A number of posts over the past week on ProtectSanJose.com, a blog run by the Police Officers Association (SJPOA), have effectively called into question a series of San Jose Mercury News articles about use of force by SJPD.
The Merc series started with the Oct. 24 posting of a cell-phone video that seems to show SJPD officers beating and Tasing a Vietnamese SJSU exchange student while he is pinned to the floor. The series culminated in a Sunday package a few days later, headlined “Mercury News investigation: San Jose police often use force in resisting-arrest cases.”
The front-page article, by reporter Sean Webby, begins with an anecdote about a man whose arm was broken in a confrontation with police, which concludes with this provocative statement: “The cause of the trouble? Wright reached into his van to wash his greasy hands.”
We learn 36 paragraphs into the article that police officers at the scene claim that the man had threatened them, and before reaching into his van said “I’ll kick your ass.” But the anecdote is used to set up the package’s thesis: “Hundreds of times a year interactions between San Jose police and residents where no serious crime has occurred escalate into violence.
“Many times the reason for the encounter is as innocuous as jaywalking, missing bike head lamps, or failing to signal a turn. But often, as the incidents develop, police determine the suspect is uncooperative and potentially violent and strike the first blow.”
The Sunday package included an editorial calling for a “culture change” in the city’s police force.
A week later, the SJPOA’s blog posted an opinion piece by former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara, which also ran in the Merc’s Op-Ed section. In the piece, McNamara writes that the “recent coverage of the San Jose Police Department was biased and unfair to what is probably the best large-city police department in the nation.”
McNamara questions the Merc’s numbers, pointing out that the SJPD is responsible for 30,000 arrests per year. “Remarkably, there were only slightly more than a hundred citizen complaints of unnecessary force in 2008 and none was found to be justified. Perversely, the Mercury News cites this as evidence that the department isn’t trusted and discourages complaints.”
McNamara’s piece might have been particularly irksome to the Merc’s editors, because they had lauded the former chief in their Sunday editorial for “revolutionizing the culture” of the department when he was in charge.
The controversy continued with a piece by neighborhood activist Ed Rast, posted on the Protect San Jose blog yesterday, which disputes the numbers at the heart of the Merc series.
“The Mercury News presented a bar graph [that shows] arrest rates by racial groups but does not account for each city’s population or demographics.
“Of course, these numbers didn’t prevent the Mercury … from stating in the story that ‘San Jose charges far more people with resisting arrest, compared with its population, than any other major California city.’ Let’s hope they didn’t read that in Fresno.
“Because the Mercury News graph included overall arrest percentages for Latinos, I examined those numbers using Latino population percentages to calculate the resisting arrest rate per 1,000 Latino residents in each city. This time, San Jose drops from first to fourth.”
Rast’s piece goes on to show that Latino arrests by population for Fresno and Bakersfield are significantly higher than San Jose’s, and
that “seven of nine Mercury News-selected California cities had higher Latino resisting arrest rates per 1000 than their percentage of Latino residents.”
Sean Webby’s previous investigation into SJPD’s practices, which found that San Jose cops target Latinos for arrest, won him a Public Service award from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He was presented the award at a dinner Tuesday night.