'Inadequate at Best': San Jose Activists Question Mayor's Police Reform Plan

3 min
Police officers in riot gear block off a street in downtown San Jose on May 29, 2020, in advance of a large protest against police brutality, spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

After a couple of weeks to chew on San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo's nine-point proposal to reform the city's police department, the verdict from many community activists is... meh.

Take the Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, who described the plan as, "inadequate at best."

"It falls short of the expectations and the desire of many, I would say, most of the community members," he added. "We want change. We want substantial change."

Liccardo's proposal, which he released in late June amid ongoing protests against police brutality, included the following measures:

  1. Expand public transparency for arbitration over termination and disciplinary decisions
  2. Conduct Independent investigation of police misconduct
  3. Expand authority of the independent police auditor over “use of force” allegations
  4. Grant college scholarships to local youth who agree to join the San Jose Police Department following graduation
  5. Direct $100,000 for a community engagement process to reimagine how the city might rely more on civilian responses for a variety of non-criminal calls for service
  6. Ban the use of rubber bullets ban and conduct a full review of SJPD's use-of-force policy
  7. Make police subject to direction of elected leadership
  8. Leverage data to improve recruiting, training and early intervention
  9. Audit police expenditures

The mayor's office said some proposals will take years to properly formulate, even as the City Council begins addressing some items, such as an expansive rubber bullet ban, which it'll consider in August.

"These are several very substantive changes which are proposed for how we will ensure that San Jose continues to be at the forefront of police accountability," Liccardo said in a press conference unveiling the plan. In an interview with KQED, he noted that he had consulted with faith leaders and members of civil rights organizations in San Jose.

Moore was on that list, but said his organization wasn't very involved.

"There were a group of community meetings that were held and I think a member from my organization attended," Moore said. "But we did not give a thumbs up to any policies."

Moore's organization wants the SJPD to stop using carotid chokeholds and no longer apply for federally provided military equipment, among other reforms. But he isn't waiting on these changes to come from the local level, he said, because some may soon be addressed in state or national legislation.

"If we get it passed statewide, they'll have to fall in," Moore said.

AB 1196, for example, would ban police from using chokeholds. Another, AB 66, would ban police from not only firing rubber bullets into a crowd, but also using tear gas and pepper spray.

"Oftentimes local governments can be more nimble," said state Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, who introduced AB 66. "But I would say that on an issue of this nature, it makes sense to have a statewide standard so you don't have one police department or one city responding in one manner and then you go a few miles over to another city and they're handling protests in a different nature."

But Jack Glaser, a UC Berkeley criminal justice professor, disagrees. "Policing is largely regulated at the local level anyway," he said.

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Glaser is most excited about Liccardo's plan to expand the Police Department's Community Service Officer program, he said. The program now consists of 62 unarmed officers who respond to low-level crimes like burglary, vandalism and road hazards. Under the mayor's proposal, mental and behavioral health care workers would also begin responding to most mental health crises.

The proposal sets aside $100,000 to set up conversations with the public on what the new program would look like. But Glaser says he wants to see a much bigger budget bolster the promise of the proposal.

"The idea that you can just shift resources over from a police department and there would be this one-to-one substitution is probably naive," he said. "There should be an expectation of at least initial investment."

Glaser said he expects opposition from police unions on every proposal in the nine-point plan. "Police unions have a lot of influence over how these structures get put into place and what they look like," he said.

But the San Jose Police Officers Association, the union representing SJPD officers, said it's on board with these reforms.

"We are also interested in how we can improve police-community outcomes," said Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the union. "If that's the goal, the POA is going to be in lockstep with people who have reasonable proposals, ideas and suggestions."

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Saggau emphasized, however, that the POA does not support calls to "defund the SJPD", like those coming from Silicon Valley De-Bug, a civil rights organization based out of San Jose that recently circulated a petition signed by 2,600 residents.

"What the people in San Jose have been saying is that this isn't an issue of just a few rogue actors. This is a system issue," said Raj Jayadev, the group's cofounder. "This is about systemic racism."

Rosie Chavez also helped craft the petition, which called to dismantle policing units such as the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force and the Covert Response and Street Crimes Units that she believes target young Black and brown men. Her nephew, Jacob Dominguez, was killed by San Jose police in 2017.

"I just feel like (Liccardo) didn't listen or even read what we were asking of him divesting (from the SJPD) and investing in the community," Chavez said.

Judge LaDoris Cordell, a former SJPD watchdog, is also skeptical of these proposals. "I have no quarrel with the proposed reforms," she said. "They just don't go far enough."

Cordell pointed to Liccardo's proposal to expand the role of the city's independent police auditor, which the city of San Jose will vote on in November. Before then, the City Council is holding a special meeting on July 28 to vote on the language that will appear on the ballot. Even still, that position merely reviews the department's internal investigations and lacks any real enforcement power, she said.

"The IPA has no authority to make findings that are binding on the department," Cordell said, adding that amending the city's charter would be the only way to effectively change the position. "While reforms of the SJPD will help keep the public safe from the police use of excessive force, the culture of the department is so infected with systemic racism that reforms are inefficient."

CORRECTIONS: The original version of this story misstated the following details:

  • There are 62 community service officers on the SJPD, not 72. Ten more will soon be added to the department through a reallocation of $1.4 million from the police overtime budget.
  • One of the policing units that activists want to dismantle is the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force, not the Mayor's Youth Gang Task Force, as previously stated.
  • The City Council will vote on the language for the independent police auditor ballot measure in late July, not November. The public will vote on the measure in November.

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