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San José Police Department Sees Drop in Officer Complaints

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An officer looks on as people protest the police killing of George Floyd on East Santa Clara Street in downtown San José on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Randy Vazquez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

San José’s Police Department saw a decrease in complaints against officers in 2023, following three straight years of increases, a new watchdog report found.

In all, San José’s Police Department received 367 complaints about its officers in 2023, with 47 of those generated by the department, according to an annual oversight report from the San José Independent Police Auditor’s Office.

By the end of 2023, the report said 285 officers received at least one conduct complaint, accounting for about 27% of San José’s 1,059 sworn officers. That represents a 6% reduction from 2022, when about a third of all officers received at least one conduct complaint.

The report, which was set to be discussed at the San José City Council meeting on Tuesday, is the first issued by Karyn Sinunu-Towery, the interim police auditor appointed after the city’s former IPA abruptly retired last year.

Sgt. Jorge Garibay, a spokesperson for SJPD, told KQED in an email the decrease in complaints “is a direct reflection of increased training and officer accountability.”

Garibay highlighted a monthly newsletter sent to the department by Internal Affairs since June 2022 to share current trends and “remind department members of the policies and procedures governing the agency.”

The department also recognizes the number of complaints received annually is based on several factors, Garibay said. “The department has, and continues to, reinforce its commitment to officer accountability.”

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While the percentage of overall complaints received in 2023 was down 6% from the year before, the rate at which complaints lodged against officers were determined to likely be true, increased by 6% from the year prior, the report said.

About 24% of complaints from members of the public about the conduct of officers were sustained, meaning they were found more likely than not to be true. That is the highest percentage of sustained complaints recorded by the IPA’s office in the past two decades, according to a review of previous years’ data by KQED News.

In San José, the Police Department’s Internal Affairs division investigates such complaints, which are reviewed by the IPA’s office. The report shows 306 conduct complaints were reviewed in 2023, with 74 closed as sustained.

Complaints reviewed and tabulated for annual reports are not necessarily tied to complaints received that same year, as the investigation and auditing process can take up to a year in some cases.

The Police Department declined to say what might be causing the increase in sustained complaints but noted it could also depend on many factors, including the nature and types of complaints reviewed.

“The allegations contained within the complaints also vary and range widely from rare, major misconduct to the frequent minor transgressions,” Garibay said.

Sinunu-Towery told KQED that the department is a “really young” one, which could play a role in the sustained complaints increase.

“The officers that are really on the ground, in the field dealing with citizens, the majority of those officers are still pretty young,” she said. “In the first five years, an officer is on duty, he or she is more likely to make mistakes than a seasoned officer.”

Sinunu-Towery’s oversight report is significantly shorter and includes much less information than most prior year reports authored under other auditors.

Sinunu-Towery’s report, for example, declined to include breakdowns of how many officers received multiple complaints — and how many complaints they each received.

And though she suggested in an interview that the level of experience of officers on the streets might play a role in the number and types of complaints a department receives, her report did not include information on the experience level of officers named in complaints in 2023.

She also did not include the ethnicities or other demographic information about the people bringing complaints against officers. She attributed her report’s differences, compared to prior-year reports, to a difference in “style.”

Sinunu-Towery, a former 30-year Santa Clara County prosecutor, was appointed last summer to replace Shivaun Nurre, a longtime IPA employee who helmed the office from 2018 through June 2023.

Nurre’s unexpected retirement came about without much public notice, raising questions about her departure. It was later revealed that just before she retired, Nurre got into a heated verbal argument with a San José police officer at a public event while she was drunk.

A few months later, the assistant IPA, Eva Roa, resigned and wrote a letter lambasting city management and officials for largely ignoring the IPA’s office and criticizing Sinunu-Towery for being too trusting of police department investigators.

A new permanent IPA is expected to be named during Tuesday’s meeting by the City Council.

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