Amid auditor strife, PACT renews focus on increasing San Jose police oversight

Robert Salonga |San Jose Mercury News | Link to Article  

SAN JOSE — Striking back against a growing chorus of criticism against the police auditor, one of the city’s largest community groups is calling for police to curb their scathing political rhetoric and reignite talks to expand civilian oversight in San Jose.

People Acting in Community Together, a faith based civil-rights coalition, held a news conference in front of City Hall on Monday to restate their support for Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser, who has been besieged by a string of controversies that prompted police and union leadership to cast doubt over his objectivity.

PACT and its allies do not believe Zisser’s actions have made him unqualified to serve and think his critics instead are taking a swipe at the independence of the office and efforts to increase the IPA’s reach.

“Withdraw the ultimatums, return to the table, and let’s move forward together,” PACT leader Frank Richardson said. “This is not about persecuting our police force … We have an opportunity for meaningful civilian oversight. I encourage all of the stakeholders to help us realize that goal.”

The key points of proposed expansion include the IPA’s office gaining new access to records about internal department-initiated and use-of-force investigations. Currently, the IPA has domain primarily over citizen complaints.

Other PACT members warned against letting the controversy upend the broader cause of increased police transparency and accountability.

“Enhanced civilian oversight is an issue that appeals to all residents regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status,” said Sita Stukes, an organizer and leader with Women’s March San Jose who attended the news conference.

The San Jose Police Officers’ Association, which has repeatedly called for Zisser to resign from a post he has held for just 10 months, maintains that it supports increased oversight, just not with him at the helm.

“To provide Aaron Zisser expanded oversight of the police department would be akin to handing the keys to a new car to an unqualified driver who has already driven three other cars into a ditch,” union president Paul Kelly said. “The last thing San Jose residents, police officers and businesses need is more incompetence stemming from this IPA.”

Zisser first came under fire after an annual IPA audit report suggested stark racial disparities in certain use-of-force cases based on less than a handful of incidents, and again when his office did not promptly alert the department about a man who specifically threatened to shoot officers in a police complaint.

Those incidents have lingered in the minds of the SJPD rank and file, Chief Eddie Garcia said.

“It’s not just me. I’m dealing with 1,100 individuals who have seen and heard these things. At this point, I don’t know how we move forward with him,” Garcia said. “One way or the other, as strong as we denounce Zisser, we have to be strong in our support for the IPA as an office. We 100 percent support the work the office does.”

The SJPOA then hounded him for meeting with demonstrators before they staged a rally that criticized police over the fatal 2016 officer-involved shooting of a suicidal man in the East San Jose hills, an event the union characterized as anti-police. Zisser said he was there with the aim of hearing his constituents’ concerns.

The families of several people who have died in recent officer-involved shootings in San Jose said in a statement Monday that the union’s actions have galvanized them.

“If the POA leadership’s larger goal of the campaign to remove Mr. Zisser is to intensify antipathy towards the San Jose police, while simultaneously building sympathy for the IPA,” the statement reads, “they are succeeding.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo, who has previously criticized and questioned Zisser’s judgment, has been more circumspect as of late. Monday, he made a brief appearance at the news conference and offered diplomatic remarks on increasing the purview of the IPA, including lauding Garcia and the union’s receptiveness to additional oversight.

“I remain committed to supporting improvements to the structure of our system of police accountability,” he said. “I expect that all parties will continue negotiating in good faith to move forward on these reforms.”

Zisser said he appreciated the community support he and his office have received. He stated unequivocally that he has no intent to step down.

“That would be terribly unfair to the city and community, and damaging to the office the project of oversight,” he said. “I’m confident I’m doing the job within boundaries. Even as I acknowledge there are opportunities to rein in my personal style and do a better job of anticipating other people’s perceptions, I committed to this job. The community deserves that.”

Zisser noted that his counterpart in Denver, Nick Mitchell, faced similar scorn from a police union in 2015 for attending a demonstration critical of police but weathered the criticism, which he cited as proof that the current turmoil is not insurmountable.

“For my part, I’m willing to set aside whatever’s been said about me, and I still consider the POA to be a critical stakeholder,” he said. “Let’s have some perspective here. We can get through this.”

Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, attended the news conference and sought to redirect the union’s push for Zisser to step down.

“We want the POA to consider a new president … If you do not get rid of your current president, this relationship will only retard and go backwards,” Moore said. “Paul Kelly, step down, sit down, go home.”

The union almost mirrored Moore’s remarks in response.

“It’s unfortunate that virtually every time Mr. Moore speaks before a microphone he sets back progress on achieving mutual goals. The POA always entertains serious suggestions or constructive proposals; as soon as he offers one, we will consider it,” the union said in a statement. “In the meantime, we will not sit down nor go home when we see a public official failing in his duties to serve everyone in the community equally.”