San Jose Appoints Civil Rights Attorney Aaron Zisser as Next Independent Police Auditor

San Jose on Tuesday appointed prominent civil rights attorney Aaron Zisser as the city’s new police watchdog. The newly named Independent Police Auditor grew up in the South Bay and has dedicated his career to criminal justice reform.

Zisser steps into a role that opened up this past spring, when Walter Katz left for a similar post in Chicago. During his brief but productive tenure, Katz built on the success of his highly respected predecessor, judge LaDoris Cordell.

The City Council approved Zisser’s hire during closed session in a 10-1 vote with Councilman Don Rocha opposing. Rocha declined to disclose his preferred pick for IPA. As the senior member of the council, however, he said he has a clear sense about what qualities one needs to fulfill the mission of the oversight office.

“This role is critical to those in our community who may have a fear of law enforcement, a fear of retaliation, or maybe even a lack of resources or access to take matters into their own hands,” Rocha told San Jose Inside. “This person needs to have the full menu of experience, presence, leadership, background and capacity to speak to individuals in communities of color and financial disadvantage. And most importantly, represent them in the face of difficult circumstances and the ability to stand tall with courage on their behalf, even if one has to stand alone.”

Still, Rocha called the council’s chosen hire an “excellent candidate and person.”

At 37 years old, Zisser is apparently the youngest person to helm the San Jose IPA office since the city established it in the early 1990s.

Aaron Zisser.

Aaron Zisser.

Zisser comes to San Jose with what the city called “vast and diverse” experience in law enforcement oversight and civil rights advocacy. The Georgetown University Law School alumnus spent several years as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, where he led investigations into police use of force, correctional mental health services and the “school-to-prison pipeline” in the juvenile justice system.

Since returning to the Bay Area two years ago, Zisser has consulted on local reform efforts, including the Blue Ribbon Commission convened in the wake of Santa Clara County inmate Michael Tyree’s murder by three jailers. He has also worked with the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints and BART’s Independent Police Oversight System.

According to his resume, he has also litigated and investigated disability rights matters, including use of solitary confinement in jails and juvenile detention facilities and unnecessary institutionalization.

“From his five-and-a-half years at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to his recent work with the Santa Clara County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Jails, Aaron brings both a breadth of experience and a familiarity with our local community,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him, and our hard-working officers, to ensure that the SJPD remains the most professional and trusted department in the country.”

As San Jose’s official cop monitor, Zisser will review SJPD investigations against police officers, recommend policy changes and educate the public about the role of civilian oversight. Part of what drew him to the job, Zisser said, is the city’s culture of transparency, which was evidenced in the recruitment process.

“One of the things that really impressed me about San Jose was this really unusually inclusive, open culture that involves a lot of dialogue about tough issues,” he told San Jose Inside in a brief phone interview Tuesday. “You have city leaders talking directly to and listening closely to members of the community and communities of color. … I’ve worked in several different places throughout the country, and you honestly don’t see that kind of openness very often. It’s really striking.”

Zisser commended Chief Eddie Garcia and Mayor Liccardo for engaging with the community on thorny issues such as use of force and implicit bias in policing. He also praised Katz for ramping up IPA outreach and instituting the practice of releasing policy briefs on a regular basis instead of holding them for the annual year-end report.

As part of his work in civil rights law, Zisser said he often referenced the San Jose IPA as a model for other communities.

“In my work advising other agencies, I studied San Jose’s IPA pretty closely,” he said. “I read all of their materials, I’d gotten to know Walter Katz and I would routinely point to their office as a positive example.”

So when Katz abruptly departed earlier this year, Zisser positioned himself as a contender for his replacement. The new IPA said he wants to continue to raise the bar, as Katz and Cordell did before him. Whether that means expanding the authority of the office as recommended by past IPAs remains to be seen, however.

As it stands, the IPA office has merely advisory powers and no access to investigations initiated from within the ranks of the police department. To broaden its scope would require asking voters, by way of a ballot measure, to change the city charter.

“That’s come up a lot,” Zisser said. “A lot of people are interested in updating the oversight structure, the mandate of the office. But that push, if it’s going to happen, needs to come from people in the community. … Judge Cordell and Walter Katz made more out of the mandate that they had. It’s not the most robust, but they did a lot with it.”

Zisser traces his interest in civil rights back to childhood. From an early age, he said, he became fascinated by the work of Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice, in ending legal segregation.

But it was a personal tragedy that led Zisser to pursue a career in law and justice.

When he was 13 years old, Zisser said, someone killed his 19-year-old cousin. Though he rarely talks about it, he said, the homicide shook the family’s foundation. The ensuing investigation also gave him tremendous respect for police and prosecutors.

“Because of the violence that affected our family, I wanted to address violence in some way,” Zisser said. “But that turned into me wanting to address violence and other sorts of abuses coming not from individual offenders hurting people, but from the state and other systems. That’s what drew me to jail and prison work.”

Incidentally, his twin brother David Zisser pursued a parallel path, becoming an attorney who specializes in fair housing and affordable transit.

“I have a lot of admiration for his work,” said Zisser, who lives two blocks away from his brother in Oakland.

To move closer to his new job, Zisser said he plans to relocate to San Jose with his wife, Beckie, and two young sons, Calev and Adlai.

