Don Horsley, San Mateo County Sheriff, Supervisor and Advocate for Mental Health, Dies at 80

Redwood City – Don Horsley, a former teacher and beat cop whose bold ideas for reforms propelled him to San Mateo County Sheriff and the Board of Supervisors, died Friday. He was 80.

Mr. Horsley’s early jobs – juvenile counselor, middle school teacher, police officer – paired with his childhood experiences to shape a career where he saw opportunities to transform lives.

Don Horsley

Mr. Horsley’s father, a laborer in the San Francisco produce markets, suffered a debilitating stroke when Mr. Horsley was 12. His mother was a bookkeeper and “it was a challenge for our family.” That challenge was compounded when his grandmother was confined to a mental health hospital.

“It was all concrete and slamming doors,” Mr. Horsley recounted in April 2021 at the groundbreaking for a new mental health center he championed. “Because of that, being a little boy, seeing a state hospital and women who are essentially locked up in a concrete monstrosity, I guess touched something inside me such that I was always interested in doing better for people who have mental health issues.”

“Doing better for people” was a theme of Mr. Horsley’s tireless career as a public servant.

Born in San Francisco, Mr. Horsley moved with his family at a young age to Daly City, where he attended Westmoor High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and, after working for the Daly City Police Department, became a juvenile counselor for the San Mateo County Probation Department and a middle school teacher.

He then returned to law enforcement, first for the Pacifica Police Department and then the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in 1972.

During his time in the Sheriff’s Office, Mr. Horsley spent extensive time upgrading the training of deputy sheriffs and correctional officers. He also played a key role in planning for a new correctional center, which, he recounted, “resulted in changing the way the County correctional system was managed” by including mental and medical health care facilities.

“I ran for San Mateo County Sheriff in 1993 because I saw the need for innovative leadership, modernization and upgrading the tools for law enforcement officers,” Mr. Horsley once recalled.

After 14 years as sheriff, Mr. Horsley retired in 2007. That retirement was brief, however, as he won a seat on the board of the Sequoia Healthcare District. Then in 2010 he was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

While serving on the Board, Mr. Horsley set as priorities improving mental health services, expanding access to County parks and open spaces, curbing gun violence, providing more beds and services to those experiencing homelessness and improving emergency preparedness, among others. He was re-elected twice and retired in 2022 after serving the maximum of three four-year terms.

“Don was a class act and a man who cared a great deal about the most vulnerable in our community,” said County Executive Mike Callagy. “He served a distinguished career that spanned more than 40 years in this county, and he was a good friend to many of us.

“Don was a caring man with a great sense of humor, and he lived a full and distinguished life. He made a great difference in this county and his legacy will live on through all of the great projects and work that he was involved in,” Callagy said.

Asked to provide a quote for an article on Mr. Horsley’s retirement from the Board of Supervisors, John Maltbie, the former county manager, said, “Don represents what good government is all about, a caring individual wanting to serve his community. Don did this in so many ways: teacher, police officer, sheriff, County supervisor. He can always be counted on to be kind and compassionate and to listen to all sides of an issue – and weighing all of the consequences – before reaching a decision.”

Information about services and survivors was not immediately available.

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