San Jose police adopt more scrutiny on use of force

Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

SAN JOSE — In a groundbreaking move inspired by public oversight, the San Jose Police Department will step up reviews of officers’ use of force and intensify investigations into the most serious cases, officials announced Tuesday.

Until now, the department only reviewed most nonfatal use-of-force encounters in response to a citizen’s complaint, filed with the department’s Internal Affairs unit or the city’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor.

San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia is instituting a new policy to increase reviews of officers’ use of force and intensify investigations into the most serious instances. Bay Area News Group

San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia is instituting a new policy to increase reviews of officers’ use of force and intensify investigations into the most serious instances. Bay Area News Group

Police supervisors and commanders will now be expected to launch force investigations on their own based on reports from the field. Those violent encounters will be graded on a new four-tier scale where a higher risk of injury or death triggers increased scrutiny.

Chief Eddie Garcia said the policy was crafted in conjunction with the San Jose Police Officers’ Association to ensure maximum buy-in from his rank-and-file officers amid a national landscape marked by skepticism about police actions in minority communities.

He acknowledged that the department’s practices for reviewing violent incidents needed updating.

“This is long overdue. We had blind spots. Our policy was too reactive,” Garcia said. “This doesn’t mean we’re automatically going to find that (an officer) did something wrong, but we’re going to scrutinize it with a sharper lens.”

The new policy could affect potentially hundreds of incidents a year in San Jose. A precise number of annual use-of-force incidents was not available from police, because they have not been publicly cataloged by the department since 2009, according to the IPA’s office.

The police auditor’s office has for many years pushed the department to take a more wide-ranging, detailed approach to reviewing cases where officers use force. The IPA’s office contended in its annual audit report released in June that a disturbing number of incidents were escaping sorely needed examination.

“It appears that of the thousands of use of force incidents that took place between 2010 and 2015, not once did a SJPD supervisor or executive believe that a use of force was questionable enough to justify opening an investigation,” the report stated.

Over the past five years, the department has received between 60 and 88 formal complaints per year about officers’ use of force. The department already reviews all officer-involved shootings. There have been eight so far this year in San Jose — the most since 2015, when the city saw a 10-year high of 12. Four of the police shootings in 2017 have been fatal.

Aaron Zisser, San Jose’s new independent police auditor, credited the department for embracing one of the highest-profile recommendations made by his predecessor, Walter Katz. Zisser said he hopes that the new evaluation will also critique decisions made leading up to force being used.

“There are genuine questions still on how the police department is going to look at de-escalation,” Zisser said.

Garcia acknowledged the possibility that the increased attention could lead to more officers being reprimanded in use-of-force cases. However, he also noted that the awareness of the new policy could lead to officers becoming more creative and adept at finding less-violent solutions to physical conflicts on the street.

San Jose’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor, led by new auditor Aaron Zisser, helped shepherd a new use of force review policy at SJPD that increases scrutiny over violent officer encounters. 

San Jose’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor, led by new auditor Aaron Zisser, helped shepherd a new use of force review policy at SJPD that increases scrutiny over violent officer encounters. 

“All we’re trying to tell our officers is, when you have time, to come up with a plan,” he said. “We are trying to be more progressive, but we also want to ensure that we’re not stymieing proactivity by forcing this down our officers’ throats. Being proactive, and being fair and just, are not mutually exclusive.”

But Zisser noted that other large agencies that have taken such steps — like Oakland police and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department — have done so under heavy criticism or an order from a federal judge.

“The fact (SJPD) did this on its own without that pressure, that is progressive and positive. It’s worthy of praise,” Zisser said. “I look forward to seeing how the new policy plays out and, along with Chief Garcia, examining whether further changes are needed.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo lauded the new policy, which he said was vital to improving and maintaining credibility in the city’s neighborhoods.

“This new policy serves as the latest example of our collective commitment to ensuring that the San Jose Police Department remains a model for accountability and community trust,” Liccardo said in a statement.

Local civil-rights groups were heartened by Tuesday’s announcement. Derrick Sanderlin, a leader in the faith-based coalition People Acting in Community Together, said the new policy is precisely why community members want the IPA office to expand its oversight.

“It’s a fantastic step in the right direction,” Sanderlin said.

Sanderlin hopes that more community input will be considered for future policy revisions that affect many of the people his group represents.

“Only when the police department works with the community does it work effectively,” he said. “And a lot of us from the community want more.”

NEW TIERS OF FORCE REVIEWED BY SJPD

Examples of how officers’ use of force will be divided in increasing order of severity:

  • Category I: Any use of force not covered by the other categories that “causes a minor injury or complaint of pain”
  • Category II: Taser use; impact weapon (e.g., baton) not to the head; OC (pepper) spray; projectile weapons where up to four rounds hit a suspect
  • Category III: Impact weapon or projectile weapon that hits the head; projectile weapon where more than four rounds hit a suspect; kicks to the head; when two or more officers deploy less-lethal force to one suspect; when four or more officers use reportable force on one suspect; force that causes a broken bone; police dog bites; use of carotid restraint; when force causes a loss of consciousness; when force leads to a suspect’s hospitalization
  • Category IV: Deadly force