Zisser: San Jose mayor’s ‘facts’ about policing ignore community-based alternatives
A San Jose police cruiser. File photo.

The hot San Jose summer must have fried Mayor Sam Liccardo’s memory. In an Aug. 15 opinion piece, Liccardo calls for more police officers and more incarceration as the answer to public safety concerns.

He remembers back to protests in 2020, though glosses over the most important parts: righteous national and local outrage over police excesses. His clarion call for a crackdown on surging crime harkens much further back, to the mass incarceration addiction of the previous century.

The headline of Liccardo’s article claims he offers “facts.” But in his narrow focus on more policing, Liccardo seems to forget what happened just a few months ago in his own city. He is silent about a months-long, community-led process on “reimagining public safety” that culminated earlier this year in a robust report recommending numerous and multi-faceted alternatives to policing. And rather than offer real ideas, he blames a political opponent who actually is doing the hard work of crafting real solutions.

Ignoring the reasons for calls for alternatives to police

Liccardo braggingly reminds readers that he dismissed the “defund the police” movement in 2020. Aside from oversimplifying what that movement actually meant—decidedly not eliminating policing—he is coldly silent about the impetus for that movement, namely the murder of George Floyd by police officers. Nor does he acknowledge the regular drumbeat of fatal police encounters involving Black men across the U.S.

Forking over more money to an unaccountable police department

His silence extends to his own constituents’ calls and the problems that have plagued the San Jose Police Department, which he wants to hand more money to. He demonizes “protestors” who vandalized his home, but doesn’t credit the hundreds of peaceful protestors for their sacrifice and success at spotlighting the need for rethinking policing.

He is silent about the numerous recent reports that have recommended broad expansion of the police accountability and oversight system in San Jose, and about the rampant abuse by SJPD officers during the 2020 protests that prompted some of those recommendations. He ignores all this in the same week San Jose was defending officers in a rare federal trial regarding a fatal 2017 officer-involved shooting. Just earlier this week, the jury awarded the family $1 million after finding the officer used excessive force. This verdict comes just over three years after a federal jury found SJPD officers liable in another fatal shooting.

Punting on real solutions to crime

To make matters worse, Liccardo doubles down on his outdated tough-on-crime mantra to attack a political opponent and blame the leaders who are actually trying to find 21st century solutions. He takes county Supervisor Cindy Chavez to task for her votes against spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new jail and on the county’s slowness in expanding mental health services. But the jail is being downsized because of a federal lawsuit that has shown abysmal conditions and overcrowding; Chavez has nothing to do with it.

Moreover, Chavez and her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors are spending vastly more time than Liccardo and the city trying to tackle the root problems that lead to criminalization and over-incarceration. While the county should lead on these issues, a city the size of San Jose should be doing its part.

Even the vote against a new jail was out of a preference for more investment in mental health services. And on Tuesday, just two weeks after the mayor’s hit piece, the county advised supervisors to delay the jail rebuild to ensure the new design considers treatment needs. In a separate board item, supervisors studied the county’s ongoing efforts to expand mental health services.

Not only does the mayor ignore all of this, he does not once discuss anything the largest city in Santa Clara County is doing to contribute to such efforts. As the Reimagining Public Safety committee advised, the city could do its part to invest in mental health services. But the mayor and San Jose City Council diverted that committee’s report into the bureaucracy, which is precisely what should not happen with a community-led effort. Least of all to a community-led effort that almost completely fell apart in the first place because—you guessed it—the bureaucracy was trying to control the effort and community leaders walked out.

Missed opportunity

What is so sad about Liccardo’s article is it’s meant to merely combat the police union’s demand for higher officer salaries.

He disguises his rebuttal—and political attack on Chavez—as a call for more officers, presumably to placate the police union. But here was an opportunity to point to other needs beyond just more policing. Here was an opportunity not to attack the county, but to join in the effort to prioritize mental health services. Here was an opportunity to hold the community up, rather than bury their desperate calls for justice further beneath the heavy summer political malaise. Liccardo calls Chavez “blind” and naïve for pursuing a balanced approach to public safety—incidentally, she also supports hiring more officers. But his attack is tone-deaf and cynical.

Sadly, the hot weather looks to continue into the near future. It’s a good thing no one is calling for defunding air conditioning. Maybe once cooler heads prevail we will get some real facts, and real ideas, from an elected leader who is supposed to be serving all San Joseans.

San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is Interim Executive Director of the Oakland Community Police Review Agency and 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. His opinions are his own. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected].

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