LaDoris Cordell to Step Down as Independent Police Auditor

LaDoris Cordell will retire from her post as San Jose’s independent police auditor this summer, the city announced Wednesday. During her five-year term the former judge brought unprecedented accountability to the San Jose Police Department.

As the city’s third IPA—the office was created in 1993—Cordell focused on building trust between police and the public through greater transparency.

“In her time as independent police auditor, she has increased outreach to all of San Jose’s communities and encouraged thoughtful discussion of policy issues at a time of national debate over public safety,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

Her last day will be July 3. San Jose has three months to find a successor, allowing time for public input.

Cordell, 65, has used her civilian police oversight to publish detailed yearly reports about officer conduct and hand down recommendations for progressive policies about race and transparency.

"The only way to build trust in any system is transparency," she told San Jose Inside. "The more you are transparent, the more people trust you."

Though her office is limited in authority, police often voluntarily adopted her suggestions. There has always been some tension, though, as the city's police union sometimes doubted her objectivity while working with civil rights groups that have been critical of law enforcement.

"When I came here, the first thing I wanted to do was to make it clear what this office was about," she said. "The message was that we are here to make this a better police department. We are not adversarial. The way that I approached this was to do as much outreach in the police department as I did in the community."

When Cordell stepped into her role as independent auditor, the police department was under scrutiny for alleged racial profiling. She called for a policy to collect data about all detainments where people were let go without a citation or arrest, with a goal of finding out whether or not officers unfairly target minorities, in particular Latinos and African Americans.

On Jan. 1, 2014, San Jose police began taking details reports about traffic stops, documenting the person's race, age, why they were stopped and whether they were cuffed, put in a cop car or made to sit on a curb. Now that SJPD has a year's worth of those reports, the city has to find someone to objectively analyze the data.

"We need someone who can analyze this without spinning the data," Cordell said. "Then this needs to be made public."

For years, Cordell has also pushed for San Jose to equip its officers with body cameras, which could have two major effects: 1. Many people believe police check their behavior when cameras are rolling; and 2. Police and the city are better protected from unfounded complaints made by the public. SJPD is in the middle of its third body cam pilot.

When SJPD got into hot water about its close ties to the San Francisco 49ers, which hired off-duty cops for security, Cordell suggested doing away with the secondary employment program entirely. For the time being, Police Chief Larry Esquivel has suspended any side work with the club.

No doubt, Cordell’s standing as Northern California’s first African American female judge and a respected civil rights leader raised the profile of San Jose’s IPA office.

A theater major as an undergrad, Cordell ventured into the legal field with a little uncertainty. But she soon realized that her background in performing arts equipped her well for the courtroom.

"Litigation is law and theater," she said. "As a lawyer you put on a show for your jury and you persuade them. When I became a judge, I became the producer and director. Those skills really did help."

After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1974, she established herself as the first lawyer to open a private practice in East Palo Alto, a largely African American and Mexican community. Meanwhile, as assistant dean of student affairs at her alma mater, Cordell created a minority admissions program that made the law school a national leader in enrolling students of color.

In 1982, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County, where she became the first judge in the state to order Breathalyzers installed on cars of convicted drunk drivers. Six years later, she won a seat on the county’s Superior Court. After 19 years on the bench, Cordell retired from the bench to serve eight years as vice provost and special counselor to the president of Stanford.

With every job, her goal was to leave it better than when she started.

"You go in thinking, 'This is a precious moment,'" she said. "You do everything you can to make things better. That's been who I am."

Throughout this time, she has served on various boards, won numerous awards and become sought-after for her legal opinion. Last year, with the nation reeling in the wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri, she wrote an op-ed for Slate promoting the dissolution of criminal grand juries.

"They're all secret," she told San Jose Inside. "I think it's appalling."

In retirement, Cordell plans to focus on music and art. A classically trained pianist, she will continue to work with the African American Composer Initiative, which she founded six years ago.

Cordell's first priority, however, will be to write a memoir, a personal look at her time on the bench and how it changed her.

"I came into the job at 32 years old absolutely terrified," she said. "I was the first black woman judge, which created so much pressure."

But she relished the role.

"I was ready," she says. "That robe fit."

While many judges specialize in one type of case, she worked with all kinds: civil, criminal, probate, family, juvenile, traffic, small claims and more.

