Eddie Garcia joined the ranks of the SJPD in 1992, with the U.S. still reeling from the acquittal of three white L.A. cops caught on tape savagely beating Rodney King.
Nearly three decades later, Garcia says he’s ready to step down as the department’s chief of police amid a similar national reckoning over racism in law enforcement.
The top cop of the state’s third-largest city wanted to announce his retirement months earlier, but tabled those plans when a pandemic upended business as usual and historic protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.
News of Garcia’s exit—scheduled for the year’s end—prompted an outpouring of praise from city leaders, who credited him for rebuilding the department after a decade of austerity thinned the ranks and rebranding it as a progressive agency.
However, several recent events—from San Jose’s violent response to recent protests, to revelations that SJPD is responsible for the most deadly encounters of any Bay Area city—have tarnished some of that reputation.
Despite fierce public backlash and strident calls to shift some of San Jose’s police budget to social services, Garcia has defended his rank-and-file as among the best and brightest in the profession. For that reason, he says that when he leaves, he hopes his successor will be promoted from within the department.
With just a few months to go before Garcia starts a new chapter in life, San Jose Inside caught up with him to talk about his storied tenure in law enforcement, the importance of reform in policing and what he hopes for the future of SJPD.
Why did you decide to retire?
I had made this decision back in January, talking to [the San Jose Office of ] Retirement Services and the fact that I turn 50 at the end of the year. My announcement was going to be at the end of June. I wanted to announce June 26 because I wanted to give the city manager six months to find the next chief because I felt it was going to be that important.
Obviously, that was before the protests and obviously it was in the middle of shelter-in-place as well, so I just said no, I can’t announce at this time.
I waited for a while, but there’s just no easy time to make this decision. I understand people are going to try to connect the dots with everything that’s occurring, but this decision was made long before any of the recent issues.
What do you consider your defining moment as chief?
I don’t want these last three months, with the negativity surrounding a lot of the events that have occurred, to define what’s going to be five years as police chief and nearly 29 years as a San Jose police officer, because we did a lot—especially in these last five years.
This department was on life support in 2016, and I’d like to think that collectively as a department we were able to grow again because this department was left on the road dead—and it rose again. I was happy to have had a front-row seat to see that.
If there was one thing that I’d like to think—and there are detractors everywhere in any profession you have—but what I’d like to say is that I supported my rank-and-file as much as I supported my community.
Even these last three months aside, I know my rank-and-file know that.
If you were to ask any police recruit, they would tell you that the two main goals that I have are to take the criminal element off the street and to build strong community relationships. I think we work towards that. We’re not perfect. We still have a long way to go. There’s no question about that as a department.
There was a myriad of initiatives that we’ve instituted since I had taken over that I wouldn’t have been able to institute—I don’t mean I couldn’t have made it happen, obviously I’m the chief and I could. But what I mean by that is collectively the rank-and-file has to buy into the initiatives you’re doing.
Because I can say whatever you want me to say at a community meeting ... but if an officer working at 2 in the morning doesn’t believe in it, then it doesn’t work. I’d like to think that, as a whole, we really accomplished those two things: really supporting our officers that put their lives on the line every day and supporting our community.
The department enacted many reforms during your tenure. Which of those were the most important?
I think one of the biggest things is our use-of-force dashboard and how we have looked at the use-of-force in the last four-and-a-half [to] five years. For example, the tactical conduct policy, which basically allows me to bifurcate an investigation.
What I mean by that is, oftentimes in an officer-involved shooting if there is no criminal filing on an officer in years past, [so] you just close ranks and move on. Now that we’ve bifurcated the process—meaning now you may be found not criminally liable, but I’m still going to look to see if your tactics were found—and if they were not found, I’m going to hold you accountable for that. That’s been a very big shift.
Back in 2016, we had virtually no disparity in force, according to our dashboard. African Americans—even though there was virtually no disparity—they were still more likely to have force used upon them than a white suspect. As of 2019, that’s reversed.
