quarterbacking. But I have to say, some of the issues with that fella in his underwear: He was a violent criminal! An [accused] drug trafficker and federal prisoner. It wasn’t reported to the feds right away that he escaped—I was told that it took more than eight hours.

During the election season, both you and Mirkarimi had plenty of negative things to say about one another. After all that, will you be keeping or expanding any of his programs?
Some of the ideas were good. Sometimes the execution fell short. His transgender policy is something that I will continue to work on, to make sure that we’re in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The Five Keys Charter School [started under former sheriff Michael Hennessey] is one of the best programs I’ve seen in over 30 years working in the department.

Your predecessor seemed to take pains to find additional tasks for deputies to do, now that the inmate count is historically low. Will you?
My goal here is not to get deputies doing other things. I want to get back to doing the fundamentals right, and then we can expand on that.

In general, do you look forward to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department dropping out of the news cycle?
I think everybody does.

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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