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There's a New Sheriff in Town: Meet Bob Jonsen

Santa Clara County’s first new sheriff in 25 years talks about where he comes from and where he wants to see his department go

COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, Calif. – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a teenage, pre-badge Bob Jonsen was unceremoniously hurled off a speeder bike and into an enormous Endorian redwood, got manhandled by a famous Wookie, and ultimately realized that an acting destiny was not in his stars.

“When you’re 19 and you get invited to be in a movie of that stature, you think it’s going to change your life,” Jonsen said with a laugh. “But then all they want to do is put a helmet over your face, and you realize that maybe this mug isn’t designed for the big screen – I knew then that I had to move on, it wasn’t for me.”

Jonsen, who was elected in November as the first new sheriff in Santa Clara County in nearly a quarter century, recounted his “Return of the Jedi” cameos from 40 years ago fondly, but acknowledged he always felt a strong pull from a different, more down to earth type of force: public safety. His father served San Francisco as a police officer in the 1960s and as a firefighter in the ‘70s, and his great-great uncle was Santa Clara County’s 11th sheriff from 1887 to 1891.

“I knew from early on that law enforcement was a natural course of action,” Jonsen said. “I have a vivid memory of my father taking me and my brothers into one of the San Francisco jails and putting us in a cell to remind us that this is where you will end up if you do something wrong. He also took us to see the firehouse where he later worked, and I realized I had no desire to run into a burning building. I don’t mind being shot at if I have to, but there’s no way I’m running into a burning building.”

Jonsen moved out of the Marin County home where he grew up to go to school in Los Angeles, and it wasn’t long before he joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He spent 27 years in various roles with that organization, rising to the level of Captain. After his two sons were grown up, Jonsen looked north toward his roots and where his parents still lived.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Bob Jonsen at his desk, looking at computer monitor.
Sheriff Jonsen said his combined experience of 27 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and as police chief in Menlo Park and Palo Alto gives him the skills to take on the extra duties unique to County law enforcement, and also the political know-how required by city politics and community involvement.

“I did what I felt I could accomplish in Los Angeles, and the opportunity to become a chief of police in the Bay Area was very intriguing to me,” he said. “My parents were aging, I thought it'd be a great opportunity to come back and be closer to them.”

He landed the top cop job in Menlo Park in 2013, then Palo Alto in 2018 before making the decision to run for sheriff of Santa Clara County.

“I had been very focused on the work in Palo Alto – it is a very engaged city, and a very engaged department,” Jonsen said. “It wasn’t really until 2021 when the realization was that the current sheriff was most likely not going to be the next sheriff for a number of reasons. And well, if Laurie Smith was not going to be the next sheriff, then who will be? I started having conversations and realized my background made sense – I had worked at a sheriff’s organization plus municipalities. It’s not a common background in law enforcement.”

Jonsen said his County background provides the know-how on the diverse roles not done by municipalities, such as running jails and the court detail, as well as policing unincorporated areas and contracted cities. The police chief roles required political acumen plus the ability to be a teammate with City Council members and the community at large.

“I think those roles really set me up to take this organization where it needs to be,” Jonsen said, getting into his goals for the next four years and beyond.  

Trust and transparency

After a rocky stretch for the department in both internal and external affairs, Jonsen said top priority is regaining trust. Trust within the department that leadership is committed and capable to usher them into a new era. And outside the department, to show the community that the status quo they knew has left the County: There’s a new sheriff in town.

“Trust has been fractured over the years for a variety of reasons, both with the workforce and the community we serve,” he said. “First and foremost, rebuilding that trust is going to come with time. But both inside and outside the organization people need to see that there is hope – there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we are going to get out of this constant cloud of controversy. We’re going to start doing what we are designed to do, and that’s serve the community.”

He said that a good immediate example of the department moving on a new path is expanding their relationship with the Office of Corrections and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM), which was created following the beating death of Michael Tyree at the hands of corrections officers at the County jail in 2015. Jonsen said he welcomes oversight and recognizes it as fundamental to being a trusted presence in the community.

“Transparency is huge, for the workforce and especially for the community – it’s very, very important and they need to know what’s going on,” Jonsen said. “OCLEM is a great starting point, there’s a valid and legitimate need for them, and I’m very comfortable with that relationship. It’s important for the public to see that we’re taking oversight seriously, and that we’re engaged in it. You have to be willing to listen, because right now people want to be heard.”  

Jails, rehabilitation, and behavioral health

Jonsen said it’s time for a rehabilitation remodel – a new look at how people are incarcerated, whether they should be there in the first place, and what happens when they get out.

