Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article
SAN JOSE — For five hours, the debate at City Hall over possible expansion of civilian police oversight seesawed between pleas for faith in the city’s cops and demands for more external scrutiny.
Everyone knew there would be no decision Tuesday night, but the discussion highlighted the differences of opinion between police and some members of the community.
Steering the meeting was newly minted auditor Aaron Zisser, a former federal civil-rights attorney who tiptoed between offering a sober assessment of the IPA model — established in 1993, making San Jose a pioneer in police oversight — while tacitly extolling the benefits of increasing his office’s access to internal police misconduct probes and use-of-force records.
“Oversight can play a role in heading off a crisis,” Zisser said. “The model I see working here is to preserve what we have here, and incorporate more broader access to records which would lead to better policy recommendations.”
But Chief Eddie Garcia pushed back against expanding the auditor’s authority, saying the San Jose Police Department is not mired in scandal, has adopted a host of progressive training measures, ordered outside audits of its arrest and use-of-force practices with respect to racial distribution, capped recently by its release of use-of-force data through a public online dashboard, and revised the police duty manual to ensure school-based officers aren’t de facto campus disciplinarians.
“We can’t overlook the fact that what works best might already be here. The IPA model works here,” Garcia said. “There are absolutely police departments … who may need extensive powerful oversight to be motivated to police in a constitutionally consistent manner. San Jose is not one of those places.”
But Zisser said San Jose is “not immune” to the police-community issues more visible in other large cities.
“We’re not looking for problems,” he said, “but we’re a big city, a diverse city, and we exist in a national context.”
As it stands, the IPA office’s review powers are triggered by citizen complaints, so it only gets a snapshot of the misconduct allegations leveled against the police department. To help bolster that point, Zisser brought in Nick Mitchell, Denver’s independent monitor, and Russell Bloom, independent police auditor for BART, both of whom talked about having more robust police-records access than San Jose’s auditor.
“The way this enhances our oversight work is we can analyze trends and patterns and get ahead of a problem before a crisis,” Bloom said, while acknowledging that BART police is about one-fifth the size of SJPD.
That idea of “crisis” surfaced several times over the course of the evening. Garcia noted that citizen complaints, including those involving use of force, have trended sharply downward for several years, and voiced concern over that progress being rewarded with more scrutiny.
“They’re looking for a solution to a problem we just don’t have in San Jose,” he said. “Not only are we not in crisis, we’re leading the way in being proactive. This sends a message to the police department, ‘We don’t trust you.'”
“I am in fact taking (this) personally and so will every man and woman who wears a badge to protect the citizens of San Jose,” he added.
When Zisser remarked on a need to enshrine expanded oversight in case a future chief has different accountability leanings, Councilwoman Dev Davis said her experiences with the department gives her confidence that the current progressive track will continue.
“The officers have bought in,” she said. “It’s baked into the culture.”
One resident, who identified herself as Andrea, suggested during the public-comment period that complaints might be trending down precisely because of a lack of trust in police. Several other speakers pushing for more SJPD oversight were family members of Jacob Dominguez, Anthony Nunez and A.J. Phillips, men killed in officer-involved shootings in recent years.
Yeme Girma, of the Campbell Seventh Day Adventist Church and a leader in the faith-based social-justice coalition People Acting in Community Together, said more trust is needed to bring real comfort to marginalized communities in the city.
“Too many lives have been taken,” she said.
Frank Richardson, also a PACT leader, said that the 25-year-old IPA model in San Jose, forged from a post-Rodney King compromise between city leaders who wanted a police commission and a police union that resisted formal external oversight, “has turned stale.”
“Chief Garcia is talking about wanting to police proactively,” Richardson said. “All we’re asking is that we have a similar proactive approach to providing civilian oversight.”
Zisser said the lack of obvious turmoil in the department is “the perfect time” to have a substantive discussion over possible oversight expansion, “when cooler heads can talk.” Mayor Sam Liccardo agreed.
“This discussion is important to have when we’re not in crisis,” Liccardo said.
Garcia, who gamely absorbed criticism from the public throughout the evening, took it in stride.
“We know there are always going to be concerns in any city,” he said. “We do need to be vigilant. I appreciate the discussion.”