When Aaron Zisser became San Jose’s independent police auditor last fall, he made a surprising announcement. Unlike his predecessors who pushed to expand the powers of the office by way of a ballot measure, the 37-year-old civil rights attorney said he’d remain neutral on the matter.
Initially, that came as a relief for San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia, who was caught between public demand for stronger oversight and a rank-and-file already bristling from unprecedented scrutiny. “That was good to hear,” Garcia says. “He seemed open-minded and open to learning how we do things.”
But the chief has since cooled his optimism as the new watchdog took a more critical tack than he anticipated. It turned out that Zisser’s professed ambivalence about remapping the boundaries of the role belied the ambition of his approach. That is—from the confines of an advisory position—to leverage untapped authority already at his disposal.
“We are making sure we utilize all of the tools in our tool belt,” Zisser states in the inaugural year-end report he presented to the San Jose City Council Tuesday night. “While we always seek to exercise our authority respectfully, it is important that we use the full range of our authorities.”
To the new police monitor, that means appealing disagreements over internal SJPD investigations to the city manager—something that had rarely been done in the past but has happened three times so far in 2018. It means pushing for more access to more records, weighing in on draft policies, analyzing disciplinary decisions and personally showing up to the scenes of officer-involved shootings. It means having the chief issue annual memos on such incidents, which the duty manual requires but SJPD neglected to do until Zisser identified the lapse.
More broadly, he says, it means examining SJPD as a whole instead of just through the lens of internal affairs or citizen complaints.
Reform advocates welcome the change. But a broad swath of the city’s law enforcement have taken umbrage with Zisser’s style, and on Tuesday, San Jose’s elected officials amplified some of that sentiment. In a surprising turn of events, the council moved to delay a vote on accepting Zisser’s year-end report until he revised a section that Mayor Sam Liccardo called misleading and “cavalier” about racial disparities.
The passage cited statistics from the SJPD indicating that white suspects were two-and-a-half times more likely than minorities to leave use-of-force incidents with no charges. Echoing criticism from the police chief that Zisser used only percentages to obscure the small sample size, Liccardo urged a rewrite.
Zisser says he had no intent to obfuscate the data, and called the council’s request for raw numbers to contextualize the statistics “totally reasonable.”
“We always seek to understand and convey the broader context and nuance,” he says, which is why he tries to fill the gaps by interviewing police about various topics.
But Zisser says that some of his requests to engage officers about certain issues have been delayed, denied and treated as overreach. “I’ve gotten a lot of heat from the [union] making it out like I’m the one advocating for expanding authority,” he says in an interview a day earlier, “but that’s not the case.”
It may seem that way because his immediate forebear, Walter Katz, was, according to multiple accounts from community leaders and activists, aloof by comparison.
Katz—who came to the job in 2015, a year before Garcia’s promotion to top cop—inherited the role from a formidable watchdog: LaDoris Cordell.
In her six years as auditor, the retired Santa Clara County Superior Court judge elevated the office to national prominence and worked tirelessly to get SJPD to adopt major reforms such as equipping officers with body cameras and requiring them to track racial disparities in traffic and pedestrian stops. Despite the necessarily critical aspect the auditor’s function, she forged a collaborative enough relationship with then-Chief Larry Esquivel to elicit support for her policies.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Cordell, who retired in 2015. “Sometimes we got upset with each other, but we were able to talk.”
While Cordell became a prominent fixture in the community and left an indelible mark on policing in San Jose, Katz kept a relatively low local profile.
Zisser—San Jose’s youngest police auditor since the city created the job in 1993—takes more after Cordell by making himself visible to the public. Like Cordell, he says he plans to leave the office better than he found it and hopes to carve out his place by drawing from his experience as a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), where he learned to view policing through a constitutional lens.
“For the most part, the purpose of oversight is to address the constitutional issues of the city’s armed branch,” Zisser says, “to prevent overreach and ensure equal protection under the law.”
With the Trump administration renouncing interest in addressing systemic police misconduct, he says, local accountability has become all the more vital. And though he acknowledges that SJPD is by no means in constitutional crisis, there’s still a long way to go when most of the people shot by police have a mental illness or when the unit investigating domestic violence remains woefully under-resourced. “We can no longer rely on federal authorities to keep these systemic problems in check,” Zisser says.
Garcia, however, has resisted Zisser’s brand of oversight. In the chief’s view, it seemed that Katz’s experience watchdogging the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gave him a deeper understanding of law enforcement.
“Walter looked at how police interacted with the community and was more empathetic to the rank-and-file,” Garcia says. “Aaron looks more at the organization. … The goal for internal affairs investigations is to make sure they’re complete, thorough, fair and objective. So that is exactly what the auditor is there to ensure, and I think he still needs to work toward that.”
Garcia has remained civil and responsive while firmly defending his department, which has enacted a host of progressive reforms under his watch. The chief says he tensed up when he saw Zisser at a recent Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force meeting. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’” he recalls. “I don’t need someone to tell me how to interact with my community.”
But Garcia says he embraces transparency and accountability.
“It makes us a better police department,” he says.
And that he’s far from averse to criticism.
“I get it,” the chief says. “A healthy friction has to exist, and it wasn’t like Walter was my best buddy who got beer with me—not at all. But he got us to implement the biggest use-of-force reform in the history of this department because he worked collaboratively.”
Civil rights activists, for their part, commend Zisser for showing up at so many events, listening to people most impacted by police and for putting SJPD under the microscope.
“A new pair of eyes has been helpful,” says Raj Jayadev, head of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a nonprofit that works with families that lost loved ones to police violence. “It allows him to see things that maybe stand out to him that everyone else was used to.”
Zisser echoes Garcia’s call to work together, but disputes the notion that he’s unsupportive of officers. He attended both academy graduations since taking office, and took his entire staff to the most recent one. In fact, he says, seeing how police and prosecutors brought justice to his family when someone killed his 19-year-old cousin nearly 25 years ago inspired him to become a lawyer.
“What really drew me to civil rights work,” he says, “were concerns about violence, concerns about violence perpetrated by the state but also the state’s obligation to protect people from violence.”
Even before taking the job, Zisser pointed to San Jose’s oversight as a model for other cities, in part, because of its productive relationship with the police under its watch. Ultimately, though, the credibility of the office depends on a certain level of tension and no more than arm’s length collaboration.
“Maybe as an attorney I’m used to an adversarial process,” he says, “where you argue your case and then you’re civil at the end of it.”