African Americans are actually now less likely to have force used upon them rather than a white suspect. That didn’t happen by accident. It’s a collective of everything that we’ve done with regard to our initiatives to try to be a better professional police department.
One of the proudest things that I’m happy that we got accomplished is teaching our recruits the historical perspective of American law enforcement—particularly in our communities of color—through a partnership with San Jose State. We started that over a year ago, well before the current climate, because I wanted the recruits to understand and know historically what American law enforcement has done.
There is a reason why you go into certain communities in San Jose and they don’t trust us. It’s not just merely because they don’t like police. It’s because of what police have done to communities of color from a historical perspective that we can’t run away from. We as police officers are born with Original Sin [as patrols to catch runaway slaves].
We started that class so that my recruits can get an understanding that your uniform doesn’t earn your respect—you need to try harder in certain parts of cities to get that respect and trust. That was something that hadn’t been done before. There are other police departments in the country that have looked at our program that want to take it to their department, and it’s something that we do that I hope is mandated on a statewide level at some point because we need to know our history.
We need to know that our badges didn’t shine so brightly, that we have made atrocious mistakes in law enforcement and we need to learn from them. I was proud of that class. I feared that it would be somewhat controversial, although I truly felt it was the right thing to do. ... But it’s been nothing but supported by the rank-and-file. Our department is really young. Over 50 percent of our force is less than five years on, so they’re nuanced. They know what’s going on in the world and they’re very open to these concepts.
Recent events—hateful Facebook posts, videos of cops using excessive force—have cast a shadow on the department. Do you think those reforms you mentioned have been enough?
They’re never enough. We always have to keep trying. There’s never going to be a goal-line for our efforts. We hire from the human race.
I know it’s cliché now, and I know people have used this “bad apples” comment contrary to what I’m going to say right now, but I think my message has gotten across to the vast majority of my police department.
You talk about the protests and—not to rehash the whole thing again—but I will say that we made mistakes. There’s a lot of things we could have done better. In the last five years, we’ve handled a lot of protests. In 2016 we were criticized for not doing enough at the Trump rally, and in 2020 we’re criticized for doing too much.
But in between, we handled a lot of protests and demonstrations that didn’t turn out as violent as the George Floyd protests did. It’s a dynamic that we hadn’t seen—I certainly hadn’t seen that dynamic in the 29 years I’ve been here—and we’ll learn from our mistakes and we’ll get better.
When you see the Facebook posts and you see the McDonald’s video, [it’s clear] we have problem officers. We have issues that we have to fix here. There’s no question about that. There are officers that are here that have no business being here, but it is not the vast majority of my honorable department.
I’m not going to say there’s a culture issue here and diminish or insult the honorable men and women that come to work every day and risk their lives for the city in an honorable fashion and a professional fashion. I’m just not going to do it. I know some have said that, but that’s just not the case. There are things that I could show—i.e. that use-of-force dashboard—to tell you this is not a rogue department.
Look at our Internal Affairs complaints. We see a flashpoint right now where I think we need to take a step back to look at the totality of everything and these are individuals that have acted unprofessionally, that have tainted our brand, but it’s not the vast majority of the honorable men and women that wear this uniform.
What would you like to see in your successor?
They have to be empathetic. They have to have thick skin. You’re not going to be liked by everyone. You’re going to have to say no to people who speak ill of you because it’s what it takes for you to look in the mirror at the end of the night.
You need to balance out your emotional bank accounts.
You need to make sure that your emotional bank accounts are not overdrawn ... whether that’s with the community, City Hall or your rank-and-file.
Also, someone who is collaborative. And someone who is strong.
I know we could probably go down a list and name 10 or 15 traits, but to me, those are the ones that I think you need in this city to do that. You have to have an open mind.
It’s taken me a while.
