San Francisco’s first Asian sheriff reflects on chaotic year

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Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, 53, has kept his spirits up despite a chaotic first year. The newly minted sheriff hit the ground running as the coronavirus pandemic reached San Francisco just months after Miyamoto assumed office Jan. 8, 2020. The outbreak required Miyamoto to work quickly with other city leaders amid unprecedented turmoil.

“It’s given me an experience that I wouldn’t have had over the stretch of four years, let alone just the first 10 months of my administration,” Miyamoto said during a November Zoom call with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

While his decades-long career at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office meant he had a good idea as to how the office operated, 2020 has been a major challenge, requiring Miyamoto to take a “crash course in everything” from reconfiguring the office’s budget due to the pandemic, to navigating calls for social change and reform following the Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd.

As San Francisco’s sheriff, Miyamoto oversees a staff of 1,042, including 850 deputies, and serves as the head administrator for the county jails. His office also provides security for various public buildings, including the county’s court house, and performs civil court orders.

While Miyamoto, a Yonsei, is not the first Asian American sheriff in the United States — the first was Sheriff Henry Lee of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and California’s first is Tim Saxon in Trinity County — he said he has received nationwide attention being the leader of a highly visible jurisdiction.

“It’s humbling to be somebody who’s one of the first, but it’s also a responsibility,” he said.

The San Francisco-native said his career within the sheriff’s office, along with his experience in the community has prepared him to take on the role. He stressed, however, that he wants to represent all residents of San Francisco, not just Asian Americans. “One thing I’m very hyper sensitive to is making sure, especially in the climate we have now and the expectations people have of law enforcement and public safety, is to make sure we’re inclusive with everybody,” he said. “I don’t want people to think that I’m just going to be a voice for Japanese American or Asian American rights.”

Miyamoto grew up in San Francisco with his Chinese mother and Japanese American father. He attended Lowell High School and graduated from the University of California, Davis in 1989. He joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1996. The Japanese American side of his family returned to the city after being incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo. during World War II, and operated a dry cleaning business. While he grew up being called various slurs because of his Asian heritage, he said his professional career has not been hampered by racism. The sheriff said he never felt like he was filling any quotas, nor did he say he felt he experienced overt discrimination on the job.

He did, however, acknowledge that the city is now contending with rising anti-Asian sentiments recently stoked by the coronavirus pandemic. Miyamoto said his office, like the San Francisco Police Department, is including any relevant information in crime reports when racism may be involved.

At the same time, he cautioned that he must also ensure suspects are not overly charged either. “Sometimes members of the community believe people are targeted because of their race, and that’s a little harder to prove,” he said. “That’s why there’s a challenge in terms of keeping track of data, but obviously, we’re … making sure that all of this is tracked properly and we document these things more often now than we have ever before.”

With regard to police accountability, Miyamoto conveyed his support for independent oversight of his office, but expressed concerns over Proposition D, which recently passed in San Francisco. The proposition will create the Sheriff’s Department Office of Inspector General to investigate non-criminal misconduct by employees and in-custody deaths.

Miyamoto said the measure, passed with 66.9 percent of the vote in November, will create a redundant bureaucracy, whereas his office already has independent oversight from the Department of Police Accountability.

At the same time, Miyamoto said the city should continue to invest in his office. He disagrees with calls from the public to defund or abolish the police, saying his office offers people who are in a lower socioeconomic class a path to the middle class.

Because his office oversees San Francisco’s jails, it is in a “unique position” where many of his staff are closely involved with those in the criminal justice system, Miyamoto said.

“We want to make sure that, that kind of investment isn’t forgotten in all of this when we talk about not having jobs or taking away staffing from the police or the sheriffs. You’re also taking away a path for success for people within the structure where they can affect change,” he said.

While Miyamoto has managed to navigate his first year as sheriff, he said the pandemic has affected him in one particular way.

“I can’t get out to see people because we haven’t had community events,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to getting to a place where we get back into that, because I’m a people person and I like being out there. I think that’s part of the messaging too, as a leader, as an Asian American leader of the community, you really have to be out there to inspire that change and inspire that sense of civic responsibility. So hopefully, we’ll get back to normal soon.”

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