San Jose taxpayers foot the bill for police collisions
A San Jose Police Department cruiser at the corner of W. Taylor Street and N. San Pedro Street. File photo.

Every year, San Jose receives hundreds of claims from residents because they tripped on a sidewalk or a sewage backup destroyed their property — but the most commonly settled claims are car accidents caused by police and other city employees.

An analysis by San José Spotlight found that of the 1,122 claims filed by residents over the last three years, the city settled 208. Of that 208, 123 were car accidents — 56 of which involved San Jose police officers. The city does not have outside insurance, so costs fall on San Jose taxpayers. Of the $713,000 paid out since 2021, $520,000 was spent on settling residents’ claims from car accidents.

The city also settled a claim with Sunnyvale for $800,000 because of a conflict over sewer pipes. This claim is not included in the analysis because it involves another government entity.

Residents who believe the city owes them money due to damages caused by the city can file a claim. If the city accepts fault, or potential for fault, it will settle to prevent a lawsuit.

“We settle if we think that there’s liability on the part of the city and the settlement is reasonable,” City Attorney Nora Frimann told San José Spotlight. “Our settlement numbers are considered remarkably low compared to other large cities.”

While the city has maintained a relatively low percentage for total claims settled at 18.5%, car accidents — particularly those involving police — have a higher rate of settlement. The city settled more than 42% of claims related to officer-involved collisions.

In 2023, San Jose settled approximately two police car collisions per month. Some pay outs were as low as $1,000, while other collisions that resulted in injuries and more serious damages reached $14,000.

In one instance in 2019, a city employee driving a city-owned vehicle in a San Jose Mineta International Airport parking lot crashed and killed a woman. The lawsuit resulted in a $1 million settlement in 2021, but unlike the rest of the city, the airport has private insurance and the city did not have to pay.

“It’s very rare that we have cases like this,” Frimann said. “It was fairly traumatic for everyone.”

Frimann said her office reviews accidents within each department to ensure there is accountability and effort to prevent more collisions. She noted the San Jose Police Department in particular has training and disciplinary measures for repeat offenders and officers involved in preventable collisions.

“Our departments take this kind of stuff seriously and want to avoid it,” Frimann said.

SJPD officials did not respond to questions related to training or disciplinary actions. The department also did not share whether collisions occurred while in pursuit or during routine traffic patrols.

Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, said police likely make up a large portion of collisions because they spend the most time on the road compared to other city employees.

“Traffic collisions are a product of not just law enforcement, but of every profession that spends an inordinate amount of time on the road, ” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “If you’re on patrol, you’re in a car for 10 hours, 12 hours, 14 hours a day, your likelihood of getting into some sort of traffic incident is high. It’s just basic math.”

But he said while it’s not a major cause for concern, that doesn’t mean the department should not take it seriously.

He said since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, the San Jose police union has been advocating for an early intervention system designed to change the behavior of individual law enforcement officers, especially individuals identified as potentially exhibiting patterns of problematic behavior. The system would track a law enforcement officer’s personnel complaints, uses of force, vehicle pursuits and on-duty traffic collisions to determine if additional training, mentorship or supervision is needed.

Bob Nuñez, vice chair of La Raza Roundtable and former president of the NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley, said collisions may be higher because of SJPD’s pursuit policies.

“In Milpitas, if (officers) go after somebody who then suddenly makes a mad dash, (officers) will not pursue this and chase them,” Nuñez said. “(SJPD) needs to take a look at the root cause of those accidents… then go back to training, and what policies allow them to pursue.”

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

Editor’s Note: Bob Nuñez serves on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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