Skip to main content

After jails chaos and tear-gassed kids, SF deputies union turns on embattled sheriff

Despite tear gassed kids, jail assaults, and a blown budget, Paul Miyamoto says he won’t change approach in bid for a second term as SF Sheriff.

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto stands outside in front a microphone, speaking.
Sheriff Paul Miyamoto | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Paul Miyamoto hasn’t had a great second half to his first term as San Francisco sheriff. 

His chronically understaffed department has been forced to work long hours—blowing through its annual overtime budget in just three months. In April, several deputies in the city’s crowded jails were attacked by prisoners. Then, in late May, a training exercise in the city’s San Bruno jail exposed nearby school children to clouds of toxic tear gas

Miyamoto’s troubles are now extending beyond the walls of his jails. The union representing his deputies has told The Standard it won’t endorse the sheriff in November’s election, in which until recently the sheriff was running unopposed. 

In late May, University of California San Francisco police officer Mike Juan, 38, filed papers declaring his intention to challenge the incumbent in November.

The chances of victory for the challenger are slim. Juan may not be a strong enough opponent to win the backing of the union, but his entry into the race could still put new pressure on Miyamoto to step up the speed and manner in which he addresses his department’s problems. 

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said that regardless of Juan’s chance of winning, the fact that the sheriff has an opponent could force him to take a more active public approach to addressing his department’s obstacles. That’s something Safaí would welcome.

“It creates an opportunity for there to be a conversation around the issues whereas when there’s no challenger” there is less of a debate, Safaí said. 

Miyamoto says he also welcomes the competition but does not plan to change his approach to the campaign or the department.

“We are going to stay the course on what we do as a department” regardless of a challenger, he said, adding that it is his responsibility as a candidate to tell voters why they should vote for him.

The head of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriff’ Association is not convinced.

“We’re not going to endorse Sheriff Miyamoto just because of the last four years of problems,” said the head of the deputy’s union, Ken Lomba. “If we get a sheriff that harms our members, we’re gonna make attempts to replace that sheriff with someone who won’t harm our members.”

As of late, an unprecedented number of deputies have been injured on duty as the jail faces multiple issues, Lomba said. 

The jail population, which had been declining for several years, has seen a steady increase since a crackdown on street-level drug dealing began in 2023. That increase in population has not been matched by a corresponding rise in the number of deputies. That has meant the department has had to rely on mandatory overtime to fill a staffing gap of almost 160 open positions. The department announced in October that it ran through its overtime budget in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. 

The storm of issues for Miyamoto came to a head in mid-April when several deputies were hospitalized after the prisoner melee. 

The May 21 training exercise at the San Bruno jail couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Miyamoto. Tear gas used in an exercise inside the jail leaked into the surrounding neighborhood, leading to children at a nearby school needing medical treatment.

At a mid-May hearing before the Board of Supervisors, several lawmakers expressed their concern over the violence and crowding in the jails. “This is a real outrage and completely foreseeable,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said. “What is the plan to deal with this situation?”

Ronen assigned much of the blame to District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, Mayor London Breed, and Police Chief Bill Scott, whose tough-on-crime tactics led to increased jail populations.

Mayor London Breed’s FY 2024-2025 budget proposal handed his department an 11 percent, or $33 million, increase, which could give the sheriff resources and breathing room to address his unhappy deputy’s concerns with his leadership.

In an interview with The Standard, Miyamoto said that his number one priority is to increase recruitment. He plans to entice new employees by upping starting pay, hiring more background checkers, and streamlining the testing process.

Miyamoto said that he hopes voters give him another term, banking on 28 years of experience and his effort shepherding the department through the pandemic.

Still, he says he understands the frustration in the ranks, and that the union’s choice not to back him is “a reflection that they feel we haven’t hired enough fast enough, and I respect that.” 

While Lomba of the deputy’s union also wants to increase starting pay and supports the sheriff’s other ideas around increasing staff, he said Miyamoto should have taken action sooner.

Miyamoto’s challenger, Juan, who was briefly a deputy sheriff, says he was motivated to run due to the decline in the perception of safety on city streets. 

​​”Ultimately, everything that happens within the agency falls on the leadership,” he said of the recent incidents plaguing the department he hopes to run. 

The San Francisco native has spent much of his law enforcement career working for several university police forces, admitting he has no experience with the realities of administering a large department with a multi-million dollar budget and complex set of statutory responsibilities. But, as a former Marine, Juan says he does have experience being in charge of large bodies of soldiers.

As a former deputy himself, Juan said he also understands some of the challenges his former colleagues  face. Juan does not yet have a website or platform, but has several proposals, some of which mirror the sheriff’s. He would reinstate a program where deputies, rather than San Francisco police, transport inmates to jail. And like Miyamoto, he would prioritize restaffing the department by increasing starting pay to entice new recruits.

It seems unlikely that Juan garners the endorsement of the deputies’ union, or unseats Miyamoto, given his lack of experience in electoral politics and his resume as a largely rank and file police officer and sheriff’s deputy. Juan says he is realistic about his chances. 

What Supervisor Safaí and others will be watching is whether his candidacy, or the other issues surrounding Miyamoto, pushes the sheriff into a more vocal stance as leader of a department in need of both a morale boost and a serious attempt at reform.