San Jose: Activists push to expand police auditor powers, to cautious officials

Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

Advocates want to increase the powers of San Jose’s independent police auditor by changing the city charter

SAN JOSE — Social-justice activists intensified their campaign to expand the authority of San Jose’s independent police auditor Monday, calling on city leaders to champion a 2018 ballot measure that would dramatically increase civilian oversight for the police department.

“We just have a bark. We have no bite,” said Regina Alexander, a spoken-word minister at Bible Way Christian Church and leader for the multi-faith coalition People Acting in Community Together. “We need the bite for accountability. It makes no sense for institutions to investigate themselves.”

Alexander is referring to the IPA office’s role as an advisory body with no enforcement power over the San Jose Police Department, though the agency has in the past aligned with key policy recommendations including the collection of traffic and street stop data and the adoption of body-worn cameras.

Any change would require the city charter to be rewritten, which must be done through an election.

Coalition leaders have ambitious goals for the Office of the IPA — created in 1993 as a compromise between city leaders who wanted a police commission and the police union who opposed additional civilian oversight — that include expanded jurisdiction over internal staff complaints about officer conduct, access to “all use of force data” and a more concrete role in disciplining misbehaving officers.

Advocates for the change also lamented what they consider a dearth of internal information about officer-involved shootings that have occurred over the past few years. There have been eight so far in 2017.

Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who was in attendance at the PACT gathering in North San Jose on Monday, said he generally favors more community input on policing policies but cautioned that it must be weighed against protecting officers’ privacy and deterring proactive police work for fear of public reprisal.

“I don’t think this much expansion is necessary. Every police department should have independent oversight, but I don’t want my officers being unjustly judged,” Garcia said. “We don’t want them only responding to 911 calls. We have to strike a balance between being transparent, building trust, and ensuring all stakeholders are comfortable with what’s occurring.”

The San Jose Police Officers’ Association echoed much of the chief’s sentiment, noting that last year the department garnered 60 use-of-force complaints amid 300,000 calls for service, or .02 percent. POA president Sgt. Paul Kelly, in a statement, asked if there needs to be a policy that holds “family and friends of the suspect accountable” for not intervening enough to prevent “circumstances that justified the use of force incident.”

“Where’s that ballot measure?” Kelly wrote. “What is currently being proposed is a solution in search of a problem.”

Three city council members — Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez and Raul Peralez — attended the gathering and were receptive but noncommittal pending further study of how increasing the IPA’s jurisdiction would be done.

“This is what I hear from the community, and they want to see that from us,” Carrasco said.

Peralez, a former SJPD officer who just rejoined the force as a reserve, said the answer to the community demands required more nuance than a yes-or-no commitment.

“I’m with them, let’s expand, but we’re not yet on the same page,” Peralez said, asserting that some of the data demands conflict with the state Peace Officers Bill of Rights. “But we’re moving in the right direction. This is an opportunity to have an open dialogue.”

All three council members did unequivocally support doing a poll to gauge the viability of a ballot measure for next year to change the city charter.

PACT members punctuated their case with the emotional testimony of several San Jose residents who either have had family members killed by law enforcement or voiced their fear that police encounters are inherently deadly. Yeme Girma of the Campbell Seventh Day Adventist Church described how she aggressively instructs her black teen children on how to avoid police attention and suspicion, and how to stay alive during a potential police stop.

“My son is nearly 6 feet tall and that scares me. This is a fear shared by many in the country,” she said. “As things are, they’re not acceptable. We need to increase transparency for black and brown families.”

And waiting in the wings amid all of this was Aaron Zisser, the newly appointed independent police auditor. He takes over the post Monday from interim auditor Shivaun Nurre who herself was filling in for Walter Katz, who left the job after about a year to become an advisor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Katz’s sudden departure stalled the expansion effort.

But Zisser said he was expecting to dive into an era where his job could get larger if San Jose voters make it so.

“This was a topic during the selection process. I am standing by as a resource, and whatever the changes are, my job is to implement the mandate,” he said. “I’m glad to be coming into it.”