How will San Jose mayor candidates improve the police department?
San Jose police officers stand outside City Hall on May 30, 2020 on the second day of George Floyd protests. File photo.

Almost every candidate for San Jose mayor is pledging to rebuild the city’s police department, which is still recovering from staffing losses that happened a decade ago. Their strategies are largely similar, with some differences.

In recent forums, mayoral candidates Supervisor Cindy Chavez, San Jose Councilmembers Dev Davis, Matt Mahan and Raul Peralez and former police Sgt. James Spence have discussed the need to add more officers to the San Jose Police Department (SJPD). San Jose State University student Marshall Woodmansee is the only candidate who doesn’t want to increase the ranks.

The department has struggled in recent years with staffing and resource problems. SJPD lost nearly 600 officers after the 2008 recession due budget cuts, layoffs and a bitter battle over pension reform with former Mayor Chuck Reed.

As of March, SJPD has 1,153 sworn officers, but only 986 are active full time. The mayor’s proposed budget calls for adding 15 more officers in the next year and dozens more in coming years. Per a 2021 auditor’s report, the department’s overtime hours increased 300% over the past decade, which some officials say reflects the fact that officers have to work longer hours to make up for the lack of personnel.

“SJPD is the most thinly staffed, large metropolitan police department in the nation,” SJPD spokesperson Steve Aponte told San José Spotlight. According to FBI data, the national average is 2.4 sworn officers for every 1,000 residents; in San Jose, the ratio is closer to 1 officer per 1,000 residents.

Most candidates running for San Jose mayor believe the city needs to hire enough cops over the next five to 10 years to bring the department back to its pre-recession size of about 1,400 sworn officers.

Aside from Mahan, none of the candidates who spoke with San José Spotlight had an estimate for how much this would cost, with some saying they would need input from the city manager and budget director. Mahan estimates adding 250 officers over five years would cost approximately $50 million annually.

The San Jose Police Department has weathered several recent scandals involving misconduct, including revelations about an officer placed on leave months ago for allegedly offering a meth pipe to an informant to get information. Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement there is a serious problem in the department that requires attention, but it does not reflect the behavior of the vast majority of officers.

More cops

Davis, who has pledged adding 250 officers by 2030, told San José Spotlight she wants to hire more traffic enforcement officers and establish more foot patrols to protect businesses. She claims she’s the only candidate advocating for more community service officers, noting these workers currently write about 50% of the reports for the police department.

Davis also wants to complete the new police training center on time and on budget, and fully staff the South San Jose police substation. Last year, the City Council approved purchasing an $18.5 million plot of land on Enzo Drive to create a new police training facility. For several years SJPD has been training officers at a substation on Great Oaks Parkway.

“It’s important for us to maintain competitiveness with other police departments in our area,” Davis said. “We work in partnership with the (San Jose Police Officers’ Association) to ensure we’re competitive.”

Davis has also expressed interest in growing the partnership between SJPD and Santa Clara County in addressing mental health-related calls.

Peralez, a current reserve officer who served in SJPD for eight years, noted the department has seen a huge decline in applicants, which is part of a national trend. In 2017-18, the department received 10,063 applications. In 2020-21 SJPD received just 3,375.

Peralez said the 2020 protests over the Minneapolis police killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd and city officials pursuing departmental reforms may have scared off potential hires. He said the department needs more investigators for sexual assaults and domestic violence, plus mobile crisis response teams, which focus on people experiencing psychiatric emergencies.

As mayor, Peralez said he would make sure officers feel valued so the department can continue to attract talented workers.

“We’ve been an employer of choice most of the time, except for a handful of years after the recession when we had the big exodus of officers,” Peralez told San José Spotlight. “But we’ve now been attracting officers. We need to continue that momentum if we’re going to add a couple hundred officers to the ranks.”

Improving response times

Chavez said the city needs to hire more dispatchers and expand its teams that respond to mental health crises. Chavez noted when she served on the San Jose City Council over a decade ago, she requested city officials develop a staffing plan to meet current and emerging needs for the department. Chavez said she would do that again as mayor to understand how many officers—and what kinds—are needed. She emphasized her interest in building up the other half of public safety: the San Jose Fire Department.

“We are understaffed in both police and fire so dramatically—both of them need staffing plans,” Chavez told San José Spotlight. “Then the council would need to commit to funding those plans over a period of time.”

Chavez added she wants the department to reduce its call response times. According to an audit last year, SJPD’s response time for violent crimes and homicides is eight minutes, one minute above its seven minute target. For injury reports and property damage, SJPD takes about 21 minutes to respond, more than double its target time of 11 minutes.

Chavez said there must be enough officers to respond to emergency calls, but also to handle investigations. She noted that establishing San Jose as the biggest, safest city in the country means having a department capable of apprehending criminals and closing cases quickly.

Mahan told San José Spotlight he wants to bring SJPD’s staffing back to pre-recession levels over the next five years, which means adding about 50 officers per year. He said residents frequently complain to him about public safety issues, including a desire for faster police response times and better follow-through on investigations. He noted hiring new police officers is tied to San Jose’s economic growth.

“A strong economic development strategy can also be a strong public safety strategy,” Mahan said. “Us lowering barriers to investment, attracting jobs and building housing where it makes sense in San Jose is going to organically grow the tax base and allow us to better staff our police department and other core services.”

Mahan said compared to the past, San Jose is better able to compete with other cities for talented officers, but he wants to ensure police feel respected and appreciated. Mahan, who like most of his opponents does not support the movement to defund police departments, said he believes it’s possible to increase staffing while continuing to improve SJPD’s relationship with the community.

Unlike his opponents, Mahan said it’s possible to reduce overtime in the department outside of adding more officers. As an example, he said SJPD could follow the lead of the fire department and use data analytics to optimize response times.

Finding top candidates

Spence, a former SJPD officer, told San José Spotlight he wants to make it easier for recruiters to travel to colleges in other states to get the best and brightest candidates.

“We need to be able to have enough money and energy to get outside of our sphere and take off restrictions on where people can go and where they can stay so we can have a bigger pool of qualified candidates,” he said.

As mayor, Spence said he would talk with the police chief about implementing signing bonuses. He noted the city already has one of the best retirement packages in the South Bay, but he believes officials should also make sure affordable housing is available to new officers.

Woodmansee, a San Jose State University student, is the only candidate in the race who doesn’t support increasing the size of the police force. He told San José Spotlight he’d like to enhance public safety through alternative means.

“We can be creative in allocating our police department budget toward a wider range of policing that fits within our objective for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Woodmansee said. “I’d be very excited to talk with as many people as I could to find ways to integrate public safety and policing with global goals on really reforming human civilization for the 21st century.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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