UPDATE: Concerns remain after San Jose leaders approve police watchdog reforms
A police vehicle parked at the San Jose Police Department at 201 W. Mission St. Photo By Ben Irwin.

    San Jose leaders moved forward with recommendations on how to improve the city’s police department, despite lingering concerns and drama around the resignation and retirement of the two top police auditors.

    San Jose City Council today approved all five recommendations from the Office of the Independent Police Auditor: tracking when an officer points a firearm at a person as use of force, tracking weapons found on suspects who were perceived to be armed, providing guidance to officers when asking people to exit their vehicles, updating policies to reflect when searching a person is allowed and the need for technology to verify car window tint.

    Karyn Sinunu-Towery, a former 30-year Santa Clara County prosecutor, presented the report on Tuesday. She took over as the interim auditor after the previous head of office, Shivaun Nurre, opted to retire after she had a tense, drunken argument with a police officer at an event in June. Nurre was originally going to present the report she compiled with her office before she retired.

    “I am presenting a report I did not write,” Sinunu-Towery said at the meeting.

    Beyond the recommendations, Sinunu-Towery said the report is filled with data, some of which is misleading. Of the 362 complaints against officers included in the report, the auditor’s office disagreed with 14% of the complaints and 16% of them were “closed with concern.”

    Sinunu-Towery said if an officer investigation is not completed within 365 days, discipline cannot be handed down. Multiple investigations were hastily closed due to the auditor and the city manager having minimal time to meet deadlines, according to city officials.

    If an investigation that had been completed came to the office of IPA with only 45 days remaining on the calendar, it was often closed with concern, Sinunu-Towery said. If it came with only 10 days remaining, the auditor disagreed on the investigation and it was closed.

    “I can’t tell you today, if IPA disagreed 14% of the time that it was about the procedure, or it was about (the) substance (of the investigation),” Sinunu-Towery said.

    Sinunu-Towery said she “didn’t want to get into personnel issues,” but she thought some people “fell down on the job” in getting officer investigations completed on time.

    “Both the office of IPA and (Internal Affairs) fail to meet some deadlines,” Sinunu-Towery said. “I think we’ve worked out those deadlines … that’s my hope.”

    Sinunu-Towery did have confidence in data points that show that force complaints are dropping: allegations of force are down 31% and use of force complaints are down 19%. But overall complaints against sworn officers are at a three-year high.

    Police Chief Mata said in a Sept. 19 memo the department has already been using its best efforts to track data on suspects perceived armed and weapons found, a recommendation in the independent auditor’s report. But San Jose’s police watchdog said in over half of the 1,593 events where force was used by officers after a perceived threat of a weapon on a person, officers reported the weapon as either “unknown,” “other dangerous weapon” or “other and unknown.”

    The report highlights that the threat of a weapon provides substantial weight in justifying the use of force. In 2021, suspects armed with weapons, deadly or otherwise, were found in only 4% of use of force incidents, according to the report.

    Councilmember Peter Ortiz pressed Assistant Police Chief Paul Joseph — Mata was not in attendance — about having more oversight in assuring that weapons found or not found in use of force cases are actually reported. Ortiz’s question went largely unanswered by Sinunu-Towery and Joseph.

    Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, said the upheaval in leadership in the police auditor’s office has not been kind to morale.

    “I believe many of the workers are very frustrated and disenchanted right now with the organization as a whole and the lack of support and response from city government,” Moore told San José Spotlight.

    Before leaving her post, Nurre, as well as former Mayor Sam Liccardo, suggested the city expand auditors’ investigative powers over the police department in December 2022. But no action has been taken to move that forward and conversations have stalled. The IPA’s office doesn’t yet independently investigate allegations of wrongdoing by officers.

    “We keep seeing there’s nothing happening to the officers (with complaints), and nothing’s really changing with the interaction with us as a community,” Moore said. “Start looking at Internal Affairs, putting those officers back out on the street to do beat work and put the (money) from Internal Affairs to hire a total, independent police auditor free from the police department altogether … and give them the power to subpoena the police to come talk to them. Actually give them some power.”

    Eva Roa, the city’s assistant independent police auditor since 2020, also left her post in September. She said she was not granted an exit interview upon quitting and instead sent a scathing letter to city officials. In it, she alleged the office is largely without power and the city consistently ignores IPA’s recommendations to hold sworn city employees accountable for their actions.

    “One would hope SJPD would want to improve practices and create a culture of accountability and responsibility,” Roa said. “However, based on some of the more egregious cases I’ve seen, SJPD and Internal Affairs lacks real accountability and growth as a department.”

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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