San Jose: Scholars, city leaders, 49ers unite to tackle police-race issues

Robert Salonga | San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article

SAN JOSE — On a day marked by massive protest marches across the country, an array of city officials, police commanders, community leaders and scholars converged in a quiet corner of East San Jose to begin a lengthy campaign to thaw relations between police and the city’s most disenfranchised residents.

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“We can be a model for the nation here,” said Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “There are things to fix, and there are things to build on.” 

The “Community Trust in Policing” forum Saturday at the Mexican Heritage Plaza featured thought leaders like Harry Edwards, the renowned sociologist and civil-rights activist who heads the nascent Institute for the Study of Sport, Society, and Social Change at San Jose State University.

“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” Edwards said. “It’s just the issue of having the courage and the will to step up beyond the barricades and reach out to each other.”

Also on hand were Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith, and a host of seasoned community advocates. The 49ers funded the forum through a donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Part of the genesis of the forum, which kicks off an 18-month outreach effort by the city’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor, was born from the national firestorm from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decision not to stand for the national anthem before football games in protest of police violence.

That led to York donating $1 million, which was divided between the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation with the express aim of improving police-community relations.

“You don’t have to agree with the things that Colin did, or that Colin said, but we have to recognize there are racial and economic inequality issues that we need to address, however these conversations started,” York said Saturday. “This is the beginning of a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Walter Katz, the city’s independent police auditor, said the outreach effort will entail increasing neighborhood awareness of his office’s oversight role as well as analyzing demographic data about police interactions on the street. Relatedly, a report is expected next month offering further examination of racial disparities in street detentions — both with pedestrian and traffic stops — that don’t yield arrests.

“We have seen strained trust between police and communities of color, especially young people,” Katz said.

“There are big gaps in trust,” agreed Jesus Ruiz, a community organizer for People Acting in Community Together — one of the city’s most prominent civil-rights groups — who spoke as a panelist Saturday. “There’s a lot of parts that need to come together to fix this relationship.”

A major component of establishing credibility, Ruiz said, involves officers not only protecting citizens from criminals but also from other officers who might abuse their authority.

“We need them to stand up against their own people in order for us to feel comfortable around them,” he said.

Smith drew on his experiences as a youth to help explain the disconnect that can occur.

“I was definitely one of those kids who felt like every officer was out to get me,” he said. “I get older, and you realize they’re men just like you … the majority of them, their interest is to protect me.”

Police Chief Garcia has worked to be on the forefront of progressive policing policies, including many recommended by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. To date, the San Jose Police Department has instituted training designed to seek out and mitigate implicit bias, improve officer response to mental-health crises, and rolled out body-worn cameras in the summer.

Any resistance to that culture shift could stifle a fruitful police career in San Jose, Garcia said.

“If you want to get promoted in this department, you better know it, and you better live it,” he said. “True community policing saves lives, both of our residents and our officers.”

But Garcia said he is also sensitive to how his officers have been broadly vilified amid a national atmosphere of increased police scrutiny — sparked by the police killings of unarmed black men in several infamous encounters across the country.

Many other law-enforcement agencies lamented what they thought were lackluster gestures of support for police during the Kaepernick controversy, to the point where the police union for the Santa Clara Police Department threatened to boycott working 49ers games at Levi’s Stadium. Garcia said he and his officers “will need to see more” from the organization in showing what he called “mutual respect” to secure their trust.

For his part, York on Saturday offered some of the diplomacy on the issue that those same police agencies contended was lacking.  

“I respect their job, and I know it’s a very difficult job,” York said. “Most of the police officers I know are wonderful people and they do so many great things in their communities. We need to make sure that’s a big part of the conversation. We also need to figure out how to make those relationships better.”

 San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said there’s no time to waste. “We know this is a challenge for every big city in the country,” he said. “We live in a nation at a very divisive moment. There are few issues so divisive right now as issues of policing and race.”