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San Francisco sheriff can't put the past behind him

After being accused of domestic violence this year and undergoing counseling, Ross Mirkarimi nearly lost his job and the mayor's not speaking to him. The good news: He's back with his wife.

November 23, 2012|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Now the mayor and Dist. Atty. George Gascon want San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi to recuse himself from any responsibility that could possibly intersect with victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.
Now the mayor and Dist. Atty. George Gascon want San Francisco Sheriff Ross… (Jeff Chiu, Associated Press )

SAN FRANCISCO — This is what it's like to be Ross Mirkarimi, the love-him-or-hate-him sheriff of San Francisco.

Mayor Edwin M. Lee isn't talking to him. Women's advocates are considering a recall. A band of Mission District healers wants to restore him to spiritual health during a drumming and dancing commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Towards Women and Girls.

Oh, and he probably won't get his gun back until he's off probation.

It has been quite a year for Mirkarimi, starting with the revelation that he had grabbed his wife during a New Year's Eve fight, bruising her arm and leading to misdemeanor charges of domestic violence.

The sheriff eventually pleaded guilty to one count of false imprisonment and is now more than halfway through 52 weeks of domestic violence counseling. He will be on probation for three years.

Instead of ending the political theater, however, Mirkarimi's plea — which he now seems to regret — set off months of public furor. The mayor suspended him without pay. The city Ethics Commission voted 4 to 1 that he had committed official misconduct and should be removed from office.

But Mirkarimi's former colleagues on the Board of Supervisors instead voted last month to return him to the helm of the Sheriff's Department, after listening to hours of angry testimony from the sheriff's supporters, who questioned just what constituted domestic violence and attacked the advocates who work on the behalf of battered women.

"We all have disagreements with wife," declared one man. "That's our thing."

"All the things you domestic violence ladies say is nice and needs to be said," a woman said. "But go and find the women who really need to be helped, the ones who are shot, stabbed, beaten. Eliana doesn't need your help."

The Eliana in question is Venezuelan telenovela star Eliana Lopez, Mirkarimi's wife, with whom he has since reunited.

Now the mayor and Dist. Atty. George Gascon want Mirkarimi to recuse himself from any responsibility that could possibly intersect with victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.

That's an awful lot of turf in the realm of San Francisco law enforcement.

The department oversees widely praised counseling programs for batterers. It supervises inmates who have been charged with domestic violence. Deputies serve restraining orders that protect battered women.

The sheriff also is responsible for disciplining deputies who have been brought up on domestic violence charges.

"As a result of your probationary status for a domestic violence crime, there is a clear conflict of interest," Gascon wrote to the sheriff last month, after Mirkarimi was reinstated with back pay. "As a result, you are not able to adequately perform the duties of your office that relate to crimes of domestic violence."

Mirkarimi emphatically disagrees. This week, during an appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California, he told the audience that such a point of view was "wrong in every aspect."

If his nearly year-long ordeal "has changed me, it's changed me for the better," Mirkarimi said when asked about whether he could be objective in his job. "What they're getting wrong is the fact that rarely does any matter related to a program or a policy about domestic violence reach the desk of the sheriff."

Should that happen, he told Lee in a letter this month, "the matter will be determined independently by the Undersheriff with no input from me."

When asked about his deeply strained relationship with the mayor, Mirkarimi said he would "continue to send him love letters." He vowed not to back down from "doing the work on behalf of the people as I was elected to do."

It has been awkward, the sheriff admitted, to "communicate through the Chronicle," finding out how the mayor feels about him on Page One of San Francisco's biggest newspaper, responding in kind in the next day's edition.

But Mirkarimi wasn't beyond sending a message to Lee via the Commonwealth Club appearance, which will be broadcast in coming weeks on KQED Public Radio.

"I think that it's best that we do meet," Mirkarimi said. "I invite him to choose a venue that he would like. I'll meet with him in public. We'll have a public discussion, maybe in a forum like this.... Because I believe he wants the same things as I want."

Maybe some things, but not that meeting thing.

Said Lee spokeswoman Christine Falvey: "The mayor will meet with the sheriff when there is something to meet about."

Until that time comes, she said in a text message, "the sheriff should be focused on the many public safety agencies that have concerns about his status as a probationer and overseeing intervention programs."

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