Los Gatos Town Leaders Defend Officer’s Hiring Amid Residents’ Questions on Violent Arrest

A screenshot from video footage of a March 17, 2016, arrest at San Jose State University's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Officer Johnathon Silva was initially fired by the school system for excessive force. He later won his job back on appeal, resigned and then was hired by the Los Gatos Monte-Sereno Police Department. (Via San Jose State University)

Hundreds of Los Gatos residents want to know why a former San Jose State University police officer was hired by the town following a violent arrest that left a man with severe injuries, including broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

After an internal investigation, the university fired Officer Johnathon Silva for beating and trying to use a Taser on an apparently mentally ill man who was watching pornography in the school’s library in 2016. But when Silva appealed his firing, the State Personnel Board reinstated him with back pay. A few months after he won that appeal, Silva resigned and followed his former chief, Peter Decena, to the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department.

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Reports published last week by KQED and The Mercury News on the arrest inside the school’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, and Silva’s subsequent move to Los Gatos, troubled hundreds of residents, according to an informal poll posted to the Nextdoor website for the town.

“I just don’t feel safe having him on our police department,” said Jacqueline Mutz, a local part-time schoolteacher. “There are people that live in town that are mentally ill. They’re quiet. A lot of them sit there and talk to themselves, so who knows if there’s a potential situation?”

As of Tuesday morning, 498 residents had responded to an informal poll on Nextdoor. A large majority — 86% — of those respondents indicated Officer Silva’s actions during the incident on March 17, 2016, were concerning and that his hiring should be reviewed, while 14% indicated they agreed with the officer’s actions.

Town Manager Laurel Prevetti echoed the police chief’s perspective in an email, writing that “while the video is disturbing for some viewers to watch, throughout the encounter, the suspect was noncompliant and physically resisted efforts by the officer to place him under arrest, which led to the use of force incident.”

Warning, this video contains graphic imagery and language.

She also referred to Decena’s statement defending Silva’s hiring, which was issued after the San Jose State University incident was revealed in a trove of documents and police body-camera videos released in accordance with Senate Bill 1421, the state’s new police transparency law. The chief’s statement said Silva was subjected to “a thorough background investigation, including a polygraph examination and psychological screening.”

For its part, the California State University system strongly objected to Silva's reinstatement, arguing that the library arrest was an "egregious example of excessive force."

Prevetti added, “Once hired, the town continues to invest in training, particularly in critical incidents, de-escalation, and sensitivity to persons in crisis. All personnel are held to high standards during their careers with the town.”

Los Gatos’ mayor and vice mayor did not respond to requests for comment.

The poll’s creator, 15-year Los Gatos resident Vlado Herman, said he has not had any problems with the Police Department but thought Silva’s hiring was worth learning more about. He was surprised by the poll results.

“I was expecting it to be 50-50,” Herman said. “There are people with opinions on both sides, but most of the people want more answers about this.”

He agrees that the poll is not scientific, but he also said the hundreds of responses from voters are worth acknowledging with a more robust public response.

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“I’m troubled because of what I saw on the video,” said Maureen Fox, an attorney who lives in Los Gatos, “and the fact that the police chief apparently did not consider that troubling, and in fact hired the officer who displayed such temper.”

Fox wrote an email to city officials airing her concerns, and she said Prevetti sent her a “canned response.”

Fox was also concerned that San Jose State University paid out $950,000 to Philip Chong in 2016 over the library encounter with Silva. In 2018, the school settled another suit for $59,900, according to a university spokeswoman, brought by a former student who alleged Silva and another officer smashed his face into the concrete outside a concert, knocking him out and breaking his teeth.

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“We're also at risk of having to pay substantial damages if he [Silva] should treat anyone the same way he treated that individual that he beat,” Fox said. “And the town really can't afford to pay the kind of money that might be incurred.”

Prevetti wrote in another email that neither she nor the city share Fox’s worries about any potential financial liability by having Silva on the police force. She added that the town is “responding directly to the individuals who have expressed concerns” and otherwise reached out to the local government over the issue.

Still, some residents, like Claud Xiao, said they are frustrated that city officials are not being more responsive to their questions and concerns.

Xiao said he wrote to all town council members alerting them to the community discussion on Nextdoor and asking for details about Officer Silva’s recruitment and how much town officials weighed the risks of hiring someone with his history.

“So far I only got one response from one of them that said, ‘Thank you for the extra information that we did not have,’ ” Xiao wrote in an email. “Nothing else.”

This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 40 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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