Michael Hennessy has battled through controversies and cop culture to create the most progressive Sheriff's Department in the nation
"Take the bold step of inviting the public in, not all the public, but those who can provide services and help address people's problems," Hennessey said. "Then we took the same concept and applied it to violent offenders, which is a little riskier."
But it was a risk that has paid off as recidivism rates among jail inmates has dropped, and it's been without any serious cases of inmates harming outsiders. Hennessey is particularly proud of the high school he created in the jail, which will graduate its next class on Jan. 3.
He said the school can truly transform those who end up behind bars. "It gives them a leg up and it's like a booster shot," Hennessey said. "They're at the lowest point in their lives when the come to jail, and then they're given an opportunity to accomplish something they haven't been able to on the outside."
One of many controversial moves during Hennessey's storied career was his decision to allow female inmates to leave the jails and perform in theaters around San Francisco with the Medea Project, which was created by Rhodessa Jones and the Culture Odyssey art collective to turn the stories of female inmates into plays.
"Rhodessa is a very persuasive person who talked me into letting these women out of jail to perform," Hennessey said, smiling at the memory. "It was very controversial."
Hennessey's mentor in the Sheriff's Department — the man who hired him, ran his first campaign, and then became his longtime chief-of-staff — was the late Ray Towbis, a tough activist whose social justice stands on behalf of tenants, prisoners, and other marginalized members of society would sometimes put Hennessey into difficult positions.
"Ray caused me aggravation many times," said Hennessey, who nonetheless kept a life-sized cutout photo of Towbis in his office long after he was gone, a reminder to fight for the values he believed in.
There was the time when Towbis angrily flipped over a table and cursed at a panel of parole commissioners after failing to win the release of a model inmate, triggering a demand from the presiding judge that Hennessey fire Towbis, which the sheriff ignored.
Later, Towbis adopted a compassionate approach to the evictions that sheriff's deputies are forced to perform, allowing deputies to spare tenants who were disabled or elderly and personally calling journalists to help publicize cases in which the parties bringing the eviction action might back off. That sensitivity stays with Hennessey today.
"That's one of the tough spots I'm in is doing these foreclosure evictions," Hennessey said, clearly troubled by his duty but also aware that it is one that he is required to perform, despite pressure from progressive groups urging him to refuse to carry them out.
As a lawyer, Hennessey said he must respect court orders and avoid being held in contempt of court, as Hongisto was in the mid-1970s for refusing to carry out evictions against tenants in the International Hotel.
Hennessey and his staff have always been willing to help tenants resist eviction. His office has an eviction assistance program, and Towbis would sometimes tip off the media to publicize certain unjust evictions. One time, Hennessey said Towbis even called hotel magnate Leona Helmsley and talked her out of allowing her company to evict an elderly ParkMerced resident. Instead, Helmsley allowed the woman to live rent-free for the rest of her life, an unlikely gesture of kindness from the "queen of mean" that Towbis helped publicize.