How do you fix San Jose police’s troubles? Two former police watchdogs weigh in
Former San Jose independent police auditors LaDoris Cordell and Aaron Zisser are pictured in this file photo.

Two former San Jose police watchdogs say reforms proposed in the wake of excessive force during protests and revelations of racist Facebook posts by officers won’t fix systemic racism seeped into the department.

“What I heard early on from a lot of the leadership was, ‘let’s address the tactics that were used and that are available to be used during protests,’” former Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser told San José Spotlight. “That’s important, but I think what we’re hearing from the community is this is the tip of the iceberg. This is one symptom of a potentially larger problem.”

As controversy engulfs the department, including viral videos of an officer shouting expletives and charging at peaceful protesters, the former police auditors say city leaders and police spend too much time on the defensive.

“I think people in San Jose like to think of ourselves as different from San Francisco or Oakland or other cities that have really been scrutinized for police practices,” Zisser said. “But SJPD is a large police department and there’s just no reason to think there’s going to be any difference from any other large police department.”

According to the Campaign Zero’s police scorecard, San Jose scored an F based on police violence and accountability. The research found more Black people were killed or seriously injured by police than any other race, with officers here showing more racial bias in arrests and deadly force than 96% of departments in California.

Former Independent Police Auditor Judge LaDoris Cordell (Ret.) said the department’s recent scandals point to a larger problem of systemic racism. She said Mayor Sam Liccardo and Police Chief Eddie Garcia have yet to explicitly identify that problem.

“I just think these folks are in denial about the depth of the problem of systemic racism, and I’m just talking about policing. It’s had 401 years to sink into everything from 1619 to 2020,” Cordell, who is Black, told San José Spotlight. “This is not a quick fix, and it isn’t about talking sessions and task forces and committees and listening sessions … We need to address policing itself and how it has preyed upon communities of color in urban settings and in non-urban settings.”

Cordell served as San Jose’s police auditor for five years, overseeing the independent office from 2010 to 2015. Zisser served for less than a year, from 2017 to 2018. The Independent Police Auditor reviews citizen complaints of officer misconduct, suggests policy changes and provides oversight of SJPD.

In the 26 years since the office was established, there have been six Independent Police Auditors.

The reforms proposed by Liccardo include expanding the authority of the Independent Auditor to look into allegations of excessive use of force and racial discrimination, banning rubber bullets for crowd control, unsealing arbitration files that allow fired officers to keep their badges and providing public data dashboards with details on police stops and detentions.

But activists have said the reforms don’t go far enough and have called for divesting from the police budget to pay for social service worker to handle calls that officers aren’t properly trained for.

Zisser said focusing on the police response to protests is far too narrow. The more than 600 complaints filed with the police auditor after protests against the police killing of George Floyd should’ve sparked a far wider examination of potential racism and implicit bias, Zisser said.

“There’s reason to suspect if you’re seeing egregious behavior in that context, there may be other times when police officers are using force inappropriately, and we’re not seeing it because it’s not televised,” he said.

Zisser pointed to an independent study from the University of Texas, El Paso in 2017, which showed San Jose police officers  were 2.4 times more likely to handcuff Latino residents than white people during a traffic stop.

Image courtesy of the San Jose Independent Police Auditor’s Office.

One problem is that San Jose has no Civilian Review Board and the auditor can only audit cases after SJPD’s Internal Affairs office has conducted an investigation, which current auditor Shivaun Nurre said is a much more conservative oversight model.

And the auditor’s assessment of a case sometimes contradicts the conclusion of the Internal Affairs unit, Nurre added.

“We do have issues sometimes, for example, when we might look at a body-worn camera video and we might see things differently than Internal Affairs sees it,” Nurre said. “We want more information because on the face of it we think that maybe their determination is based on deposition or assumptions.”

Cordell said the limited authority of the Independent Police Auditor hurdles actions to prevent police brutality. For example, the auditor also has no power to force police officials to discipline or fire officers.

“If the IPA says, ‘no, this wasn’t objective, this was not proper, you should have sustained the complaint,’ it has no bearing or weight at all with the San Jose police … so they can do what they want,” Cordell said. “We can’t make them do it. So that is key to this. They should not be investigating themselves.”

Beyond investigations, Zisser and Cordell agree that officers need to build better connections with communities in San Jose.

Zisser said police community engagement events often focus more on police officers than the public.

“The police do a lot of community outreach. It came to me through lots of conversation that the goal was to see police officers as human beings and to build trust with the police,” Zisser said. “What’s more important is humanizing the community members.”

Cordell said a police officer spending an hour drinking coffee with people is not enough time to learn about the communities they patrol.

“Come have coffee with a cop, after they’re done, what do they do? They go back in their cars,” Cordell said. “That’s not it. Clearly, it doesn’t work.”

Contact Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story cited “Shop with a Cop” as an example of police community engagement events referenced by Aaron Zisser. He did not reference that specific event. We regret the error.

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