San Jose officer union wants police auditor out over maligned report

Community groups rally to support Aaron Zisser amid ongoing controversy over questionable use of force claim

Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News|

SAN JOSE — After spending the past month denouncing his fitness for the job, the San Jose police union is formally seeking to oust Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser over an annual report that made “misleading” claims about racial disparities in use of force.

 File photo of San Jose Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser attending a PACT event held at Bible Way Christian Center San Jose in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, September 25, 2017. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) 

File photo of San Jose Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser attending a PACT event held at Bible Way Christian Center San Jose in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, September 25, 2017. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) 

The latest row between the city’s cops and their chief watchdog comes in a letter from the San Jose Police Officers’ Association that alleges Zisser “has committed official misconduct that warrants his removal from office.” The dispute and the union’s unprecedented call to remove the auditor center on a report the city council rejected, which has since been revised for discussion Tuesday.

Signed by more than 500 officers, about two-thirds of the union’s membership, the letter was delivered to Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office Monday. It calls for an investigation into Zisser and his preparation of his office’s annual audit report, which historically has been an important benchmark for assessing SJPD’s responsiveness to community complaints. But ultimately, the union contends, Zisser should be removed by a full council vote.

“The police officers that serve our city must adhere to the highest standards of ethics and conduct in the performance of their official duties and when they do not meet these standards, then they are held accountable,” the letter reads. “We, as well as yourself, the city council, and the residents of San Jose, should expect no less from the individual appointed to oversee the members of the police department.”

Zisser was conciliatory about what he acknowledged was a “misleading” presentation of use-of-force data, and has since revised the report to provide raw data and more context.

“They say motive matters,” he said, referring to part of the union letter. “I agree. I wasn’t trying to mislead.”

Liccardo was diplomatic in addressing the union’s call.

 Sgt. Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, holds up a letter that calls for the investigation and removal of Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser over alleged ethics violations in an annual audit report, at San Jose City Hall on June 25, 2018. (Robert Salonga/Bay Area News Group) 

Sgt. Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, holds up a letter that calls for the investigation and removal of Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser over alleged ethics violations in an annual audit report, at San Jose City Hall on June 25, 2018. (Robert Salonga/Bay Area News Group) 

“We all must strive to ensure that we’re using data in a way that provides a complete picture to the public, and I appreciate that the Independent Police Auditor has amended his report to address the concerns raised by the City Council,” he said. “We will review the POA’s complaint and confer with the Council on whether additional action is warranted.”

Zisser said that after the May 22 report was presented, he tried to meet with the union.

“They have not taken me up on that,” Zisser said. “I try not to draw conclusions about people’s motives before I have more information. They’re trying to draw conclusions about my motives, and I don’t want to make the same mistake.”

The POA routinely clashed with the aggressive reform-minded agenda of previous auditor LaDoris Cordell, but never sought to remove her. Union officials said while they disagreed with her at times, they did not question her integrity.

“We wouldn’t do it if we could move past it and move on,” union president Paul Kelly said. “There’s just no going back.”

The letter continues a thread of criticism by the union, police brass, and city leaders that led the council, for the first time in 25 years, to reject the annual audit report presented to them in May.

The conflict revolved around part of the report that indicated white suspects who resisted police were more likely to end up with no charges filed against them, and were more likely in those cases to be taken to psychiatric care than minority suspects.

That conclusion was drawn from SJPD’s new public online use-of-force data dashboard. Zisser’s report stated that 7 percent of Latinos, 17 percent of blacks, and 20 percent of Asians went to jail under the same circumstances as white suspects who were not charged. But further analysis showed that finding was based on just three arrests.

Zisser later clarified that the section was meant to demonstrate the usefulness and limitations of the dashboard, not to make a definitive statement about race and force.

“We were showing what was available on the dashboard,” he said. “Could we have done it a bit better? Absolutely.”

Zisser’s supporters, including the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP and community advocacy groups like People Acting in Community Together, are rallying to his side.

“I’ve seen him to be nothing other than professional, responsible, meeting with numerous groups in the community, and working so hard to get everyone’s perspective,” said PACT leader Alice Lynch. “This (letter) is not a fair representation of Aaron Zisser.”

Cordell added that at worst, Zisser made a judgment error in presenting the data, but that it did not qualify as an egregious or impeachable violation.

“I believe this is much ado about nothing,” Cordell said. “The fact the POA has decided to jump on this to say Aaron Zisser is a bad guy, or violated the charter, is absolutely absurd.”

The union has been wary of Zisser, a former federal civil-rights attorney who consulted for the blue-ribbon commission to reform the Santa Clara County jail system, since his appointment in September.

“We allow that the IPA was honest to the extent he admitted that humans are not perfect. But no one was expecting perfection. What we were expecting was professionalism, honesty, impartiality, openness, and a basic level of competence,” the union letter reads.

The letter comes amid a community movement to expand the oversight powers of the IPA. Zisser led a city council study session in January exploring other oversight models.

Some leaders have cited the controversy to voice wariness about expansion. At a May 30 meeting of the Rules and Open Government Committee, Police Chief Eddie Garcia and Councilmember Dev Davis referenced the IPA report conflict in voicing their opposition. Lynch and other Zisser supporters believe the union is trying to undercut their movement by conflating it with Zisser and then attacking him.

Cordell said tension inherently exists between the police union and auditor’s office. She suggested that trust issues could be amended by ensuring that in drafting future reports, the police department is more heavily involved in verifying figures, including their context.

“It’s my hope this was a learning experience for Aaron,” she said. “There was merit to the criticism. Lesson learned, and now next time have more eyes on it to make sure it’s accurate as possible.”

For the POA, there is no more room for bridge building.

“It’s absolutely too late,” Kelly said.