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Sheriff Hongisto May Get a Look at Bars from the Other Side

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While most lawmen spend their time putting criminals in jail, San Francisco’s controversial Sheriff Richard Hongisto is trying to keep himself out.

Hongisto’s difficulties began last September when a local court ordered him to evict some hundred elderly Asians from a seedy downtown hotel. Its multimillionaire absentee Thai owners wanted to tear it down.

Pleading insufficient manpower and the fear of possible violence, Hongisto failed to carry out the order and was found in contempt by Superior Court Judge John Benson. The sheriff drew five days in jail, but an appellate court has delayed the sentence while he appeals.

Ironically, the city now may allow the tenants to buy the building, assuming its owners’ objections are overruled in an upcoming hearing.

Meanwhile Hongisto, a 40-year-old bachelor with an M.A. from Berkeley who once wanted to teach philosophy, has left little doubt that his failure to evict the old tenants was ideological. “The laws in our society,” he declares, “are written to protect people with property and money.”

Hongisto, born in Minnesota of Finnish descent, put in 10 years as a cop, wearing a peace symbol in the middle of his badge “because I wanted to point out that we were peace officers.” Now in his second term as sheriff, he runs a staff of 375 which oversees six jails and 1,200 prisoners.

The feisty Hongisto once sued former Mayor Joseph Alioto and the board of supervisors to increase the jail budget. Hongisto got so angry at Alioto he told him on local television he could “kiss my ass.”

Hongisto is plainly worried about his current plight. “But if going to jail is all I have to pay for following my conscience,” he says, “then it is a very small price.”