San Jose chooses new interim police watchdog
Karyn Sinunu-Towery, the new San Jose independent police auditor. Photo courtesy Karyn Sinunu-Towery.

San Jose leaders have chosen a new acting independent police auditor.

The San Jose City Council unanimously voted in closed session Tuesday to appoint Karyn Sinunu-Towery, a former 30-year Santa Clara County prosecutor, to helm the oversight role while a search for the next permanent auditor is underway.

The city announced earlier this month that Shivaun Nurre, the current independent police auditor, plans to retire and was granted a 90-day leave of absence leading up to her official retirement in September.

Sinunu-Towery said she’s honored to step into the role temporarily.

“I have always believed that the office of IPA is extremely important to San Jose. It promotes public confidence in law enforcement in San Jose,” Sinunu-Towery told San José Spotlight. “The policy work is important, the accountability measures are important.”

San Jose was one of the first cities in the nation to implement an independent police auditor in 1993, which monitors and reviews misconduct investigations done by the police department’s internal affairs unit. At this time, the IPA cannot independently investigate allegations of wrongdoing by officers.

The office also works to collect complaints from the public about police, makes policy suggestions and issues an annual report collating major data highlights and potential issues with the department’s work.

In addition to spending 30 years at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, Sinunu-Towery has volunteered with the Northern California Innocence Project for the last decade, and recently helped free a man framed for murder. The Innocence Project is a nonprofit run out of Santa Clara University’s School of Law that challenges wrongful convictions and promotes criminal justice policy reform.

She was inspired to volunteer there in part after she investigated a wrongful murder conviction in her own department when at the DA’s office, that resulted in a man spending 12 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

While her work has involved close collaboration with police, she has prosecuted officers in some cases, she said.

“Criminal justice issues have been the core of my professional life,” she said.

She said she isn’t interested in the full-time role, but wants the city to have time to do a “robust search” to find the next permanent auditor.

“Karyn will bring stability and continuity to the Office of the IPA while we conduct a nationwide search for a permanent IPA,” Mayor Matt Mahan said in a statement following the appointment. “Karyn has always put rule of law and pursuit of truth and justice at the center of her work, and I’m confident she will bring these values to the role.”

Not everyone is happy about the interim appointment, however. Raj Jayadev, a police critic and founder of the two decade-old community organizing group Silicon Valley De-Bug, said putting a former prosecutor in the role is ridiculous, and shows the council is either unaware of what the IPA office does or doesn’t care.

“The idea that they would place someone who spent decades putting primarily poor people and Black and Brown people in jail by working with police officers to effectuate that, to then give that person a seat as a head of a police oversight body…it’s laughable,” Jayadev told San José Spotlight.

Jayadev said councilmembers, especially the ones who call themselves progressives, will need to eventually explain their decision to support the appointment.

“They are law enforcement family,” Jayadev said. “Police and prosecutors, they’re Batman and Robin, they feed off each other.”

Sinunu-Towery ended her career at the DA’s office after leading the prosecution of former Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr. for corruption and gambling with public money. She is married to retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Towery.

She is stepping into the role at a critical time — a pending decision about whether to expand the investigative powers of the IPA office are in apparent limbo.

In December 2022, the city council approved a consultant’s recommendation to assign the IPA office three misconduct investigators to independently look into allegations of police wrongdoing. But the change hasn’t yet been made.

The city’s Public Safety, Finance & Strategic Support Committee planned to discuss how to implement this at its June 15 meeting, but that was postponed indefinitely after the abrupt revelation that Nurre would retire.

The police union has consistently challenged the legality of expanding the IPA’s investigative powers, and criticized Nurre’s advocacy for the change.

Sinunu-Towery said she is in favor of adding investigators to the IPA office, but it’s unclear if the issue will be resolved during her time as interim auditor, which doesn’t yet have an end date.

“I think it’s one of the issues that has to be dealt with that (Nurre) has left a little bit dangling,” Sinunu-Towery said. “But what path it’s going to take, it’s far too early for me to answer that question.”

Nurre, who has been in the permanent auditor role since 2018, has worked in the auditor’s office in some capacity since 2006. She has not responded to multiple requests for comment about her decision to retire. The announcement came out of a special closed session meeting of the council on June 7.

The council also deferred a planned presentation from Nurre that same week about her annual oversight report, which noted that complaints against police officers in the city were up for the third straight year.

Her report also called out a new city agreement with the police union that could allow cops suspended for misconduct to serve their suspension while still on duty, which some critics say casts doubt on the department’s commitments accountability. Nurre also raised concerns about a recent shift by police investigators to categorize complaints about officers pointing their guns at people as “procedure” issues, not as uses of force.

Sinunu-Towery said Mahan and Nora Frimann, the city attorney, approached her about taking on the role. Frimann told San José Spotlight Sinunu-Towery’s experience will be beneficial in the position.

“I think what’s important is she understands policing and she understands what good police work is, and she’s also been involved in dealing with situations where there has been police misconduct,” Frimann told San José Spotlight.

Sinunu-Towery could start her role as early as next week, the mayor’s office said.

This story will be updated.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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