Use-of-force cases to get more scru­tiny

SJPD’s pol­icy sets new cri­te­ria to look closer at a wider ar­ray of in­ci­dents

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Robert Sa­longa rsa­longa@ba­yare­anews­

SAN JOSE >> In a ground­break­ing move in­spired by pub­lic oversight, the San Jose Po­lice Depart­ment will step up re­views of of­fi­cers’ use of force and in­ten­sify in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the most se­ri­ous cases, of­fi­cials an­nounced Tues­day.

Un­til now, the depart­ment only re­viewed most non­fa­tal use-of-force en­coun­ters in re­sponse to a cit­i­zen’s com­plaint, filed with the depart­ment’s In­ter­nal Af­fairs unit or the city’s Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Po­lice Au­di­tor.

Po­lice su­per­vi­sors and com­man­ders will now be ex­pected to launch force in­ves­ti­ga­tions on their own based on re­ports from the field. Those vi­o­lent en­coun­ters will be graded on a new four-tier scale where a higher risk of in­jury or death trig­gers in­creased scru­tiny.

“This is long over­due. We had blind spots. Our pol­icy was too re­ac­tive.” — Po­lice chief Eddie Gar­cia

Chief Eddie Gar­cia said the pol­icy was crafted in con­junc­tion with the San Jose Po­lice Of­fi­cers’ As­so­ci­a­tion to en­sure max­i­mum buy-in from his rank-and­file of­fi­cers amid a na­tional land­scape marked by skep­ti­cism about po­lice ac­tions in mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties.

He ac­knowl­edged that the depart­ment’s prac­tices for re­view­ing vi­o­lent in­ci­dents needed up­dat­ing.

“This is long over­due. We had blind spots. Our pol­icy was too re­ac­tive,” Gar­cia said. “This doesn’t mean we’re au­to­mat­i­cally go­ing to find that (an of­fi­cer) did some­thing wrong, but we’re go­ing to scru­ti­nize it with a sharper lens.”

Push for more de­tail

The new pol­icy could af­fect po­ten­tially hun­dreds of in­ci­dents a year in San Jose. A pre­cise num­ber of an­nual use-of-force in­ci­dents was not avail­able from po­lice, be­cause they have not been pub­licly cat­a­loged by the depart­ment since 2009, ac­cord­ing to the IPA’s of­fice.

The po­lice au­di­tor’s of­fice has for many years pushed the depart­ment to take a more wide-rang­ing, de­tailed ap­proach to re­view­ing cases where of­fi­cers use force. The IPA’s of­fice con­tended in its an­nual au­dit re­port re­leased in June that a dis­turb­ing num­ber of in­ci­dents were es­cap­ing sorely needed ex­am­i­na­tion.

“It ap­pears that of the thou­sands of use of force in­ci­dents that took place be­tween 2010 and 2015, not once did a SJPD su­per­vi­sor or ex­ec­u­tive be­lieve that a use of force was ques­tion­able enough to jus­tify open­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” the re­port stated.

Over the past five years, the depart­ment has re­ceived be­tween 60 and 88 for­mal com­plaints per year about of­fi­cers’ use of force. The depart­ment al­ready re­views all of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ings. There have been eight so far this year in San Jose — the most since 2015, when the city saw a 10-year high of 12. Four of the po­lice shoot­ings in 2017 have been fa­tal.

Aaron Zisser, San Jose’s new in­de­pen­dent po­lice au­di­tor, cred­ited the depart­ment for em­brac­ing one of the high­est-pro­file rec­om­men­da­tions made by his pre­de­ces­sor, Wal­ter Katz. Zisser said he hopes that the new eval­u­a­tion will also cri­tique de­ci­sions made lead­ing up to force be­ing used.

“There are gen­uine ques­tions still on how the po­lice depart­ment is go­ing to look at de-es­ca­la­tion,” Zisser said.

Gar­cia ac­knowl­edged the pos­si­bil­ity that the in­creased at­ten­tion could lead to more of­fi­cers be­ing rep­ri­manded in use-of-force cases. How­ever, he also noted that the aware­ness of the new pol­icy could lead to of­fi­cers be­com­ing more cre­ative and adept at find­ing less-vi­o­lent so­lu­tions to phys­i­cal con­flicts on the street.

“All we’re try­ing to tell our of­fi­cers is, when you have time, to come up with a plan,” he said. “We are try­ing to be more pro­gres­sive, but we also want to en­sure that we’re not stymieing proac­tiv­ity by forc­ing this down our of­fi­cers’ throats. Be­ing proac­tive, and be­ing fair and just, are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive.”

But Zisser noted that other large agen­cies that have taken such steps — like Oak­land po­lice and the Los An­ge­les Sheriff’s Depart­ment — have done so un­der heavy crit­i­cism or an or­der from a fed­eral judge.

“The fact (SJPD) did this on its own with­out that pres­sure, that is pro­gres­sive and pos­i­tive. It’s wor­thy of praise,” Zisser said. “I look for­ward to see­ing how the new pol­icy plays out and, along with Chief Gar­cia, ex­am­in­ing whether fur­ther changes are needed.”

Ku­dos for pol­icy

Mayor Sam Lic­cardo lauded the new pol­icy, which he said was vi­tal to im­prov­ing and main­tain­ing cred­i­bil­ity in the city’s neigh­bor­hoods.

“This new pol­icy serves as the lat­est ex­am­ple of our col­lec­tive com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing that the San Jose Po­lice Depart­ment re­mains a model for ac­count­abil­ity and com­mu­nity trust,” Lic­cardo said in a state­ment.

Lo­cal civil-rights groups were heart­ened by Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment. Der­rick San­der­lin, a leader in the faith-based coali­tion Peo­ple Act­ing in Com­mu­nity To­gether, said the new pol­icy is pre­cisely why com­mu­nity mem­bers want the IPA of­fice to ex­pand its oversight.

“It’s a fan­tas­tic step in the right di­rec­tion,” San­der­lin said.

San­der­lin hopes that more com­mu­nity in­put will be con­sid­ered for fu­ture pol­icy re­vi­sions that af­fect many of the peo­ple his group rep­re­sents.

“Only when the po­lice depart­ment works with the com­mu­nity does it work ef­fec­tively,” he said. “And a lot of us from the com­mu­nity want more.”

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