Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News|Link to Article
SAN JOSE — For the first time in a decade, the San Jose Police Department is giving its community access to a trove of data about use of force, but now through a new web portal its inviting residents to do their own research of the violent encounters that have spurred reform movements across the country.
And the first major study performed with the newly sorted data, by portal designer Washington-based Police Strategies LLC, found no significant racial disparities in how SJPD officers apply force on the city’s streets. Force rates among white, black, Latino and Asian suspects hover between 3 and 4 percent of arrests made involving those groups, all within about one percentage point of each other.
That finding, based on use-of-force data culled from 2015 and 2016, was welcome news to Chief Eddie Garcia, who commissioned the study and creation of the online dashboardlaunched Wednesday.
“We have data that says it’s not a systemic problem here,” Garcia said. “I’m glad we’re on a positive track. I hope other departments in the county jump on board so we can make transparency and trust a countywide effort.”
The day before the official launch, San Jose police shot and killed an apparent intruder at the Metcalf Energy Center in South San Jose after he reportedly walked toward responding officers while carrying an ax. It was the city’s first officer-involved shooting of the year.
The chief headed off any notions he weighted the study in his favor by noting he commissioned a separate study released last year by the University of Texas-El Paso that revealed racially uneven street stops by his officers. The UTEP study spurred calls for more granular analysis, which Garcia said Wednesday’s announcement was aimed at delivering.
“This is the second time we’ve had someone come from outside to take a look at us, when we’re not in crisis,” he said, alluding to how these accountability studies typically arise after a scandal or federal scrutiny. “Often times we’re looking around the country looking for best practices, but we need to take a look at ourselves and realize that this department and community are doing a good job.”
Mayor Sam Liccardo echoed the sentiment.
“This tool represents our continued commitment to maintain the highest levels of transparency and accountability in our police department,” Liccardo said in a statement. “By publicly releasing and analyzing this extensive trove of use-of-force data, we can ensure that the San Jose Police Department remains the most professional and trusted department in the nation.”
For Sgt. Paul Kelly, the new finding allows the city to distance itself from a national landscape of police hostility.
“Ever since Ferguson, from my point of view, we continue to fight this false narrative,” he said. “This shows that in San Jose, we should not be painted by a broad brush by a few negative cops. This truly validates that.”
Local civil-rights advocates were more tempered in their reaction, voicing cautious optimism about the use-of-force findings, but generally welcoming the comprehensive collection of the data and the user-friendly interface being offered to the community. Until 2007, SJPD published an annual use-of-force report, and its interruption coincided with a staffing decline that finally began to turn around this past year.
“I applaud the chief for wanting to move the needle on transparency with his department. It starts there,” said Andre Chapman, CEO of Unity Care and co-chair of the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet of Silicon Valley. “We’re setting a gold standard around the country for how (police) departments should be engaging their communities.”
Chapman sidestepped endorsing the Police Strategies finding of nominal to no racial disparities in SJPD’s use of force.
“I wouldn’t agree with that, because that’s not how the community feels,“ he said. “I challenge some of the data, some of the methodologies. This is step one. You’re giving us the information, and we’re beginning to understand what are places for improvement. The community can now weigh in.”
Raj Jayadev, director of police watchdog group Silicon Valley De-Bug, was more direct about his wariness while still lauding the positive development of the new data access as “a move in the right direction.”
“There’s one issue that I think has to be considered. They’re generating a bunch of data based on a particular input source, and that input source is the police officers’ report,” Jayadev said.
He moored his criticisms on another series of reports from 10 years ago, namely this newspaper’s findings that Latinos were being disproportionately arrested for public intoxication in the downtown entertainment zone, which led to a revamping of police enforcement in the area.
“We went through a period in San Jose where a particular truth was being told at scale, and turned out to be invalid because it relied solely on officers’ articulation of events,” he said.
Garcia said he understood that element of skepticism, but tried to preach pragmatism in noting that there is no alternative source for use-of-force data.
“They’re right, it’s coming from police reports. That’s where we’re at. But we also have body cameras that can corroborate much of what the officer’s report says,” he said. “And how else are we supposed to do it?”
Aaron Zisser, San Jose’s independent police auditor, has similar questions about the data sources, and suggested that a third party like his office should be able to sample body-camera footage from force incidents, to ensure they align with officer accounts.
“I wouldn’t call these conclusions, but rather hypotheses that warrant deeper digging. Those use-of-force response reports have a lot of subjectivity,” Zisser said. “But overall, I don’t think you can overstate how significant it is that a large police department like San Jose would make this type and volume of data public.”
The Police Force Analysis System will allow, with certain limits such as shielding officer identities to adhere to statutory protections, users to drill down any use of force to the granular level, including time, location, type of police call, suspect demographics, threat level, resistance, injury and whether an arrest was made, as well as the officer rank and demographics, amount of force used, justification given, and injury inflicted.
The initial startup costs were $148,000 for analyzing the first three years in the portal, with a recurring annual cost of about $50,000 for data mining and analysis.
Those and other elements can then be sorted and organized to determine and discover trends as determined by the portal user. Sylvia Perez-MacDonald, director of the Independent Defense Counsel Office, said the new portal has huge potential to improve community trust.
“We can get the police department making decisions and improving with data rather than an emotional hunch,” she said, “we can better inform our community about what’s really happening.”
Garcia welcomes the deluge of attention, and questions, the new portal will generate.
“The community will hold us accountable,” he said. “This isn’t about vindication. I’m glad we moved the needle, and we need to continue to work together. We’re a department in a position to grow, and there are no systemic force issues here. It’s a great foundation to build from.”
To access the SJPD use of force analysis dashboard and inaugural report, go online to sjpd.org/CrimeStats/ForceAnalysis.asp.