I’ve been chief for five years and you’re always learning, but there are things that you’re going to hear that will make you defensive and you need to be open-minded and listen, to let people vent their frustrations from time to time.
Do you think San Jose’s next chief should come from within or outside the ranks?
I personally think that the chief should come from the inside.
I say that for a couple of main reasons. I have deputy chiefs that have done a lot in this department, that know how to manage our department.
What I mean by that, is as a police chief in San Jose you have to deal with this beautifully diverse city and the politics that come with everything that any other major metropolitan city comes with. You have to deal with the same things that [Chief] Michel Moore deals with in Los Angeles, you have to deal with the same things that [Chief] Bill Scott deals with in San Francisco, you have to deal with the same things that [Chief] Carmen Best deals with in Seattle. But here’s the difference: you can’t throw police at problems here.
You need to work collaboratively with your community because we don’t have the staffing other cities have. You need to have lived in that point where, if I have shootings that happen, let’s say, in any area of San Jose, I can’t just turn around and say we’re putting 50 officers every day to calm this problem.
We’ve seen that. We’ve dealt with that in San Jose with our staffing and we have to take care of problems differently than other cities that are not even as large as us that have double the officers we do. We have strategies that come innate to us and our commanders because they know that they have to do deal with problems in a different fashion.
How do you solve problems as a small department while having to deal with all these issues that every large metropolitan city deals with? I think that’s a specific type of trait that the next leader needs to have, and I believe we have that currently.
I know this is the elephant in the room that there’s a lot of initiatives coming down and someone from the outside will be able to do it. Well, to me, I don’t think that’s accurate. If you look at what we accomplished since 2016—if you were to go down the list of reforms and initiatives that we did—no one told us to do that.
We weren’t forced to do that. But we did it. We rolled up our sleeves collectively with our community and we did it. So to say that we don’t have a leader that’s on my bench that can roll their sleeves up similar to what we did in 2016, I just don’t think is accurate.
Some people worry that promoting from within would give us a chief who’s too cozy with the POA. What’s your response to that concern?
Any police chief needs to have a relationship with their union.
The police union is part of the stakeholder group, and so you need to have a relationship with them. You have to be strong to be able to say no to the police union, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give them a seat at the table.
I know my union has gotten a bad rap for things they’ve said, but I will tell you, if not for them, they could have dragged their heels on a lot of progressive initiatives that we undertook—and they did not. Had they, they could have had made me jump through hoops to get things accomplished.
But they did not because they knew it was the right thing to do.
That is a byproduct of giving them a seat at the table. Because, at the end of the day, every police officers’ association knows that you can only fight the chief so much. What’s going to happen is going to happen. That collaborative spirit that I have is giving them a seat at the table and giving them a heads up about what’s going to happen.
Having these conversations and having a relationship has enabled me to get things across the goal line quicker than I could have before. To me, that’s not a bad thing. You got to be able to say no, and if you sat down with [San Jose Police Officers’ Association President] Paul Kelly and asked him how many times Chief Garcia has said no to you, he’d probably chuckle and say I’ve said no quite a bit.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t give them a voice, that I don’t give them a seat at the table. It allows me to move things quicker in this police department.
Not a lot of people know, and it doesn’t get talked about enough, is how collaborative my POA has been with me in these last five years.
What’s in store for you after retirement?
No big plans. I’ll see what the future holds for me. I’m hopeful that I can take what I’ve learned in these last not just five years but 29 years as a San Jose police officer and do good somewhere doing something. I don’t know what that something is.
I’m not going to be sitting on a couch when I turn 50. And I’ll try to do the best I can with whatever my next chapter is.
Any final thoughts?
I certainly don’t begrudge any community group or community leader that holds us accountable. I’m not going to do that. We need that in our society, particularly when it has to do with law enforcement and public safety. Without a doubt.
Anyone who doesn’t appreciate that can’t be the next chief.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length. Want to nominate a subject for a Q&A? Email the author or leave a suggestion in the comments below.