San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy took PR Round Table members at her August 22 talk on an unusual virtual tour of the interiors of the City and County of San Francisco’s best and worst jails. Hennessy’s candor is a trademark of her groundbreaking tenure as the first female among 34 sheriffs to lead the Sheriff’s Department.
Beyond breaking through the gender barrier, Hennessy is breaking norms in another way: She is the first sheriff in 167 years to have risen through the ranks in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
Notwithstanding these remarkable achievements, Hennessy generously shares credit with her team as well as the people who have supported her throughout her 35-year career in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
By her own admission, she never envisioned running for sheriff, and never expected to win. Hennessy agreed to run in the November 2015 election after her predecessor struggled in office and lost focus on the main issues impacting the city and county jails. She ultimately captured 63 percent of the vote.
According to Hennessy, those issues include:
- Overcrowding and jail safety. Hennessy shared images of County Jail #4, an antiquated, seismically-unsafe facility with chronic plumbing and sewage issues. Hennessy tried to replace this jail with help from an $80 million state grant. The Board of Supervisors declined to support it.
- Training. Since assuming office in January 2016, Hennessy has hired 144 new deputies. She is implementing specialized training including de-escalation and defensive tactics, recognizing implicit bias, transgender sensitivity and crisis intervention.
- Rehabilitation Programs. The Sheriff’s Department has earned national recognition for its innovative programs to improve public safety by reducing community crime including the Five Keys Charter High School, the first charter high school in an adult detention facility.
Hennessy’s humanity, respect for her colleagues and attention to the incarcerated permeated her presentation. “I look at law enforcement as a balance between criminal and social justice,” she said.
Time ran out before PRRT members could query the sheriff on PR issues, leaving the door open for Sheriff Hennessy to return at a future PRRT luncheon.