During her last eight years on the bench, she ended each week by writing a letter to her parents back east. She wrote about the people who came into her courtroom, the ones changing their names or bickering over wills or facing serious life-changing charges, the tragedy and occasional comedy. She wrote about the personal impact of holding so much authority over people's lives.

"The hardest one is sentencing," she said. "Having to think about what to do with people who've done awful things, how to protect the public while showing understanding."

When Cordell retired from the bench in 2001, her mom pulled out that box of letters—hundreds of them, brimming with stories she may otherwise have forgotten—and gave them back.

"They're going to be a big help to me," she said. "That's where I'll start."

This story has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Ohhhhhh hallelujah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wonder if it was her plan, all along, to stay only long enough to become vested, at five years?

        • She brought some good conversation to the table. Conversation that often times put her at odds with the SJPD and POA. In the words of Winston Churchill.

          “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

          • San Jose has to pay someone over $282,000 (TCOE) to bring a “good” conversation to the table? Actually, more than that if you include the budgeted dollars for her all women staff.
            I’m not discounting her thoughts but way over priced for the conversation in my opinion.

            Recommendation #6: (2013)
            Revise the Field Training Officer (FTO) Handbook to include better instruction and guidance about how recruits should interact with people of color.

          • Cousin Cortese: I didn’t ask what she tried to do, but what she got DONE.

        • Well she certainly got the cops to chillout on a lot of their overreaching policies. Remember when DTSJ looked like a police state at 1:30am “Crowd controlling” people out of DTSJ? She’s one of the reasons that’s not happening anymore. A lot of the DTSJ business’s complained to her, and the practice was stopped.

          • Mr. Robert Michael Cortese:

            If SJPD has its staffing restored, I, for one, would love to see such police presence back in downtown San Jose.


            I live in the heart of downtown, where nine homicides and 16 attempted murders have taken place within six square blocks of my pad in 39 months.

            I have had to escort numerous trespassers off the property where I reside. My fellow neighbors and taxpayers get very little ROI.

            The conservative estimate is that some two billion taxpayer dollars have been pissed away in downtown San Jose since the mid 198O’s, and there is damn little to show for it it. That said, inebriated and obviously overserved patrons of too many downtown establishments are turned loose after last call and choose to urinate on the walls of downtown buildings, in doorways and along street accessible stairwells nightly. The acrid smell of stale piss on our downtown sidewalks in the morning does not smell like victory.

            Meanwhile, there are more hookers, pimps and drug dealers around downtown and south and north of downtown than ever before. In fact, San Jose’s prostitution track is so long–it’s roughly a 10K in length–Mr. Carl Guardino could have a companion race to the annual Silicon Valley Turkey Trot called the John Jog.


            Michael Patrick O’Connor

          • Thanks for having some civility in your response Michael, even if we disagree. I haven’t had much of that lately.

            I disagree because the nightly cleanup on horseback was indiscriminate.

            That being said, I think part of the issue is SJPD’s “Hands off” policy when it comes to helping bars/clubs eject unruly patrons. A friend of a friend that worked at Johnny V’s as a bouncer had his throat slit last year.

            I took a long break from IT and while pursuing my own thing, worked as a doorman at 7 Bamboo. A bit off the beaten path from DTSJ proper, but it certainly gave me a looking glass perspective into how SJPD will handle calls from venues with a threatening person refusing to leave.

            We often hear about the “Broken Window” theory, well it applies here as well. Someone who’s being unruly in a bar, after leaving likely go on to cause more trouble (pissing on your lawn, messing with your stuff)

            Anyways, if SJPD could change policy for *just* this one issue, you’d see a lot less trouble in your neighborhood.

          • Hey another thing I want to throw out here Michael…

            The National organization of the Guardian Angels have officially given the go ahead to open a San Jose chapter, which I’ll be captain of. We’re going on our first walk this weekend. Let me know what neighborhood you’re in, and I’ll make sure we keep an eye out.

          • Cousin Cortese: my recollection is that the heavy-handed police presence at closing time in DTSJ was discontinued before Ms. Cordell became IPA in 2010.

      • You work for a game company, what do you know about what she did, didn’t do, or accomplished? Please enlighten us.

