UPDATE: San Jose sows seeds to begin public discussion on police reform
A protester calls for disarming police during a march from the San Jose Police Department to City Hall during protest earlier this year. File photo by Katie Lauer.

City leaders are gearing up to launch a public discussion on reforming San Jose’s police department, acknowledging it will be difficult.

“We expect this to be a pretty messy process, especially if we’re bringing divergent perspectives to the table,” said Deputy City Manager Angel Rios. “We’d be lucky if we get 30% consensus. What we’re searching for is ‘Are we framing the right issues? Are we framing the right problems to solve?’”

After reviewing two reports chock full of data about complaints filed against SJPD officers, the City Council unanimously kickstarted a community engagement process Sept. 29 to address the slew of issues facing the police department, including hiring a new police chief, addressing use-of-force complaints and increasing transparency.

The plan involves hiring a consultant to work with local organizations and residents to learn what police strategies will be best for public safety as a whole and will include input from the city’s Office of Racial Equity.

San Jose could get a new police chief as soon as January — just in time to be included in the community conversation.

“We want to spread a net as wide as we possibly can,” Councilmember Pam Foley said, adding LGBTQ residents and residents with disabilities also should be included in the discussion. “We need as many minds and eyes and hearts and backgrounds as we possibly can to show that we are listening.”

The issue of police reform has become increasingly heated in San Jose in light of violent clashes between protesters and use of rubber bullets against demonstrators, prompting residents of all ages to speak out.

“We would strongly encourage the police chief to be connected to and cognizant of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), low-income and youth communities to hopefully bridge the current disconnect between residents and the San Jose Police Department that has unfortunately resulted from the unnecessary use of aggression during police protests,” said Dheerj Jasuja, who represents District 10 on the San Jose Youth Commission.

Raj Jayadev, president of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a social justice advocacy group, said the city has been sidestepping public calls to defund the police and reallocate money to support other emergency response programs. The council’s efforts to reach out to the community and acknowledge other voices are “too little, too late,” he said.

“It’s just terribly ironic to me that they spend money on consultants as if it’s this really incredible puzzle to figure out how to get community engagement on an issue when the community has been yelling what they want, louder than I think I’ve ever heard,” Jayadev said. “And they didn’t respond to it.”

The consultant will help the city create virtual meetings, polls, focus groups and text platforms for residents to share opinions. Engagement with faith leaders, social justice advocates, youth groups, the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force, underrepresented communities of color and others is expected to begin in January.

Tom Saggau, spokesperson for San Jose Police Officers Association, which represents about 1,100 SJPD employees, said polling is necessary for people who can’t attend public meetings in the evening and for residents who may have a different view than some advocates who are “intent on sowing division, discord and discontent.”

“It’s unfortunate that some anti-police advocates believe the only voices that count are those that scream to defund and disband the police department,” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “Professional criminal apologists want to point fingers at the police and blame them for every ill in society instead of creating a realistic plan that protects the safety of neighborhoods and reduces the number of victims, but hey, they need to get their funding somehow, so blame the cops.”

Councilmember Johnny Khamis said he hopes the consultant and stakeholders will be able to access diverse views — especially ones from his district who may be able to speak to what the police are doing right. He also said people who are training police officers should be included in the conversation.

“It’s not a monolithic city that we live in,” Khamis said. “I venture to say that most people in our city have a decent opinion of our police, unlike what we hear in the media sometimes.”

The city is considering giving grants to certain organizations that can help engage residents and seeks to provide incentives to residents who may be sacrificing work time to participate in lengthy discussions surrounding police reform.

Mayor Sam Liccardo expressed concerns about paying organizations to bring residents to the drawing board and said he would rather see nonprofits continue to provide direct services to the community. Liccardo said this type of arrangement undermines the credibility.

“There’s going to be a very complex set of relationships if we’re paying organizations to go engage the community and we’re not sure whether they’ll bring the whole community or just part of the community that agrees with them,” Liccardo said.

The city also will hire a consultant to evaluate the culture and training related to the police department’s current use of force, improve how investigations are conducted and review department policies. A report of the findings will be released in Spring 2021.

The city has budgeted $150,000 for a use-of-force review and $100,000 for public outreach.

In 2019, 188 conduct complaints from the public were filed against sworn San Jose officers, according to a recent IPA Report. The report also found in 2019, none of the 139 use-of-force complaints in San Jose were sustained.

“This gets frustrating over time. I just want officers disciplined,” resident Scott Largent told the council.

Councilmember Maya Esparza proposed asking residents what public safety programs the city should invest in to help address problems traditionally tackled by police.

“We as a community are asking them to take on roles that a lot of other professionals should have, whether it’s gang prevention, social workers, additional investment in our youth —these are all part of the equation,” Esparza said. “We can’t ignore that police are a part of that equation and they are needed in neighborhoods.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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