SJPD Watchdog Aaron Zisser Draws Criticism From Top Brass on Approach to Oversight

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 for several years 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.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

17 Comments

  1. “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.”

    And that ladies and gentlemen, is exactly why Zisser is unqualified to opine about anything related to policing or the constitution. The state is not “obligated” to protect people from violence. He obviously missed one of the landmark cases establishing as such. Try Hartzler v. City of San Jose. That case established that the government owes no duty to protect individual citizens from criminal attack. Not only did the California courts hold to that rule, the California legislature had enacted a statute to make sure the courts couldn’t change the rule.

    Zisser should be embarrassed. Must have been rough growing up on the mean streets of Saratoga getting hassled by the sheriff for drinking Zimas in the park.

  2. Really gun control is so important because the crimes that are done with them are almost impossible to solve for police . Robbery became homcides and most of the time they are cold cases unsolved mystery. Police can only do so Much to help prevent someone being shot increase protrals. Target problem areas .. humans aren’t designed to live in a survival fear Mode paranoid your spose to live your life if someone is trying to follow u to harm People will think your 51/50 so no one can help if you are in danger hide and call the police after the fact

    • Defensive Use of Guns

      “As for determining how many lives are saved by guns, regulations bar the CDC from conducting original research of the defensive use of firearms. But after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order allowing the agency to review existing studies on causes of and ways to reduce gun violence.

      As to defensives uses of guns, the CDC report said, “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies. … Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.”

      “humans aren’t designed to live in a survival fear Mode”

      While I think there is some evidence that we actually are designed to live in survival mode, with fear being the keep operant of that, I will accept your statement. If 300M people used a gun 3M times a year to defend themselves, that’s a lot more collective peace of mind.

    • Concrned, what’s the basis for your claim? The DOJ data I’ve reviewed + NPR’s article say most homicides are solved. I trust you’re aware that firearm-related homicides have declined by over 50% since 1993, that about 2/3 of US gun deaths are suicides, and as SJ Kulak states defensive gun use saves lives. The CDC surveys collaborate data Dr. Kleck’s research.

  3. If that ignoramus shows up at the scene of an officer involved shooting, or at any other event in the field, he becomes a witness and is no longer an “auditor”. Whatever he sees at the scene, even if it’s next to nothing, can be considered eye-witness evidence. Even if he sees nothing, that is still potential testimony…i.e.,
    Q: “Mr. Moron (Zisser), what time did you arrive at the scene?
    Moron: About 8:30”
    Q: “Mr Moron (Zisser), what did you notice at the scene when you arrived?
    Moron: “Nothing really, just officers standing around”
    Q: “Mr Moron (Zisser), that’s unusual since the police said that the shooting occurred at 8:35 and someone was laying in the street when you arrived. How is it you arrived 5 minutes before the shooting supposedly occurred and saw nothing, no body in the street, no one screaming, are you lying or are the police? Please account for that discrepancy Mr. Moron”.

    Can you imagine what would happen if Mr. Moron arrived and simply saw even just so much as a blood stain on the sidewalk or a shell casing and was later asked to testify as to the position and/or condition of this evidence. Responding to the scene makes this idiot a witness and no longer an (independent ?!?) auditor. An auditor audits, and apparently in Zisser’s case, tries to become more relevant by going outside the scope of his mandated job duties?

    Mr. Zisser, would you be willing to publish a report and/or make a public statement when the police do something in an exemplary manner? If the answer is “no”, which I suspect it is, then you are an “anti-police advocate”, and not an “independent auditor”. Will you submit your report and the names of all your witnesses to the police after you supposedly monitor some incident and allow the police to review your investigation and your findings and maybe re-interview your witnesses and report on any discrepancies or mistakes you may have made? Why not? Are you unwilling to be transparent too? Can the police report your investigative deficiencies to the city manager and ask that you be removed or disciplined? Why not? What’s good for the goose is not good enough for the gander, for you then?

  4. I just watched a video of the City Counsel meeting where Licardo and the City Counsel unanimously voted to reject his entire report because it was filled with admitted inaccuracies and misleading stats and information. They asked him to amend the report to include more clarifying information and he flat refused.

    Let me see if I have this correct, if a police officer subject to his scrutiny, filed a false police report full of admittedly inaccurate and/or misleading information, wouldn’t he/she be subject to discipline and possibly criminal prosecution? Especially if it was connected to a crime investigation or use of force incident involving a person of color, which seems to be a common concern these days.

    Does anyone else see a glaring conflict of interest and a huge double standard? Or maybe it’s because he has a politically driven agenda that includes trying to make SJPD look as bad as possible in the public eye? Is he missing that citizen complaints are down, the police are wearing body worn camera’s and discipline is up for the infractions that are discovered for a police department that is woefully understaffed and performing at a level that is frankly amazing for the situation they are facing?

    Maybe Mr Zisser needs to face some of the discipline he want’s to hand out like candy for very minor infractions of policy, which commonly could be handled with training? Maybe he needs a new job location to peddle his “The Police are horrible people” crap he is shoveling?

    The Mayor and City Counsel aren’t buying it, why should we?

    Here is the link for your entertainment… https://youtu.be/ozfbKPciJz8

  5. “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.”

    OK. And blacks comprise about 13% of US, yet commit over 52% of homicides per DOJ (Bureau of Justice Statistics). About 45% of CA’s 3-strikers are black, yet comprise ~7% of our population.

    Correlation does not equal causality.

  6. What Zisser did by manipulating statistics was to reduce the credibility of his office, undercut all the positive progress that has been made, make officers jobs more dangerous, and make some victims reluctant to come forward. He and his office are a disgrace.

  7. It would seem to me that the police would embrace the concept that guns save lives. After all, aren’t they the only ones openly carrying loaded automatic weapons under the guise of “public safety” and fire at will without retribution whenever they feel necessary? I’ll stick to the constitution and proudly embrace my legal rights.

  8. Have Confiscated drugs/money from the border pay for the wall what are the relationship between border patrols and Mexico’s police probably none .. fix Mexico and see a 25 % increase on life inunited states they are pollutiontiong our cities and filling gang wars with gun violonence where is all the heroin in San Franisco coming from

  9. Mr Zizzers.
    Just because someone is mentally ill does not excuses that person to commit violent crimes without the consequences of being shot by police or an armed victim. One could make the argument that all people that commit violent crimes have some sort mental deficiency, it is not the job of police to get shot or chopped by some nut job that should have been locked up in a state institution long before the situation has become a dangerous crisis. Doctor’s, lawyers, judges, governors and parole boards that turn these violent people loose on society should be held financially and criminally liable for there errors.
    Including you Mr Zizzer.

  10. There is no Mexico border police . The only border police are in Guatemala and that’s where the Colombian drugs com in from that boundary and they say it’s not regulated and corrupted . Why isn’t United States taking over control it’s effecting United States

  11. This guy is a clown and a disgrace. Although I didnt always agree with the last IPA at least he attempted to be fair and impartial. This is just more of the same old same old… Trying to justify his high bloated salary. The sanctuary is alive and well…

  12. Uh, that data came directly from the SJPD. Why is no one focusing on that? Even if it wasn’t written in the best way, the IPA is getting unfairly called out for this. Give the guy a break. He’s a civil rights guy and the SJPD doesn’t like it. Shocking.

  13. I hope the independent police auditor department investigates the historical pattern of disparity of service ( police response time and patrolling) to the community of Alviso ( San Jose) . This disparity of police response includes poor police response for school safety issues at George Mayne Elementary School.
    At mimimum respond to the complaints filed in this issue.
    Padres Unidos California

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