This article 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. First of all no one can have that job unless they agree to use enormous barrios to anyone complaining against a very criminal department. You have to have been on the SJPD in the 60’s to see the stark difference in education, supervision and leadership of the current low life members of the Department. Minorities with drug convictions, poor credit and low educational accomplishments and a few outside hires that are white and right and probably extreme right. You have an unqualified Mexican, Vietnamese and a few blacks on the department. A security guard quality police force. Look at the cowardice during the trump rallies. Let’s see the settlements from the shootings and beatings in the future. Problem Sam Liccardo, a Mexican without integrity and a DA Rosen, a Proclaimed Jewish Protector who I personally spoke to and watched him back down from integrity on the De Anza Rape which he ran on and then dumped her for the Giants Organization that was related to a RAPIST. This department is a financial liability to the tazpayers of San Jose, now known as San Enchilados. The water company kicking back to San Jose Politicians and SAM THE SCAM. Hey Sam what about your scam with the dentist and his property suit with your accomplice the City Attorney. You jerks deserve to be robbed.

    • Come on really? Have you ever been on a ride along or attended a citizens academy? Look your hatred towards the police is obvious Some of the finest people I have ever known are the men and women of the San Jose Police Department. Police work is extremely dangerous and to remain a police officer you must be dedicated in saving lives and property. Good luck with your hate

  2. What a waste of money, but that is what SJ Council does to be politically correct.
    The county should start their agenda by starting at the top and fire The sheriff and appoint a new official to run the jails.

    Oh and JS, a fired SJPD officer, go back under to your day job. Tell us where you a COP now.

    • Please educate yourself about the difference between SJPD and the SC Sheriff department and about how the Sheriff gets to hold that position.

      • Actually the sheriff can be “fired” from Dept of Corrections oversight. The county Board of Supervisors are responsible for the jails and, via contract, have essentially abdicated the active management to the office of the Sheriff as of 2010. She can’t be fired from her role as Sheriff overseeing enforcement as she is an elected official in that role and subject to the whim of the under-informed public when the deem it worthwhile to go to the voting booth for an off year, June primary. I believe last time it was something like 10 or 12% of the registered voter population. Sadly, to date, the public hasn’t exhibited the sense needed to fire her at the ballot box; we’ll blame that almost solely on San Jose voters since it was their vote that saved her in 2014.

  3. Wow 37,
    I have shoes older than this guy, and my wallet has more time sitting on its ass that he has experience . After he puts on a badge and a gun and spends 10 years walking the political plank in this town maybe he will be qualified.
    Meantime you have another 6 figure liberal arts snowflake with a head full leftwing mush finding ways for MS13 types to sue the hell out of the taxpayer’s. Real smart!

    • > Meantime you have another 6 figure liberal arts snowflake with a head full leftwing mush finding ways for MS13 types to sue the hell out of the taxpayer’s.

      Aaron Zisser DOES sound very … ah … ummm… well… “progressive”.

      Unfortunately, “progressive” is NOT the same as unbiased, fair-minded, or pragmatic. His profile shouts SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIOR who is going to ADVOCATE for MINORITIES and the POOR AND OPPRESSED.

      > Zisser commended Chief Eddie Garcia and Mayor Liccardo for engaging with the community . . .

      Is ZIsser capable of CRITICALLY “auditing” the performance of Chief Garcia and Mayor Liccardo and their feckless and negligent failure to guarantee the “public safety” of those attending a Trump rally in San Jose?

      Based on SJI’s encomium for ZIsser the voices in my head shout the answer: “NOPE!”

      Zisser is no auditor. He’s an activist.

      Out of the starting gate, there is a large part of “the community” whose confidence he DOESN’T have.

  4. Katz was a carpetbagger and Cordell a self-agrandizing racist who, in her recent robocall asking voters to refuse to sign the Persky recall petition, shared this very interesting warning: “If this recall succeeds judges will be looking over their shoulders and testing the winds before making their decisions.” In justifying her reasoning for this request Cordell cited Persky’s clearing by the state judicial ethics commission.

    As much as I agree with her reasoning in regards to Persky, I can’t help but think of the many times when, whether operating as IPA or itinerant for-hire police critic, such reasoning seemed beyond Ms. Cordell’s cognitive abilities and pay grade. Never did she treat the findings of the sworn professionals in police command or internal affairs with any of the regard she obviously holds for this distant and essentially unaccountable judicial body, nor did she ever appear a bit concerned about how the wholesale politicization of police conduct, of which she was a major local agitator, might negatively affect the ability of officers to react to circumstances decisively, objectively, and without fear of political ramifications.

    That Ms. Cordell practices objectivity on a selective basis is no surprise, but that she would be so ignorant as to make public the breadth of her racist agenda is surprising. Exposing her concern for judges who “arrive” at their decisions by contemplating in comfort and safety, after herself having spent years nitpicking and fomenting suspicion about the high-stress, instantaneous decisions made by police officers, establishes her two-face progressive credentials. Remember, Ms. Cordell’s default response when faced with mistake-free police work was to diagnose implicit bias, the very same conjured-up nonsense used as the basis for the Persky recall, which she rejects outright. Apparently, implicit bias is a problem when it benefits people of color.

    I trust Mr. Zisser, whose resume (download link below) reveals his sterling qualifications as a culture-destroyer, will prove himself the worst of the lot.

    • To bad Ms Cordell is too old and feeble to strap on a gun and a badge and spend 8 hours on the east side of town alone in a vomit smelling patrol car with 300,000 miles on it. Six months of that might corrupt her self righteous opinions.

    • > I trust Mr. Zisser, whose resume (download link below) reveals his sterling qualifications as a culture-destroyer, will prove himself the worst of the lot.

      Good research, Finny:

      I see NOTHING in Zisser’s resume that qualifies him to be an “auditor”, but lots of things that scream “progressive activist”.

      It would be interesting to learn the chain of connections and influence that landed this social justice hack on the public payroll. Who is pushing for him?

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