San Jose: Increasing police oversight at heart of council study session

Robert Salonga | San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

SAN JOSE — A specially convened City Council meeting Tuesday will explore the idea of expanding civilian oversight of the San Jose Police Department, particularly when it comes to use-of-force and internal investigations.

The study session is being held largely at the behest of local civil-rights advocates and members of police watchdog groups who believe that the city’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor lacks sufficient powers to hold the police force accountable.

The idea has been met with pushback from both the police brass and the officers’ union. They are wary of applying more aggressive oversight models used by cities like Oakland, Chicago and Baltimore that have historically experienced significant tension between police and residents.

“It is important to remember that any policy formulated after this study session should be founded upon facts, data, and experiences generated from the city of San Jose,” reads a letter to the council from Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. “All too often in discussions surrounding police and community relations, incidents or data from other parts of the country are utilized to point to problems that do not exist here in San Jose.”

Derrick Sanderlin, a leader with the faith-based coalition People Acting in Community Together, said the point of the study session is to explore proactive changes at a time when relations between San Jose police and its residents are relatively good — rather than when the police department is under fire.

“It is a great dynamic now,” Sanderlin said. “It’s the best time to make the improvements we need to make, rather than wait for something really bad to happen.”

Tuesday’s session will examine the independent police auditor system and explore the pros and cons of expanding the auditor’s reach.

Currently, the auditor’s office primarily reviews allegations and Internal Affairs investigations that are spurred by citizen complaints. But those account for only a portion of complaints lodged against officers. Department-initiated investigations — complaints lodged by officers and staff — are not reviewed by the police auditor, and officer-involved shootings are reviewed only if a complaint is filed.

Advocates for expanding the auditor’s access also want the office to be able to review use-of-force files and body-worn camera footage to allow for independent analysis and identification of systemic trends.

For its part, the police department has adopted several progressive policies and practices that address those issues. Police Chief Eddie Garcia has said he is receptive to opening up department-initiated investigations to the independent auditor, and the police department last year adopted compulsory review and a more granular analysis of officers’ use of force, no matter how minor the incident.

And just this past week, the department released use-of-force data from the past three years through a pioneering new online portal that will allow anyone to sort and analyze numerous elements of violent police encounters, including demographic information, the location of the incidents and the kind of force used.

The first report generated from the data found no significant racial disparities in the police department’s use of force. That has been challenged by community advocates, who question the reliability of the data, since it’s sourced primarily from officers’ accounts of events.

Aaron Zisser, who was appointed in the fall as the city’s independent auditor, says he has no official stance on increasing the reach of his new job.

“The goal for this study session is to educate. I’m not advocating for expanded authority. I came into the job knowing what it was,” he said. “This has been an effective office for policy and advocacy.”

To that end, Zisser says he plans to respond to officer-involved shootings in the city for on-site briefings, using a little-known access right of his position rarely invoked by his predecessors. His first such visit occurred last Tuesday, when a distressed man was shot and killed after approaching officers with and ax and an array of other blade weapons.

The independent auditor’s office was created in 1993 as a compromise between city leaders who wanted a police commission and the police union who opposed additional civilian oversight. In 1996, the city charter was amended to permanently establish the office. A city ordinance adopted in 1999 included the independent auditor on SJPD shooting review panels.

For some, it’s hard not to look at Tuesday’s study session as a proposal to expand powers, and even Zisser says he’s “ready and willing to take it on” if the city decides to amend its charter again, which would have to be done through a ballot measure.

At a PACT meeting last fall, Garcia made clear he’s against any drastic changes in the current oversight model. He has reiterated that stance, concerned that his officers who have adopted a host of new measures ranging from from implicit-bias instruction to crisis-intervention will be vexed by the demand for more amid a period when police complaints have dropped sharply over the past few years.

“If we’re going to expand oversight after everything we’ve been doing, and everything we’ve done, what we’re telling our officers is that we don’t trust them,” Garcia said. “This could make it so that for officers, the easiest way to not get scrutinized is to do nothing, and then the proactivity that keeps us safe is at risk. We have to strike a balance between accountability, transparency, and fairness to officers.”

Councilman Raul Peralez, a reserve police department officer who worked full-time as a San Jose cop before he joined the council, was also at that PACT meeting.

Heading into Tuesday’s study session, he emphasizes the need for serious study over emotional pleas.

“My hope is that we get a good understanding of what our options are,” Peralez said. “I’m looking forward to a thorough discussion.”