Palo Alto police chief files to run for Santa Clara County Sheriff

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto Police Chief Bob Jonsen has filed to run for Santa Clara County Sheriff.

He said today (Jan. 12) that he will have a statement in the next day or so, and he wasn’t ready to talk about his campaign yet.

“I do think there needs to be a change in leadership,” he said.

Sheriff Laurie Smith took office in 1998. She is under fire from the Board of Supervisors, who have accused her of mismanaging the jail. District Attorney Jeff Rosen has charged Smith’s captains of bribery for allegedly giving out concealed carry permits in exchange for campaign donations.

Smith hasn’t filed paperwork to run, but three other candidates have: Sheriff’s Sgt. Christine Nagaye, retired Capt. Kevin Jensen and Dave Knopf, a retired assistant chief of the San Jose Police Department.

Jonsen, 59, has worked in law enforcement for 35 years, with the last four years as the chief in Palo Alto. He oversees a force of about 85 officers, and his second-in-command is Assistant Chief Andrew Binder.

Jonsen isn’t without his own share of controversy: The city has paid to settle multiple lawsuits in his tenure alleging police misconduct, and another case is still in court.

The department has been reluctant to disclose these uses of force, with most of the incidents coming to light in lawsuits or after California Public Records Act requests.

One of his former officers, Sgt. Wayne Benitez, was charged with assault and lying on a police report for slamming a handcuffed man into a car during an arrest in 2018. After the arrest, two officers exchanged messages celebrating Benitez’s actions, calling him by his nickname “The Fuse.”

Jonsen, who oversaw the department during the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, stresses mindfulness as a leader, and he teaches “courageous heart resiliency” classes to his officers.

Criticism from retiring officer

When Officer Chris Moore retired in October, he wrote a letter criticizing the department, and specifically Jonsen.

“You came here full of powerful speeches and sports analogies, but as the joke quickly became, you were stuck up on your meditative mountain and out of touch,” Moore wrote about the chief. “Under your helm, you took a sinking ship and shot holes in the bottom”

Jonsen said at the time that he doesn’t respond to specific comments made by a disgruntled employee, and he met with every officer individually to talk about the challenges they have faced since the start of the pandemic.

Jonsen’s background

Before Palo Alto, Jonsen was the chief in Menlo Park from 2013 to 2017. When he left, elected officials and community members lauded him as approachable, charismatic and easy to work with. His ushering in of license plate readers and tasers in his first few months on the job raised concerns about privacy and use of force.

Jonsen spent the bulk of his career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. From 2011 to 2013, he was the station chief in Lancaster, which settled with the Justice Department in 2015 later over allegations of harassment of black people and residents of public housing.

In August, the Post asked Jonsen about his future plans, and he said he was entertaining ways to support law enforcement outside of what he could accomplish as chief. He said he wanted to see some things through in Palo Alto before making any decisions.

Jonsen said his only other campaign experience was an unsuccessful try for Santa Clarita City Council decades ago.


  1. Not a good replacement for Laurie Smith. Besides not punishing police malpractice, Jonson has a terrible record on police transparency.

    Jonson is a liability in Palo Alto and would be so as Sheriff.

  2. Jonsen decided to encrypt the police radios when there were ways to avoid that. He’s not getting my vote. I want more transparency, not less.

  3. How will a police chief, who is presumably working full-time and is certainly being paid as a full-time employee, find time to run for Sheriff?

  4. I want a “don’t tread on me” sheriff who defies tyrants and considers himself the last line of defense against illegal local, state and federal laws and regulations. As the saying goes: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.

    Important questions for me: is Jonsen going to be a constitutional sheriff who always uphold and defends the Constitution? Will he promise to refuse to enforce mask and vaccine mandates? Stated differently, will he defy the mandates? Will he stand in the way of encroachment of the state and federal government against local communities? If so, he has my vote.

  5. Will Jonsen obey federal detainer orders for illegal aliens who are wanted by ICE? Or is he fine with Fernando De Jesus Lopez-Garcia getting released, and instead of being picked up by ICE, he goes out and stabs 5 people in a San Jose church, killing two of them?

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