“We want to build our rehabilitation program out – which is something I'm hoping we can accomplish in the first four years – to offer those that are in the justice system greater opportunities from the moment they come in,” Jonsen said. “And not only offer programs while they are here, but make sure those programs continue to be available when people are released from the correctional facility.”

Jonsen said that looking forward, a critical component of the jail needs to be how to best handle those who wind up in custody due to a mental health crisis or condition.

“I’m advocating that we give people access to care, whether medical or psychological, from the moment they come in,” Jonsen said. “Somebody that's having a mental crisis should have help immediately, rather than just putting them in a cell waiting for things to get better.”

He pointed to the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team that was created within the Palo Alto Police Department in 2021 under his leadership as an example of improving mental crisis response. The PERT team partners a law enforcement officer with a mental health clinician to best intervene and de-escalate situations, then gets the person connected with resources to help them out going forward. Jonsen said a similar partnership could work in a custody setting as well by bolstering the psychiatric services they currently offer.

“That's going to take resources, it's going to take people in the right positions, but I think we can do that,” he said. “Ultimately, we need to provide better access to care for the people who need it.”  

Santa Clara County Sheriff Bob Jonsen amongst a group of sheriff deputies, all outside on the ground in a park doing pushups on a sunny day.
Anytime is a good time for push-ups, said Sheriff Bob Jonsen. He regularly does the floor exercise with department members -- and sometimes civilians -- as part of his focus on fitness.

Be fit, be well, be more

On any given day as Jonsen makes the rounds, he’s liable to be found literally getting down to ground level – for a quick set of push-ups. He’s got a running challenge and is ready to do push-ups with anyone, no matter the rank or status.

“I have a motto, six simple words: ‘Be fit, be well, be more,’” explained Jonsen. “And that's the approach I bring to work every day. Being well both in body and mind, bringing that energy and enthusiasm to the workforce and being engaged – it’s very, very important to me.”

Jonsen said he needs to demonstrate he walks the walk of his talk, and for the “be fit” part, that means on-demand push-ups. Civilians are not exempt. He challenged the visiting County communications crew: “Listen, I got three of you here right now, we can just jump down to the push-ups, anytime you’re ready.”

Jonsen said his greatest strength is his willingness to engage and collaborate with others. It goes well beyond the push-ups; by showing mutual respect, having the often-difficult discussions of what needs to be done, and then forging a path forward. Working out the guts of the organization itself.

“In my first term, I hope to stabilize the organization,” he said. “That will require a lot of work because of the challenges law enforcement is facing. It’s important that we stop the exodus from this organization and really recruit and train the best that we can.”

Jonsen is confident and excited about the next four years.

“This is what motivates me,” he said. “I love challenges. I love coming to work solving problems. And I love working with people who are committed to solving those problems.”

FUN FACTS ABOUT SHERIFF BOB Bob spent nearly half his life in Southern California, but he’s a “definitely NorCal” guy and an avid fan of the San Francisco 49ers and Giants.  Football is Bob’s favorite sport and he played on the Novato High School football team. While he is a fan of the first three “Star Wars” movies, if he had to pick an all-time favorite film, “Gladiator” comes to mind. As for music, Bob said there’s no question about it: Aussie hard-rockers AC/DC get his head banging.

Fun facts about Sheriff Bob

  • Bob spent nearly half his life in Southern California, but he’s a “definitely NorCal” guy and an avid fan of the San Francisco 49ers and Giants.
  • Football is Bob’s favorite sport and he played on the Novato High School football team.
  • While he is a fan of the first three “Star Wars” movies, if he had to pick an all-time favorite film, “Gladiator” comes to mind.
  • As for music, Bob said there’s no question about it: Aussie hard-rockers AC/DC get his head banging.
  • Favorite food? “My wife’s going to hate it, but I have to say pizza.”
  • Bob was recruited for his role in “Return of the Jedi” in part because he was riding a motorcycle at the time. He got rid of the bike shortly after filming. “Crashing into that tree in the movie made me realize there was a real possibility of that happening in real life,” he said.
  • Bob is married and has two grown sons and a grandson, and is very much engaged with all of them.
  • There is a series of framed photos of all the Santa Clara County sheriffs through the years on a wall near his office. His great-great uncle is up there. “It makes me very proud to walk the halls – every day I walk by his photo hanging above me. It’s very surreal.”
  • Bob says he has no hidden talents to share. “I don’t sing. I don’t dance. But I do enjoy life.”