In his inaugural report as San Jose’s police watchdog, Walter Katz urges the city to take better accounting of how and when officers resort to physical force in the line of duty.
Nearly a decade has passed since the San Jose Police Department published a review of use-of-force cases, according to the Independent Police Auditor’s 2015 report released Monday. In 2007, the last time SJPD dedicated a public report to the issue, the agency found that officers used physical force 1,263 times in 2006.
Before her retirement last year, then-police auditor LaDoris Cordell suggested resuming that annual tally. Katz has taken it a step further, issuing a formal recommendation to improve transparency.
“That’s the number one recommendation and it’s something we’re going to emphasize again and again,” Katz told San Jose Inside. “It’s important because transparency is one of the cornerstones of accountability and procedural justice.”
Citizen complaints about excessive force fell slightly from 139 in 2014 to 121 last year, according to Katz’ report. Without an annual overview of all use-of-force incidents, however, auditors were unable to put that decline in context.
“I don’t know why we stopped generating that report,” SJPD spokesman Sgt. Enrique Garcia told San Jose Inside. “That was years ago, under a different Chief. The use-of-force complaints that we process are not separated by the level or type of force. If the allegation is a complaint alleging excessive force it is simply categorized as (F) = Force.”
A troubling trend emerged when Katz looked at complaints through the lens of officers’ experience. Rookie cops accounted for a disproportionate number of excessive force complaints.
Officers with four or less years of tenure made up 17 percent of the department but prompted an outsized portion of allegations of unreasonable force (48 percent), biased policing (35 percent), procedural violations (25 percent) and arrest and detention (30 percent).
Younger officers were also more likely to be subject to more than one complaint. Of the 27 named in three or more complaints, 16 had less than five years under their belt.
“That piqued our interest,” Katz said. “We don’t know exactly the reason behind this, but it’s something we will study in the coming year.”
Allegations against all officers declined overall from a high of 357 in 2013 to 303 in 2015. There was, however, an uptick in allegations related to arrest and detentions (from 79 in 2014 to 91 this past year) and biased policing (46 in 2014, 50 the next year).
The police auditor reviews complaints filed by residents against police officers, whether reported to SJPD’s Internal Affairs or to the IPA directly, but Katz’ office has no access to those complaints initiated from within the ranks.
In 2015, SJPD’s Internal Affairs unit closed 304 complaints. The number of sustained complaints—that is, where the department found an officer had committed some type of violation—fell from 25 in 2014 to 19 last year.
The IPA reviewed 292 of those cases and agreed with the outcome in 69 percent of them. That’s the lowest rate of consensus since 2011. In 2015, the IPA disagreed or “closed with concern” 51 cases where the investigation appeared less than thorough, objective or fair.
Among the sustained complaints was one against ex-Officer Geoffrey Graves, who allegedly raped a domestic violence victim in 2013. Another involved Officer Phillip White, whose combative tweets about his “God given and law appointed right and duty to kill” would have cost him his job had the union not helped him win it back.
In 2015, SJPD reported a dozen cases in which an officer shot and struck a civilian. Half were fatal. In eight cases, the civilian had a gun. Two held a bladed weapon. Four had a history of mental illness.
At the outset of his report, Katz remarked on changes in local leadership, with Cordell’s retirement after five years as IPA, Chief Larry Esquivel’s departure to lead Tracy’s police force and a changing of the guard in the Police Officers’ Association. All of this follows years of political strife over pension reforms and thinning ranks that leaves San Jose with fewer officers-per-capita than other major cities.
Panning out to the national level, Katz noted the unprecedented focus on policing practices in the wake of high-profile killings at the hands of law enforcement.
Conventional wisdom, based on the FBI’s record keeping, held that police killed something on the order of 500 civilians a year. The reality, which came to light after the Guardian and Washington Post began tallying the number of officer-involved shootings this past year, is at least twice that number.
Katz said he’s keeping a close eye on a state bill that would give his office access to police personnel records. SB 1286, introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would also give the public a chance to review sustained misconduct charges against police.
“That would be very helpful to us in fulfilling our mandate,” Katz said, “to do our job as effectively as possible.”
The audit includes six formal recommendations.
- SJPD should publish a yearly use-of-force report.
- Police should learn the rights of the homeless and take care not to destroy private property when they dismantle encampments.
- Dispatchers should be trained in how the public can file complaints, so they don’t give incorrect information.
- SJPD should clarify a policy on how officers help people recover property during a legal dispute. Officers are supposed to remain neutral, but that wasn’t always the case.
- When police catch unlicensed teen drivers, they should cite them because of the fact that they pose a greater public safety risk than any other age group.
- The department needs to make sure that its officers understand up-to-date business licensing and permitting laws.
Here is the entire 142-page Independent Police Auditor report for 2015.