San Jose police killings leave taxpayers footing a ‘blank check’
A group of San Jose police officers are pictured in this file photo. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

For the families of more than a dozen people killed by San Jose police since 2003, the cost of losing a life is immeasurable. But the financial cost of police killings in San Jose lies on the shoulders of taxpayers.

A public records request from San José Spotlight revealed police killings have cost the city’s taxpayers nearly $7 million. The records from the San Jose Police Department show compensation for the deaths of 17 people killed by officers since 2003, resulting in five hefty settlements.

The rest of the fatality cases are still in litigation, were dismissed or settled without a financial payout – one death, for example, resulted in the city installing a memorial bench.

The fatal police confrontations of Bich Cau Tran, Valente Galindo, Steve Salinas and Richard Lua totaled $3.9 million in combined payouts. Tran and Galindo were fatally shot in 2003 and 2011, respectively; Salinas’ death in 2007 resulted from excessive force and tasering; and Lua’s death in 2009 was caused in part by fatal blows by a baton.

The highest settlement – $2.95 million – was awarded for the death of Anthony Nuñez in 2016. A jury decided that veteran officers Michael Santos and Anthony Vizzusi used excessive force when called to Nuñez’s home on the Fourth of July, according to reporting from the Mercury News. The two officers fatally shot the 18-year-old man.

Sally Sanchez, Nuñez’ aunt who raised him from childhood, said no dollar amount will make up for their loss.

“I don’t want your money,” Sanchez said through tears at a protest for defunding the San Jose Police Department earlier this month. “Give me my son back.”

Civil-rights attorney Adante Pointer, who represented Nunez’s family, said payouts aren’t sufficient justice.

“While a family is happy to have a jury agree and pronounce the killing wrong and unlawful, the award for the family’s loss … will never compensate for missing birthdays, missing having grandchildren, watching movies,” Pointer told San José Spotlight. “Those moments that make up a life will never be able to be recreated, and you can never be paid enough.”

But when officers aren’t reprimanded – either by the police chief, district attorney or mayor – often times the only option left for justice is a civil suit.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and push to defund the police, Pointer sees misconduct settlements as a blank check and free pass for officers who should be held accountable, especially as the protections for mistakes, injuries and deaths caused by police aren’t equally applied to other professions.

“If this was a deli shop, and you continuously make sandwiches that cause people to get hurt and sick, and they sue and they continue to sue, and they’re costing the business money, you would not expect to have a job,” Pointer said. “You certainly wouldn’t be given a paid vacation while they figured out if you really did make the sandwich incorrectly.”

The $6 million in payouts from San Jose Police Department killings is by no means the highest rate of payouts in the country, with New York City annually allocating around $700 million for lawsuit payouts.

But significant six-figure settlements from City Hall aren’t reserved for wrongful deaths only.

In San Jose, hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone to misconduct involving non-lethal excessive force, unlawful detainment and rape. Estimates for payouts related to police misconduct not resulting in death are murky, given how few people report complaints.

In his 15 years of experience, Pointer said he’s never had a slowdown of requests for help related to police violence, but can only take on around 40 cases at a time.

Of the lawsuits that are filed, Pointer said they’re hard cases to win when factoring in public opinion, jury selection and presentation of evidence, which is often records from the police themselves.

“These civil settlements are like canaries in the coal mine, and they’re letting the public know, ‘Hey, something was wrong here,’” Pointer said. “The police officers keep all their benefits, keep their retirement, keep the prestige of their job and all the access to the privilege it gives them, and the taxpayers are the ones holding the bag.”

San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia has consistently defended his officers, including Officer Jared Yeun, who was captured on video shouting expletives and charging at protesters during George Floyd protests. The chief has, however, supported some use-of-force reforms including a ban on rubber bullets for crowd control.

Whenever police are exonerated during investigations of shootings by the District Attorney’s office, Jim McManis, a veteran San Jose attorney, said that “the only real remedy that a family has at that point is to bring a civil action.”

And while body-worn and dashboard cameras provide some evidence for victims, civil suits remain hard arguments to win.

“They’re tough cases; the law favors the police, jurors are sympathetic to the police, the judges, I think, are sympathetic to police,” McManis said. “Now, that may change with what we’ve seen since they killed George Floyd. Only time will tell, but there’s been a lot of killings over the years.”

Settlements tend to happen to avoid harsher penalties from a judge, he said, and even when settlements aren’t significant, attorneys’ fees can add hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses on the public’s dime.

So while the argument about defunding rages on, McManis said the focus should be on improving policing and cutting down taxpayer- funded awards for police killings – whether that’s reallocating responsibilities to outside agencies or providing more internal training and resources to officers.

“In fairness, I think (Sheriff Laurie) Smith and Chief (Eddie) Garcia really care about doing the right thing, and I think most of the officers are that way too,” McManis said. “The point here is not just throwing money at the problem. The point here is figuring out what can we do to make better police work.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

 

Amended SJ Spotlight report 7.10.20

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