        • Merc does a great job of listing her accomplishments. She approached the job with a civil rights background, she questioned SJPD on “Curb Sit” detainments. I know there are times officers have to bend the rules a bit to get the job done, but sometimes there’s too much bending. She was a great balance. Her presence in her position, and the way she went about it kept her from being absolutely hated like her predecessor.

          • Police state? Please. You wished for police presence when you were assaulted at Bamboo. indiscriminate horse back clean up at night? NEVER happened. The only time the horses were out at night was for the ethnic drunk fests in May and September. HMU was disbanded years ago due to budget and staffing cuts.

            Guardian Angel huh… good luck. Who are you expecting to save the day or take the report and investigate “incidents” you may witness, get involved in and maybe get assaulted or even killed in?

            Stick to earning a living and easing your kids… it is much more fulfilling than this GA thing.

          • What’s wrong with bringing the Angels here weed? It’s no different than the night walks a lot of churches are starting to orchestrate. I guess you don’t like those either.

  2. You mean you actually work? As much as you live on SJI, I thought you were retired or unemployed.

    • I’m a sr. systems administrator for a game company on page mill road. My specialty is workflow automation for systems deployment. Before this I worked at a company called board vantage. 2 more years till my stock is fully vested.

      I hang out here because politics is more than a passing phase for me. Its a few minutes out of my day to read and comment here.

      • Cousin Cortese: What does a “sr. systems administrator” do all day to earn his/her pay check? Apparently part of your work day is spent reading and posting on SJI. Over half your recent posts to several recent threads on this site were made M-F between 9:00 a.m. & 5::00 p.m. Do you also find time during your hectic workday to read and post on other blogs?
        I’ve always been fascinated by the incredible number of similar job titles that prevail in both the high tech industry and public entities. They tend to be combinations of words that convey little meaning or clues regarding what real work that title holder actually does all day. I lack a sufficient geek quotient to understand what “workflow automation for system development” means in plain English. But that’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the HR geeks of this world who compose these job titles. Those titles remind me of that list that keeps going around: three numbered columns of ten words each. One picks a random number from each of the three columns to compile a phrase that bears a remarkable resemblance to nonsensical job titles in government or high tech.

        • It’s actually a real job. I’ll explain it.

          What I do is I look at things being done by humans, and figure out the best possible way to automate them. Example: Before I came our team was installing operating systems by hand, which costs us about 3 hours per machine. Also it was a serial process (meaning one at a time) At best we were pushing 4-5 machines out a day for our new hires.

          With a bit of programming, little bit of IT magic here and there, I’ve decreased that time down to 20 minutes, with 48x parallel (I can push out 48 machines at once in 20 minutes )

          Basically I would be considered the anti-christ in the city hall environment, an environment which prides itself on doing things by hand, the long and inefficient way.

          Since we’re on this subject, what do you do for a living?

          • So that’s how you found the time to post so often during work hours. I was a lawyer in DTSJ for 41 years. I retired last year, so I post on my own time.

  3. I did not agree with some of the things IPA Cordell did while in this position. In my personal opinion, her involvement in the SJSU situation, and other areas she got involved in seemed to be a direct conflict of interest and bordered more on activism than that of her actual position and the confines of her designated job duties.

    The definition of an “Independent Auditor,” is as follows: Clearly from its definition, she was involved in areas as our Independent Police Auditor that she shouldn’t have been. Also, more often than not, she was referred to as “Judge Cordell,” rather than our Independent Police Auditor. In my opinion, that title is inappropriate as it gives the public an inaccurate perception of what her actual position as our IPA is.

    Further, if we are to follow the guidelines of this position, “neutrality,” is a vital part of this job so that reports, and requested actions made by this office will be perceived as fair, and accurate, and not based on one’s personal bias, or beliefs of what changes should be made because of the background of said auditor. My hope is that the next “Independent Police Auditor” is a neutral, and not someone with an activist mindset.

    Also, I am concerned that this office is run completely by women. I know several men have applied to be the IPA and for other positions in this office. Is there a reason why men aren’t being considered for these jobs? Or is their a gender bias going on that needs to be “examined/audited?”

