San Jose leaders reject expanded powers for police auditor
A San Jose Police Department cruiser at the corner of W. Taylor Street and N. San Pedro Street. File photo.

One year after a consultant said San Jose should expand the powers of the city’s police watchdog, city leaders have shot down the recommendation.

The San Jose City Council rejected a proposal 8-2 Tuesday to give the Independent Police Auditor’s (IPA) office increased authority, including the right to directly investigate some alleged police misconduct cases. The council majority instead voted to begin pursuing tweaks and improvements to the current police oversight model, including creating a uniform set of policies to guide how the IPA and San Jose Police Department’s internal affairs unit work together.

The decision capped more than three years of debate and delay about whether and how San Jose should beef up the IPA’s role, following calls for greater oversight of police in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020. It also comes during a tumultuous time for the IPA’s office, months after the city’s most recent IPA retired abruptly after a drunken verbal argument with a police officer at a community event.

Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez and Omar Torres dissented, and Councilmember Dev Davis was absent. Jimenez said he favored expanding the office’s powers, and wanted to defer the council’s decision until the city interviews and hires a new permanent IPA, so that person could weigh in on the topic.

“I think it’s wrong to put this on the shelf and not do it,” Jimenez said. “To be honest with you, I fear that we’re never going to have another opportunity as a city to go down this road and explore a different model. I think we’re foregoing this very special place in time in which we can open it up and figure out what the best approach is.”

The council’s decision directed city officials to look into the costs of hiring additional workers for the IPA to help handle the office’s workload, including attending more misconduct investigation interviews with police and community outreach efforts.

The decision is a win for the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, a union that represents SJPD’s rank and file officers. The association has consistently opposed the expansion of the IPA’s powers and challenged the legality of taking some cases out of the department’s hands.

“San Jose police officers are appreciative of the mayor and council majority for recognizing that, although our current independent police auditor model works well, it does need additional staff and written policies and procedures to strengthen its police oversight responsibilities,” Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the police union, told San José Spotlight after the vote.

Steve Slack, president of the police union, told councilmembers that hiring civilian investigators to handle misconduct cases would harm morale and increase uncertainty when the department is struggling to recruit more cops.

“There is no trust for private contractors to take over the important work that’s performed by our dedicated internal affairs unit,” Slack said.

The city is planning to begin a search for a permanent IPA soon, in the wake of the retirement of Shivaun Nurre, who was with the IPA’s office since 2006 and helmed the office from late 2018 until June.

Reporting by San Jose Spotlight and other news organizations in September revealed Nurre’s abrupt retirement in June came as she was allegedly set to be investigated over her argument with an officer.

The council unanimously voted in closed session to appoint Karyn Sinunu-Towery, a former 30-year Santa Clara County prosecutor, to an interim IPA role in late June to run the office until a permanent one can be hired, which some police critics panned as a poor choice.

Councilmember Arjun Batra said he thought Tuesday was a “golden opportunity” to vote on whether to expand the IPA office’s powers now, without a permanent IPA in place.

“We do not have to worry about at the moment whether this person likes that model or not,” Batra said. He added that with a decision already in place on the oversight model, the new IPA will have a clear understanding of their role when they are hired.

Under the city’s current oversight structure, the IPA can audit all investigations of misconduct that are conducted by SJPD’s internal affairs unit. The IPA has access to documents and video footage, and can attend investigatory interviews and ask questions in those interviews.

Under a “hybrid model” of oversight proposed by a consultant hired by the city in 2022, the IPA’s office powers would expand to include investigation, not only auditing, and three civilian investigators would be added to the office. SJPD’s internal affairs unit would also continue to do some misconduct investigations.

Sinunu-Towery, who upon taking the interim role told San José Spotlight she broadly supported expanding the powers of the IPA’s office, changed her tune in the last month. She said once she got “in the weeds” of the work, she saw gaps in the office’s ability to take advantage of the powers it already has, such as not having enough workers to attend all investigative interviews.

“The current staff is so professional and working so hard. We just need one or two more people like that and San Jose will be very proud of their system of police oversight,” Sinunu-Towery told the council.

Rev. Sammie Evans, the civic engagement director for the local organization People Acting in Community Together, told San José Spotlight her group disagrees with Sinunu-Towery’s assessment, and supported deferring the decision.

She said the group joined the call for expanding IPA powers since the start of the year, holding events in front of City Hall, and has seen several delays and inaction by officials long before Nurre’s retirement.

The process of looking into how to expand IPA powers started in earnest in August 2020. By December 2022, former Mayor Sam Liccardo and advocates backing him failed to get council support for the hybrid model recommended by the consultant.

“The hold up has been with the city manager’s office not engaging in talks with the (police union) and the (union) completely and utterly reluctant to even consider it,” Evans said.

Councilmember Peter Ortiz said he didn’t think deferring the decision would change the outcome.

“I may think differently if this room was filled with advocates asking for this policy change, but I don’t really see anybody here in the room asking for it and demanding it,” Ortiz said at the meeting.

Jimenez said he didn’t want the council to make “long-term decisions based on temporary hurt” at the IPA office.

“I have real concerns that is in fact, potentially … driving some of these decisions that are really going to shape the (IPA) office for years to come,” he said.

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

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