Breaking up is hard to do. Breaking up a fight between the San Jose police union and City Hall could be damn near impossible.
In what appeared to be an effort to mend fences and remind people who’s the boss, Acting Police Chief Larry Esquivel sent an email this week to his command staff—deputy police chiefs, lieutenants and captains—scolding some of them for signing on to a letter critical of the city’s recent actions involving labor negotiations.
According to Jim Unland, a sergeant in the San Jose Police Department and president of the Police Officers Association, Esquivel’s email was “meant to intimidate commanders from participating in something like this again.”
Last week the City Council met for its regularly scheduled closed session, where labor relations updates are provided and the council directs staff on negotiations. In that meeting, councilmembers and Mayor Chuck Reed decided to send a letter to San Jose police officers’ homes, updating them on negotiations between the city and the POA. “It was merely supplemental information,” says David Vossbrink, the city’s communications director.
But Unland and POA Vice President John Robb took umbrage to city officials sidestepping the normal communications process, and union members received an email alert about the “unsigned ‘spin’ letter” sent to officers’ homes. In the alert, officers could click on a link that directed them to a drafted response, which they could then sign their names to. The letter could then be sent to the mayor and council, City Manger Debra Figone, Deputy City Manager Alex Gurza and Deputy Director of Employee Relations Jennifer Schembri.
When Esquivel became aware of the letter, he sent an email noted as “CONFIDENTIAL PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION Re: Labor negotiations” to his command staff, which was obtained by The Daily Fetch. The email was originally leaked to KTVU.
The police chief said in the email that he was “saddened that any commander would participate, encourage, or condone this tactic or action without knowing both sides of the issues and or asking clarifying questions, whether to me or through you chain (of command).”
Esquivel added: “To those of you that participated in this action and submitted emails to council, etc, please stop by my office before this week is over so I do not have to seek you out.”
Unland says he, and many officers he spoke with, took Esquivel’s letter as a threat, even though the police chief told the POA officials that there would be no disciplinary action taken against command staff members who signed their names to the letter sent to City Hall.
Unland paraphrases Esquivel’s email as such: “‘Remember who is in control of your work, of your career.’ That’s the only way I could take it. There’s no misreading between the lines. He’s angry about it and here you go.
“He’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s really not his place to insert himself,” Unland continues. “This is the negotiating process. It’s ugly. It’s frustrating, and it requires a ton of patience. There’s not a role for [the police chief] in this right now. And he doesn’t seem to want to understand that. I don’t think his motives are sinister or anything like that, but he has to understand that he’s not going to have influence over how the POA handles negotiations.”
Vossbrink disputes the POA’s interpretation of the letter sent to officers’ homes, adding that the chief’s email going public might only further damage the negotiating process.
“Clearly, it’s disappointing he had to send the letter in the first place,” Vossbrink says. “It’s probably doubly disappointing that the facts and the actual copy of the letter are out in the public as well, because he had the expectation of confidence he was sending it to his top people.”
Vossbrink confirmed that the city received “roughly 500” letters from San Jose police officers through the POA weblink, some of which included personal postscripts. Vossbrink added that one officer sent the same letter almost “75 times.”
Here is the first email Esquivel sent to his command staff:
I am sending this email to all commanders and above ONLY and expect that this communication stay as such.
Obviously you know that I have been working aggressively behind the scenes to let those in City leadership positions know and understand the importance, generally, of coming to some sort of resolution regarding “wages only.” This is nothing new. I have been trying to assist in the process of only getting both sides to meet and communicate so that the City/POA can discuss, resolve, and agree upon a proposed wage increase for all our sworn members. We need that!
On Aug 14, the City sent out a proposal which proposed a 2 year 5% wage increase, 4% retention bonus and a Reopener clause. Through the media, the POA called it “fuzzy math.”
The POA did not respond to the City but did send out an email blast to members denouncing the proposal.
On Aug 16, the City sent out mailers to members trying to assist in clarifying their proposal because the POA had not contacted them for any clarification, especially on the Reopener language. The City’s letter highlighted the proposed Reopener provision which stated in part “…When a decision is made on Measure B, either the City or the POA could request to meet and confer only related to retirement benefits…” Prior to that point, the POA had not met with or asked the City any for clarification, since the Aug 14 proposal.
On Aug 19 the POA sent out a counter proposal to the City and an email blast to members on how the City’s proposal (Reopener) is tied to Measure B. The POA then sent out another email blast to members asking if they are angry, for various reasons, to click on a provided link sending a pre-written letter that would go to all City leaders voicing your displeasure with the mailer among other things.
I have seen the names of those that did in fact initiate emails (narrative letter written by the POA) to our City leaders. I would hope that those that did initiate the email read the content of that letter. I know there were a few commanders that participated in this action. Believe me, I know there is frustration, I truly do! I am saddened that any commander would participate, encourage, or condone this tactic or action without knowing both sides of the issues and or asking clarifying questions, whether to me or through your chain. You are a commander and I would expect that you would seek clarification so that you are well informed and then relay that information to others that look to you for answers. Remember, you are part of this management team and we need to be strong and united. Your word, opinion and decisions, influence many! As management, it is our job to be realistic, objective and well informed! We need to be clear on expectations and roles, especially during these times. We, I, also need to do a better job of communicating on important matters such as this, for that I apologize.
To those of you that participated in this action and submitted emails to council, etc, please stop by my office before the week is over so I do not have to seek you out. If possible, Friday would be best. Thank you.
Acting Chief of Police
San Jose Police Department
On Thursday afternoon, the chief sent this follow-up email to all sworn officers in the department:
I’m sure you may have heard rumors about the content of an email I sent out to all commanders titled “Confidential Privilege Communications.” It was in response to letters being sent to our City leaders. While the content of my email may have been strongly worded, I can guarantee you that my email was not to intimidate anyone. If you felt that way, I apologize for the misinterpretation.
Like you, I am very passionate about how and what we do here and about doing the right thing for you and our community! I take great pride in leading you and hearing from you as to ways I can best improve your working conditions.
With that said, the purpose of meeting with the commanders was to understand their opinion and to reinforce our respective roles within our Department, nothing more. I have met with most commanders already and ALL of those meetings have been positive and reassuring, in the sense of us all moving forward “together.” It is paramount that we are united and equally important for me to know that you are individuals and to understand your feelings and opinions.
It is unfortunate what my original message has developed into and I apologize for any distraction this may have caused you. I know the frustration level is high, I get that. I still believe and am very hopeful that there will be some resolution. Stand tall and continue to keep your head up. Things will get better!
Continue doing the great job you are doing, you continue to make this Department shine. I am forever proud to wear this uniform alongside you!
Please, if you need to vent, give input, suggestions, or critique, I am always available and willing to listen to you, that’s my job and it’s very important to me!
Be safe please.
Acting Chief of Police
San Jose Police Department
On Friday morning, the city sent a letter to the POA’s vice president asking to meet and continue negotiations.