San Jose police union’s political clout clouded by drug scandal
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan is seen listening to Police Chief Anthony Mata at a news conference at Shady Oaks Park in San Jose on April 3, 2023. Mahan and Mata called for doubling the rate of hiring police officers in the city. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    San Jose officials are reckoning with a path forward after federal investigators brought drug smuggling charges against the top San Jose police union administrator last week. Amid a scandal that has rocked the union, it’s unclear whether the powerful organization will lose the political clout it’s wielded in the city and wider region for decades.

    Local officials and activist groups are raising concerns over whether the city should cut off contract negotiations with the police union. Additionally, critics have pushed for elected officials to publicly distance themselves from the police union and refuse financial support from the organization in coming elections.

    “The (San Jose Police Officers’ Association) gives money to a lot of political campaigns. So now that these politicians are aware of what was going on there, what are you going to do about it?” Sean Allen, an executive board member of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, told San José Spotlight. He’s also a 34-year veteran of law enforcement and currently a sergeant with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

    In her 2022 run for San Jose mayor against then-Councilmember Matt Mahan, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez benefitted from nearly $1 million spent by a political action committee managed by the San Jose Police Officers’ Association (SJPOA), including hundreds of thousands to oppose Mahan. She did not respond to requests for comment.

    Mayor Mahan did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this week, the mayor held a news conference with Police Chief Anthony Mata to call for doubling the rate of hiring new police officers in the city, and to enhance recruitment efforts.

    Federal prosecutors last week charged the top administrative employee of SJPOA, Joanne Segovia, with attempting to illegally import a form of the opioid fentanyl. Investigators with Homeland Security laid out a laundry list of other international drug smuggling allegations against her in a criminal complaint. Segovia is not a police officer.

    The response from police critics, social justice organizations and community advocates has been swift, with calls for an independent investigation into the allegations and more transparency overall by the union moving forward.

    Demonstrators including Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz, left, hold signs during an April 5, 2023 news conference in response to the drug smuggling allegations against Joanne Segovia of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    The police union announced Friday it had fired Segovia and completed the first part of its internal investigation. The organization now plans to hire an outside investigator to look into Segovia’s alleged actions, to what extent she used police union resources and if existing internal controls could have identified what she’s accused of doing.

    San Jose District 5 Councilmember Peter Ortiz said he was horrified by the wide-ranging drug allegations, and that they are damaging to the police union’s reputation.

    “To have charges brought on an executive director for an organization that represents law enforcement is hypocrisy of the highest order. No one is above the law,” Ortiz said. “It is time to conduct an intentional, robust and serious investigation to decide how to move forward on this matter and respond appropriately.”

    District 3 Councilmember Omar Torres has had family and friends die from fentanyl overdoses. He said he hopes the city will consider whether it can continue negotiations with the police union, and that he wants future candidates to think twice about accepting the police union’s support or endorsements.

    “I think it’s very, very important that, going forward, candidates really need to consider what’s happening at the (police union), because this is a really serious matter,” Torres told San José Spotlight.

    He said relationships with the community are delicate and the drug smuggling scandal is harming progress made to foster trust between police and residents, including police reforms recommended by a citizen committee in the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd protests.

    “These accusations have just totally restarted things. We’re back to square one,” Torres said. “We’re actually like 10 steps behind square one.”

    Police union officials have said repeatedly that no other union employees or members were involved with or aware of the alleged drug smuggling by Segovia. Spokesperson Tom Saggau said he doesn’t think these allegations will affect the group’s future political influence with elected officials.

    “I don’t see them turning their backs on 1,100 cops, because 1,100 cops didn’t do anything wrong. This is one employee who worked for the association,” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “There is no indication that anyone else was even remotely involved.”

    District 7 Councilmember Bien Doan said he ultimately doesn’t think the union’s reputation will be affected by the case, but declined to say whether he thought politicians should accept support from the police union going forward.

    “This did happen at SJPOA, but it doesn’t represent all of the members. Just like if you have one bad apple in a bucket of apples, it doesn’t make all the other apples bad, you just have to remove the bad apple,” he told San José Spotlight.

    The other members of the San Jose City Council did not respond to requests for comment.

    Despite the potential for political divisiveness over the path ahead, Larry Gerston, a retired San Jose State University political science professor, said it’s too soon to say whether this case will affect the political influence of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association.

    “We have to see how this shakes out. Were there other people involved? Did anybody know of this and turn a blind eye? Is this a one off?” Gerston told San José Spotlight. “I think these are just a few of the questions that have to come out and ultimately get answered.”

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

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