Union pushes oversight expansion on heels of San Jose police auditor resignation

Robert Salonga| San Jose Mercury News| Link to Article

SAN JOSE — Just days after the independent police auditor’s resignation, the city’s police union made a public show of support Monday for the expansion of the civic watchdog’s role.

The union’s latest move comes after its relentless campaign to oust Aaron Zisser, who resigned Thursday, citing in part the intense personal attacks against him. It seems calculated to show — as the union previously insisted — that its issues were with Zisser personally, not with outside scrutiny of police officers’ work.

At a news conference Monday, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association signed off on an expansion of powers for the police auditor, which would provide the auditor new access to internal misconduct complaint investigations and officer-involved shooting probes, as well as aggregate data about use-of-force cases that did not provoke any complaints.

“We are pleased to announce our signing of this historic expansion of civilian oversight of our police department, and look forward to working with our city leaders on implementing these expansions,” union President Paul Kelly said.

Currently, the police auditor primarily investigates citizen complaints about police, offering residents an alternative on where to report alleged officer misbehavior. The union proposal, which includes some prior reform suggestions from Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilman Chappie Jones, is expected to be reviewed by city administrators and the city council before any agreement is made.

“I’m pleased that the POA has made a significant proposal to expand the authority of the Office of the Independent Police Auditor, and we look forward to continuing to discuss our efforts to improve police oversight, transparency and accountability in San Jose,” Liccardo said in a statement.

But the political tension was evident Monday between the union and the community advocacy groups who called their attacks against Zisser unfair and defamatory.

“There were some that claimed to represent the community that said this day would not happen,” Kelly said. “They were wrong.”

The timing of the union’s announcement was not lost on members of the groups that Kelly was presumably denouncing.

“I appreciate them making good on their commitment of putting something out, but it’s a little bit of political theater to come out and do this right now,” said Frank Richardson, a leader of People Acting in Community, which long championed the reforms outlined Monday.

Richardson also took issue with presenting Monday’s proposal as historic.

“This is the minimum,” he said. “It may lead to the public thinking, ‘Mission accomplished.’ We’ll continue to have to work and negotiate and advocate to get what we need.”

Other community activists, still smarting from Zisser’s pressured exit, were dismayed by the show of influence from the police union openly assailing the auditor and then becoming a public face for the office’s reform.

“It’s a sleight of hand, after the vicious attacks in the past,” said Jim Showman, who is part of a politically active group of San Jose residents whose loved ones have been killed by city police. “We’re just very skeptical and discouraged.”

Richardson and Walter Katz, Zisser’s predecessor, voiced their approval of the expansion of powers that would allow the police auditor to evaluate internal misconduct and officer-involved shooting investigations. But they both found the union’s proposal to allow only partial access to use-of-force cases lacking, saying aggregate data is of limited usefulness without knowing the underlying circumstances.

“When I was the IPA, when we were looking at use of force complaints, we were finding instances where serious use of force was used on individuals, and they were not being thoroughly investigated without a complaint,” Katz said. “While having the ability to see aggregate data is helpful, it does not give the insight necessary to discover whether force investigations are as thorough as they should be.”

Police Chief Eddie Garcia said he understood Katz’s critique but said the adoption last fall of more comprehensive, tiered evaluation of force used by his officers addresses some of that concern.

“We are already investigating to a greater extent when there’s different levels of force,” he said. “We also don’t want to have a witch hunt. But we do want to make sure that the data IPA has is useful.”

Still, Katz said he was heartened by the progress symbolized Monday.

“This proposal is a good start. Credit should go to the department and POA for taking the steps that they have, and PACT, which was out front seeing that the increased jurisdiction of IPA would be good for accountability,” he said.

LaDoris Cordell, who served as IPA from 2010 to 2015 and made some of the first policy recommendations for expanding the office’s reach, said she was “thrilled” to see the efforts finally approach fruition.

“During my tenure as the IPA, we introduced the recommendation of oversight of (department-initiated investigations) that was met with resistance by the POA,” she said. “That they appear to have embraced this oversight speaks volumes about the union’s positive attitude about civilian oversight and that police should not police themselves when it comes to all allegations of police misconduct.”

Questions remain about whether the proposed path for the expansion is viable. The union contends that the expansion could go into effect by a simple city council majority vote to amend city code or something similar.

That clashes with City Attorney Rick Doyle’s opinion that any alteration to the scope of IPA, which was created through a voter-approved city charter amendment, would require that same route and a vote of city residents.

Under Doyle’s interpretation, short of a costly special election, the earliest that the city could present a charter amendment ballot item to voters would be March 2020.

Assistant IPA Shivaun Nurre, who is running the office in the interim, said Monday’s formal proposal to expand the powers of her job was news to her.

“Nonetheless, we are encouraged that the POA is showing a strong commitment to come to the table to discuss IPA expansion,” Nurre wrote in an email to this news organization. “Future discussions need to include the voices of community stakeholders, city leaders and our office.”

But Garcia said the community discussion isn’t over.

“We’ve come so far in such a short amount of time, and this isn’t the end,” he said. “This department is always trying to move forward.”