Time of reflection, change as San Jose police chief nears retirement
San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia sits in his Mission Street office Sept. 9, 2020, three months ahead of his retirement. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Quoting Steve Jobs, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said he’s not out to please everybody.

“If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader — go sell ice cream,” said Garcia, 49, who announced last month he is retiring at the end of the year.

Having worked in the city’s roughly 1,400-member police department for nearly three decades and served as chief for the past four years, Garcia said he doesn’t regret any decisions or actions. Any mistakes he may have made, he said, were learning experiences that helped him improve himself and his department.

“There’s an old adage that says you don’t necessarily make mistakes, you learn,” Garcia said. “I’ve done a lot of learning.”

Among those mistakes, Garcia said, was his “cavalier” response to the actions of San Jose Police Officer Jared Yuen, who had been filmed making provocative gestures and yelling profanity at a protester.

Garcia said he speaks from the heart and reacted quickly at the time when he called Yuen “a good kid,” and said Yuen should be disciplined for his behavior rather than fired. Yuen’s employment and disciplinary status is currently unknown.

“We hire from the human race,” Garcia said, “No chief has a crystal ball.”

Garcia has been criticized for merely performing, rather than fulfilling, the role of a progressive police chief.

Ato Diaba Walker, a longtime San Jose resident and comedian, said Garcia merely gave lip service to improving policing and that his actions have not resulted in meaningful changes in public safety.

“He placated the police union and their demands,” Diaba Walker said. “We need to talk about ensuring everyone feels safe, not just the people who have property… not just the ones who complain the most or the ones who have the most access.”

Scandals and reforms

But Garcia said his decision to retire had nothing to do with the scandals that have plagued the department this year and that he’s enacted numerous reforms, including a tactical conduct policy that requires officers involved in shootings to have their de-escalation and use of force techniques analyzed.

“We can now hold an officer responsible, not necessarily for the criminal aspects of the shooting but administratively for the tactics they used,” Garcia said.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said Garcia has “tremendous gifts” as a leader and that he was ahead of many other police departments in instituting critical reforms, such as the use of body-worn cameras and the narrowing of police duties.

“Eddie was out there years ago saying we’re going to stop responding to fights in schools,” Liccardo said. “He’d been begging the county for three years to get mental health personnel to come out with police officers so that if someone was having a mental health episode, a police officer wouldn’t be the first person they encounter.”

Liccardo said some people seem to wrongly pin the problems of policing upon a man who cares passionately about all members of his community.

“There’s been a lot of misplaced blame on Eddie for whatever the sins are of the U.S. police-industrial complex,” Liccardo said.

Peter Decena, chief of the Los Gatos Police Department, worked with Garcia for many years at SJPD and said he’s about as progressive as a police chief can get, particularly for a profession that leans conservative.

“He was ahead of the game when it came to collecting (racial) stop data,” Decena said. “It’s not going to show the department in the best light, or at least it’ll give fodder to the folks who are looking for problems or issues with the department… but he was very open about being transparent in that.”

Decena said Garcia gracefully walked a fine line between the desires of the community for better policing and the needs of his officers to remain safe.

“Being able to balance support for his organization, which is critical … but still able to connect with the community, especially communities of color, is important to him,” Decena said.

Relationship with officers

Paul Kelly, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, agreed Garcia took a collaborative approach to adopting new policies, holding extensive conversations with officers to make sure they understood and were on board.

Kelly said the moment that most clearly illustrates who Garcia is was the memorial service for officer Michael Katherman, who was struck by a van while riding his police motorcycle in 2016.

Kelly said Garcia invited him to sit alongside other department leaders at the service, contrary to established protocol, to show support for the department’s rank-and-file officers.

“He wanted to show that we are doing this together,” Kelly said. “For me, that’s a huge personal message, not only to myself but to every cop who saw that.”

Garcia said learning of Katherman’s death and presiding over his service was one of his most challenging moments as a police chief.

“To give American flags away to the family members of the fallen… those are the hardest things that I ever had to deal with,” Garcia said.

The loss of life has spurred many activists‘ calls to defund the San Jose Police Department following the deaths of Jacob Dominguez and Anthony Nunez, who were both shot by police.

When asked whether the city should offer counseling and other support services to the families of people shot by police, Garcia said yes.

“I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of any initiative that gives families emotional support,” Garcia said. “They lost a family member, regardless of what occurred, and they have to live with that grief.”

Garcia said he also supports additional reforms to the department, such as fixing the binding arbitration process that allows a police chief’s discipline or firing decisions to be reversed.

“I lie awake at night when I have to discipline an officer,” Garcia said. “To have an arbitrator come in and overturn a decision that I spent weeks or months agonizing over, because I know these people, is a slap in the face.”

Garcia said despite all the progress that he and others have made, a lot of work remains.

“Do some of our tactics need to change? Absolutely,” Garcia said. “But the philosophy of public safety… shouldn’t ever change.”

Garcia’s last day working in the department is Dec. 12. He said he doesn’t know what he’ll do after retiring but that he and his family plan to stay in San Jose.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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