Since the protests started on May 29, the San Jose Independent Police Auditor has received more than 600 complaints related to SJPD misconduct.
The vast majority stem from the way San Jose police responded to daily demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin. As captured in countless clips shared on social media, many protestors felt that SJPD met their presence with excessive force, disproportional to any threat.
We caught up with Shivaun Nurre, who leads the police watchdog unit, to learn more about her oversight powers and how the public can use them to hold cops accountable.
Why was the Independent Police Auditor’s office created?
We were created in 1993 after there was push in the local community for independent oversight of the police department. The issues that kind of propelled it forward were the Rodney King incidents in 1992 and the subsequent unrest.
We were created because the citizens were concerned that Internal Affairs and the police department were not taking complaints about misconduct seriously. So we were created to provide an additional review of Internal Affairs to make sure their investigations were fair, thorough and complete. When the movement was going forward to create this office, there was a tension between members of the public who wanted a civilian review board, which has more people from the community having the eyes on reports and analysis, and the police department, who felt that Internal Affairs should be the end of the process.
The city decided to impose an auditor model, which was kind of a compromise and we’ve pretty much remained with the auditor model ever since. We don’t investigate—we review Internal Affairs investigations to make sure they are thorough and complete.
What does the process look like?
When you file a complaint, generally we’re looking for your name, we’d be interested in your demographics and then we want to know what your concerns are. There are complaints usually against individual officers, but people can also file a complaint about policies or a lack thereof.
You can file a complaint if you were at the scene, you can file a complaint if you heard about someone who was at the scene and you had concerns about what went down, or you can file a complaint if you read something in the newspaper or see something on social media and think that there might have been misconduct.
You can file anonymously.
Since we can’t investigate, the complaints that come into our office and to Internal Affairs all get investigated by Internal Affairs officers and sergeants. That usually involves pulling a lot of documentation, pulling a lot of camera whether that’s body-worn camera, camera from onlookers who have provided film or surveillance video.
Internal Affairs may or may not interview the subject officer and other witness officers. They’re going to pull the policy manual sections they think governs the situation and then they’re going to make an analysis. That’s what comes to us.
If there’s an officer interview, we have the ability to attend those interviews. But I have to say that we’re not able to ask any direct questions of the officer, we can only pose our questions through the officer who’s running the interview.
How long does the process take?
Generally, the process needs to be completed within one year, and that’s because, according to California law, if you’re going to discipline a peace officer, the officer needs to have notice of that discipline within a one-year period of time.
But other things can extend that deadline. For example, if somebody files a civil lawsuit involving an individual officer or the department, the deadline can get extended. And if there’s any criminal action, so if an officer is charged with a crime, the administrative part of the process gets delayed until the criminal case gets finalized.
Have you ever received this many complaints in such a short period of time?
Never. Between Friday evening and Tuesday about noon time, we had about 611 people contacting our office to complain about police. Some of them were actually against individual officers and their conduct. And some of them were basically the department’s tactics and procedures in terms of how they dealt with the demonstrators.
It fluctuates a lot, but I would estimate we get maybe 24 complaints a month. So if we get 24 a month and there was 611 in the last 48 hours you can understand the impact of these events on the mindset of the public in terms of speaking out about police issues.
Why do you think your office is important?
I do think it’s valuable to have oversight over internal affairs mostly because we kind of speak for the community. I think Internal Affairs can come at these issues with more of a police-minded focus, so we’re able to broaden their focus. Having a complaint process is so important because not only can it identify an individual officer who engaged in one act of misconduct, but it also provides an avenue whereby if you see a number of complaints against a specific officer then you might need to take another look at that officer.
Complaints also help us focus on trends in the community. Some of the policy recommendations over the past have focused on trying to figure out if there’s disparate treatment about communities of color.
For instance, some years ago, [former police auditor and retired judge] LaDoris Cordell made a recommendation called “cars, cuffs and curbs” because she wanted the department to start tracking when officers put people on the curb, which many people find demeaning. It looked at which population is being handcuffed and which population is being put in the patrol car. After some reluctance, the department agreed and then all that data was analyzed by a university think tank and the results came out and showed there were some disparities.
In the wake of the Eric Garner incident, we recommended that the department change its chokehold policy. Last year, the department started tracking when they point guns at people. I think it should be tracked [in more detail] so we know when officers are doing it, who’s getting pointed at and the reasons why.
We are able to make, I believe, some significant changes that improve the department’s policies and procedures and provide some feedback to the community on data.
What IPA powers do you think should be expanded?
There are a whole host of oversight models and some of them involve having citizens in the process, which are generally called civilian review. The auditor model tends to be just auditing a review of what Internal Affairs does.
There’s another model called a monitor model, which tends to be able to do more in terms of accessing records, looking at systemic issues. We have agencies that do their own investigation, they have their own investigators on staff so you’re not relying on internal affairs to do the investigation.
I believe that the city and the police union are working toward some expansion of our office. I just don’t know if the current events might start more of a broader conversation, given the current climate.
Complaints can be filed online, by phone at 408.794.6226, by email at [email protected] or by mail to 96 N. Third St., Suite 150, San Jose. To learn more about the Independent Police Auditor, click here.