Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has witnessed dramatic changes among female law enforcement officers over her more than 40-year career, an evolution she chronicled at a recent Rotary Club of Los Altos appearance.
Now seeking her fifth term in office, Smith, the first female sheriff in California, oversees 1,400 sworn officers and an annual budget of approximately $340 million. The California State Assembly named Smith its 2012 Woman of the Year.
In the 1970s, when sworn in at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, Smith’s title was “matron,” because women were not allowed to serve as deputies at that time. She displayed for the Rotarians her outdated green uniform skirt and purse, complete with gun holster and handcuff pockets. In time, Smith said, the “ladies of the law” uniforms changed from skirts to pants, and their salaries rose from a rate that was 15 percent lower than male deputies’ pay.
She gave a nod to the early female deputies whose 1975 lawsuit and subsequent ruling from the Supreme Court reclassified them as “sheriff’s deputies” rather than “matrons.”
Quoting the law enforcement textbook she used while studying at San Jose State University, Smith read its 1960 text with a smile: “There is no evidence that the ladies of the law are about to take over police departments.”
The department’s jurisdiction covers all unincorporated areas, 73 percent of geographically widespread Santa Clara County, which includes Los Altos Hills and the Moffett Field area.
The department manages every aspect of law enforcement except traffic, which the California Highway Patrol oversees. Sheriff’s deputies, however, respond to crimes committed on highways and can also write speeding tickets.
Los Altos Hills, Cupertino and Saratoga contract for law enforcement with the Sheriff’s Department rather than staff their own local police departments. By consolidating three cities under one administration, Smith said law enforcement is managed well and in a much more cost-effective manner.
According to the FBI’s uniform crime reports, Saratoga is the No. 1 safest city in California. Los Altos, which has its own police department, is rated the second safest city and Cupertino the 12th.
The Santa Clara County sheriff also runs county jails, which house more than 4,000 inmates. When asked about the effect of inmates being transferred from state to county jails, Smith responded that nonviolent, nonsex and nonserious offenders now serve their sentences locally in their county of residence rather than in jail.
“But do not believe that crime rates are up because of this prison thing,” she said.
To combat the traditionally high recidivism rate – approximately 70 percent of those who commit crimes return to jail within three years – the Sheriff’s Department has established vocational training programs.
The Rotary Club of Los Altos meets 12:15 p.m. Thursdays in the Garden House at Shoup Park, 400 University Ave., Los Altos.
For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos.