San Jose gets police reform tips from neighboring cities
Protesters marched from San Jose City Hall to Highway 101 on May 29, 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man. File photo by Katie Lauer.

A San Jose commission is looking for tips from neighboring cities on how to better handle problems within the police department amid public scrutiny.

The Charter Review Commission on Monday listened to presentations from four police oversight groups: the Oakland Community Police Review Agency, the Orange County Office of Independent Review, the BART independent police auditor and the BART Police Citizen Review Board. The presentations are part of a San Jose pilot program regarding how investigations of alleged officer misconduct are conducted.

The 23-member commission recommends changes to San Jose’s charter, which acts as the city’s constitution and determines the powers of the mayor and how residents vote.

San Jose officials and activists have wrestled with the idea of police oversight since the passage of Measure G last year, which allows the independent police auditor to review police misconduct cases and the City Council to change the auditor’s duties. Activists have pushed for the city to defund the police following the George Floyd protests in May 2020.

The San Jose Police Department has faced public scrutiny since then. SJPD and its auditor were accused of downplaying a July incident where an officer tried to kiss a woman. In August, a woman sued the city for injuries she suffered when a police officer kicked her in the stomach, handcuffed her and dragged her across a parking lot. And several members of a police reform group resigned earlier this year after accusing the city and others on the board of not focusing on police reform.

San Jose commissioners are considering ideas such as looking at the structure of the independent police auditor’s office, developing better rapport with residents and the police union and reaching out to diverse community organizations, such as faith groups, neighborhood groups and ethnic-based groups.

Years behind

Commissioner Garrick Percival was impressed at the level of oversight Oakland has over its police department, and asked if there are ways to implement some of the practices in San Jose. Oakland has three police oversight groups: its citizen-led police commission, another citizen-led group that investigates officer misconduct and the inspector general, which audits procedures and conduct.

“San Jose is a number of years behind Oakland with respect to thinking about some of these issues,” Percival said.

Oakland’s independent police reform groups have had to deal with everything from officers posting tone-deaf memes to skirmishes with the city’s police commission.

“There’s been this cultural change within the police department that’s caused officers, especially command staff, to realize that there is benefit in having an independent, outside agency take a look at what the police is doing,” said John Alden, executive director of the Oakland Community Police Review Agency.

Commissioner Huy Tran asked if some of the police oversight boards formed with the cooperation of police unions or without it.

Russell Bloom, the BART independent police auditor, said there was “a little push, a little pull” from the police union—especially in the aftermath of the killing of Oscar Grant by BART police.

“There was a lot of police department and police union involvement in the discussion, and there was a lot of give and take,” Bloom said. “The department even recognized itself that it was ripe for some reform, but at the same time, unions are going to union, and they’re going to do their best to protect their members.”

Room for improvement

A June report revealed a quarter of sworn San Jose police officers received at least one complaint in 2020, and 23% of the complaints contained allegations about use of force.

“It’s evident that there are a lot of new best practices presented tonight,” said resident Ellina Yin, suggesting the city look at better practices toward surveillance technology to ensure communities of color aren’t disproportionately affected. “San Jose has a lot of room for improvement for us to follow.”

One resident said the commission needs to “tread carefully,” if the city were to develop more robust practices for its own independent police auditor.

“We have this extensive discussion about Oakland and the discussion about the police commission having some kind of role in the police culture,” said Roland, who didn’t give his last name. “The residents are about to take matters into their own hands. I don’t think the city of San Jose wants to go there. So my advice is to tread carefully.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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