San Jose mayoral candidate polls residents on defunding police
San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan announced his mayoral campaign in September 2021. File photo by Lloyd Alaban.

A San Jose mayoral candidate is taking a stand against defunding the police, even though there has been little public conversation around the topic for months.

San José Spotlight obtained a picture of a flyer that appears to originate from Councilmember Matt Mahan’s mayoral campaign. The flyer asks, “Should we defund the police?” Then claims there are continued calls to defund the police force despite persistent property crime and a spike in violent crime in San Jose.

“I believe that we need a police force that is engaged with and accountable to the community—but defunding is not the answer. That’s just common sense,” the flyer states. It also links to a survey asking residents for their opinion on defunding and several other issues, including homelessness and housing.

Mahan told San José Spotlight the issue is important to voters.

“Concerns about defunding are raised at every event I’ve done,” he said. “I want to be clear that, if anything, police staffing levels in San Jose are far too low. We should keep striving to improve policing practices, but defunding is not the answer. The survey has been a great tool for engaging voters in a conversation about this issue.”

A flyer apparently distributed by San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan’s mayoral campaign.

The defund movement gained national prominence in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Activists criticized the disproportionate amount of money spent on police departments and urged cities to divert funding into social welfare programs. San Jose protesters called for reallocation of police funding, which included a rally outside Mayor Sam Liccardo’s house, when the city was preparing its budget in June 2020. Those calls grew louder when four officers were linked to a private Facebook group filled with racist comments.

San Jose lawmakers supported a proposal to rein in the use of rubber bullets and other use-of-force tactics, but were uninterested in defunding the San Jose Police Department, which faced a budget shortfall in 2020. The budget approved that year, $471.5 million, accounted for roughly 30% of San Jose’s general fund.

Candidate stances on defunding police

Councilmember Raul Peralez, who kicked off his mayoral campaign in April, told San José Spotlight the city is still trying to rebuild its department, which lost hundreds of officers a decade ago after the Great Recession when Mayor Chuck Reed pushed to reduce pension benefits. Peralez, a former police officer who still serves in the reserves, said he’s still against defunding the police, and actually wants to grow the police force. He found Mahan’s flyer confusing because defunding hasn’t been addressed at council meetings for more than a year.

“I think Councilmember Mahan, now a candidate for mayor, is sort of regurgitating a hot-button issue that the council already spoke on,” Peralez said. “But it’s not a hot button issue for us today, and it’s not anything the council has brought up.”

Councilmember Dev Davis, also running in the mayor’s race, expressed a similar aversion to removing funding from SJPD, noting she had the same stance when she discussed this issue with the rest of the council in 2020.

“I think we have the most thinly staffed police department of any big city in the U.S.,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “We need more officers so we can have more comprehensive patrols and can staff the departments within SJPD that have been decimated.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who announced her mayoral campaign in September, told San José Spotlight she doesn’t support defunding the police.

“I think we need to invest more in public safety,” Chavez said.

Chavez co-authored a resolution last year with state Sen. Dave Cortese declaring racism a public health crisis in Santa Clara County.

San Jose does have a relatively small police force for its size. There are about 1,100 officers in San Jose, which has more than 1 million residents. By comparison, neighboring San Francisco has 2,100 sworn officers for a city population of approximately 875,000—about double San Jose’s police force. The department has also struggled to recruit new officers in recent years, with officials blaming the cost of living and bad press from protests.

Police leaders say Mahan is capitalizing on a divisive topic to drum up support for his campaign.

“Our mayoral poll had Matt Mahan barely above the margin of error with almost 80% of likely voters not knowing who he was, so voters should expect him to keep trying to manufacture issues that he can champion like his strong opposition to a much needed acute care mental health facility for youth,” said Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the San Jose Police Officers’ Association.

Police reform advocates say there has been little to no progress in San Jose when it comes diverting money from SJPD to social programs.

“I believe our reality in San Jose is there has not been a single significant reform in their funding, in their practices, or in the tools they’re allowed to use,” William Armaline, director of the Human Rights Institute at San Jose State University, told San José Spotlight.

Armaline said the phrase “defund the police” is now used as a political signifier by people who want to show support for law enforcement, disregarding the fact that few—if any—activists are calling for the complete disbanding of police departments.

Mahan’s flyer, which mentions an uptick in violent crimes, appears to refer to a recent handful of high-profile robberies of luxury stores at Bay Area malls. At the end of November, Mahan joined his council colleagues in approving federal funds to pay for new automatic license plate reader cameras to help law enforcement crack down on these crimes.

Some types of violent crime, including rape and robbery, increased in 2021 compared to last year, although they are mostly in line with stats from 2019. Total property crimes actually declined by 7% from 2020 to 2021, dropping from 21,529 to 20,029, according to department records.

Sandra Asher, a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart and a resident of Mahan’s District 10, saw a picture of the flyer on Facebook. Asher believes Mahan is failing to focus on underlying problems behind crime, such as addiction, mental illness and gun proliferation.

“I think we need to look at police funding and determine where those funds can be better spent on underlying causes of crime,” she told San José Spotlight.

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

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