Michael Hennessy has battled through controversies and cop culture to create the most progressive Sheriff's Department in the nation
Hennessey draws the line at outright refusal to carry out a judge's eviction order. "The sheriff shouldn't be a law-breaker," he says. Yet Hennessey's lawyerly approach to complex issues also resulted in his recent policy of not honoring federal detention holds on undocumented immigrants in the jail, after discovering that the holds are administrative — different than arrest warrants — so defying them isn't a crime.
The policy Hennessey created last year was to ignore ICE requests for prisoners who aren't charged with felonies or domestic violence charges, noting that the latter charges are often brought but eventually dropped against people who are the victims of domestic violence.
Hennessey tapped federal and foundation grant money to fund his new treatment and educational programs, hiring an ex-convict to write his grant proposals, something that particularly irked many of his deputies.
But Hennessey believed that ex-offenders had something to offer the department so he didn't back down in hiring them, going so far as to elevate Michael Marcum, who had gone to prison for killing his own abusive father, to the top position of undersheriff in 1993.
Police groups were outraged, but Hennessey said he had known Marcum for many years and valued his counsel and perspective on the criminal justice system. "It wasn't hard because I knew him and I know of his integrity and loyalty," Hennessey said.
Hennessy also irked conservative cop culture for aggressive efforts to make the department more diverse. "We wanted more minorities, we wanted more women, and we wanted gay people," said Hennessey, who initiated outreach efforts to each of those communities.
In 1984, when he approved of an outreach event in Chaps, a gay leather bar in the Castro — complete with flyers around the Castro publicizing the event — it generated a furor that made headlines not just locally in the San Francisco Chronicle, but the National Enquirer tabloid as well.
Yet Hennessey was able to ride out each of the controversies, many of which happened to fall years away from his next reelection campaign. "Those are good times to make dramatic changes," Hennessey said.
And because he also saw to some neglected basics in the Sheriff's Department — such as improving training and the jails' physical structures to prevent escapes and instituting policies to reduce violence between inmates and guards — Hennessey endured and became a beloved sheriff.
VICTORY OF PERSISTENCE
"I've always felt somewhat isolated in these beliefs," said Hennessey, who said that the biggest failure of his career was not proselytizing those beliefs to a statewide and national audience more aggressively. Instead, he has focused on San Francisco, quietly turning the city into a national model for a different kind of policing.
Despite his progressive record, Hennessey has won plaudits and respect from across the political spectrum. In the last election, even the cops who sought to replace him and to undermine his endorsement of Mirkarimi — Chris Cunnie, Paul Miyamoto, and David Wong — all praised Hennessey and promised to continue his programs.
During the Dec. 13 board meeting, Sup. Mark Farrell — consistently one of the most conservative votes on the board — said he has known Hennessey almost his entire life (the sheriff and Farrell's dad were law school classmates). "I cannot think of anyone with more integrity, a more trustworthy and honest person, than I've ever know in my life," Farrell said.
Sup. David Campos said the immigrant community owes Hennessey a tremendous debt of gratitude. "You have been a tremendous champion for civil rights," Campos said. "For that, history will judge you very kindly."