Zisser: Community is the common denominator in criminal justice reform
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

    The goal for this monthly column, which starts today, is largely the same as it has been in my work as a federal civil rights attorney and police oversight professional, including as San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor (IPA): to carve out a platform for working with community members to identify, remedy and prevent abuse by the most powerful arms of government.

    My first such platform in Santa Clara County was in a 2016 report for the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Santa Clara County Jail. I was blunt about abuses I observed. Conditions in a part of the jail were, “in a word, deplorable. They are an assault on basic human dignity and have no place in this country, let alone Silicon Valley. I was shocked at the level of crowding… I challenge any observer to tour Main Jail-South and come out believing it is appropriate for housing human beings.”

    When I consulted for the commission—chaired by retired judge and former San Jose IPA LaDoris Cordell—I had been back in California for a year, following more than five years in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. I was born in San Jose and grew up in Campbell—I wasn’t hoping to encounter a jail in my home county that bore any resemblance to the failing facilities I visited as a DOJ attorney.

    But the commission formed following the 2015 murder—by three correctional officers—of Michael Tyree while he was awaiting mental health services. So when I visited the jail, I was saddened but not surprised. In fact, conditions were not the focus of my review. I felt compelled, however, to comment on what I saw as I toured the facility to review the internal complaint process, to provide commissioners with all the information available.


    As San Jose’s IPA the following year, I once again felt a responsibility to prioritize the community’s concerns and provide as much transparency as possible. I responded to the scenes of officer-involved shootings and sat in on the Internal Affairs Unit’s interviews in important cases, pushing the unit to be thorough in their questioning of officers accused of misconduct.

    But the work was not just about auditing investigations. After all, “auditor” is Latin for “listener.” I visited homeless encampments, shelters and the psychiatric facilities where police bring people they identify as experiencing a dangerous mental health crisis. I negotiated interviews with top officials on a range of issues, rode along with a sergeant and sat down with the DA, the Police Officers’ Association, elected officials, community leaders and young people of color and, most importantly, grieving families.


    But listening is the first critical step toward pushing for change. The same access that allowed me to talk with people in their prison cells and review innumerable hours of police body-worn camera footage, also helped me see that progress is possible with collaboration and a shared commitment to problem-solving.

    The Blue Ribbon Commission included advocates, but also (as non-voting members) the sheriff, DA, public defender and probation department. As IPA, I worked closely with Internal Affairs to change how they investigated racial profiling and serious use-of-force allegations. With then-Chief Eddie Garcia, I worked on proposed changes to police policy. My experience negotiating consent decrees at DOJ taught me that agencies invariably have institutional expertise and internal advocates for reform.

    Community leadership

    Just as DOJ consent decrees benefitted from robust input from families and individuals, progress here in San Jose depends upon grassroots leadership. It’s not about white papers and policy proposals from the police chief, mayor, city manager, sheriff, DA or police union. Those folks are supposed to be listening to the experts—people with lived experience—not talking at them or placating them.

    Community leaders pushed for jail reforms and a new oversight agency and informed my policy proposals as IPA. Some of those same leaders, and new ones, continue to push on questions on which I hope to bring my own experience to bear in this space each month:

    • Community members, particularly Black leaders, on San Jose’s Reimagining Public Safety Community Advisory Committee reimagined the “reimagining” process, insisting that they—not the City Manager’s Office or outside consultants—belong at the head of the table. A forthcoming independent report about the police department’s handling of protests last year following the murder of George Floyd will engender additional debate about the need for meaningful reforms. (Disclosure: I informally contacted city officials and advised Reimagining committee members regarding the structure and scope of the committee.)
    • San Jose Charter Review Commission volunteers enlisted panel after panel of experts on oversight models and national trends. As I did as a panelist, I will reflect here on the limitations and challenges of the IPA Office and about other models I have worked in or helped develop. (Disclosure: In addition to serving as a panelist, I also informally advised commission members regarding oversight structures and best practices, potential panelists and strategy.)
    • Echoes of the 2016 jail commission infuse a contested sheriff’s race that highlights questions about how to both ensure the jail remains less crowded and better serve people with serious mental health needs to prevent institutionalization and incarceration.
    • Activists have gotten behind a reform-minded candidate for District Attorney. I will draw on insights I gained at the San Francisco DA’s office, where I investigated officer-involved shootings and other serious incidents.


    I will do my best to center those who are directly affected, to talk ahead of time with advocates and professionals in the field. After all, the community, as someone recently said to me, “is the common denominator” in all this work.

    I decided to volunteer as a columnist because I have met hundreds of affected people and learned of thousands more stories, because I have had the privilege of access that has allowed me to go deep into a range of issues and because I believe, at the end of the day, things can change for the better.

    San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is the former San Jose Independent Police Auditor. He previously worked as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a consultant to Bay Area police and jail oversight entities. He continues to work in the field of police oversight. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected]

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