    • I agree with you wholeheartedly Kathleen re Ms. Cordell’s temperament. I had the opportunity to observe her in action on many occasions when she was a family court judge. She has a very quick and agile mind, and a firm idea of what she believed should happen. I frequently observed her interrupt lawyers making arguments on behalf of their clients, and at times berating them. She could be a real bully on the bench. She had all the power, she knew it, and lawyers had to suck it up when she lambasted them in open court. Like many bright folks, she was very impatient, and she was severely lacking in judicial temperament. Her placing of huge ads on VTA buses urging folks to report alleged police misconduct went beyond her function as an allegedly Independent Police Auditor. She clearly had an agenda.

  4. Seems to me Ms. Cordell did a pretty effective job of promoting the politically correct agenda that is embraced by so many here in the enlightened state of Oceania.
    The cops disliked her as they viewed her presence as an implied criticism of their professionalism- and who could blame them.
    But in truth she was just another public employee with a vested interest in the relentless growth and power of the government, and as such she and her supposed foe- the police- have been allies all along.

  5. Who cares, mr Automation, but you sure want to know what everyone else does for a living. Can you figure this one out : RETIRED…………………..

  6. I was not impressed with Ms. Cordell. The Council and police during her time were not working together and I hope the New Mayor and council members will select someone who is not so bias against the police and is independent from the Mayor and council. Ms. Cordell did not do her job and the evidence is our current police force. I wish her well.

  7. I was very impressed with Ms. Cordell. She is compassionate and seeks justice. From the comments on other sites I see the white males with racist leanings (who live in AZ!) do not like her — which makes me appreciate her more — she was brave. I know officers have tough jobs but you guys need to listen to ANYTHING besides Fox News – This American Life, KPFA, for example and you will see instance after instance after instance of a guy with a badge and a gun shooting an unarmed citizen of color and little investigation. NO one wants to investigate the police, we want to believe they are good. But sometimes, sadly, a few or more are not.

  8. Jill – Can you show me some examples of unarmed “people of color”, or even people of no color, being shot by San Jose Police officers?

    ^ This highlights the true folly of Cordell’s tenure, she took what should have been objective investigations based upon facts and circumstances, and turned them into racially motivated debates.

    If trends concerning racial bias were identified during her investigations or while analyzing statistics, then I believe they rightfully should have been addressed through her recommendations. Instead of this, Cordell began by soliciting complaints based upon race and socio economic status.

    Cordell’s blatant racism and bias were evident throughout many of her recommendations. None more evident than the aforementioned suggestion to edit the SJPD Field Training manual to include instruction and suggestions for interacting with people of color. Such a suggestion implies police recruits are not themselves, “people of color”, nor have they any life experience interacting with anyone other than their own race. In short, recommending “special treatment” for any particular group, in this case “people of color”, is advocating “bias based policing.”

  9. This lady was bright and accomplished. But she was unquestionably a race baiter. In a community as diverse as San Jose, where the police force itself has so many officers from minority communities, where being progressive is lauded by the majority of the community, her divisive approach was misplaced and unnecessary. The community itself is responsible for her being in a position of authority. This is a community that celebrates diversity; relative to other parts of the country, it does not suppress it. But Ms. Cordell started with the assumption that the police force was this insular group antagonistic to the community at large. I applaud her intelligence, and her background is inspiring. But I am glad she is stepping down as police auditor.

  10. Having actually been around La Doris, I will tell you she is more biased than she claims the police are. Self-important, egomaniacal, unreasonable and self-promoting, she is exactly what you don’t want as an Independent Police Auditor.

  11. La Doris is my hero.
    I have been behind my Anvil for many years, making horse shoes. The San Jose Police, got to a point that they thought their horses walked on water. She brought every one back to reality. ” Chief, take a number, and get in line!”
    God Speed Your Honor.

  12. There should not be a problem adding information to training manuals regarding how best to work with races, cultures, sexes, and many others. National corporations do this frequently when their employees need to work with different cultures overseas. What do you want to see in the end? A successful fair interaction. Training and awareness and reminders are the way to go.

    Having a rock star (comment above of egomaniacal, self promoting) in this case was very good to get the conversations started that were needed in this year of significant national shootings (both by police and to police). No matter your opinions, our thinking has been increased during La Doris Cordell’s IPA tenure. I will have to check on how IPA things are going now, haven’t heard much lately.

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