As complaints about the San Jose Police Department’s use of force play out in both the traditional and the social media spheres, calls continue for the resignation of “the man we all love to hate,” as state NAACP president Alice Huffman introduced San Jose’s police chief at a community event on Saturday, Dec. 5.
For Rob Davis, who is fighting to keep his job, winning this latest round means shifting attention away from the actions of his officers and towards a more nuanced discussion about public policy, community attitudes, media missteps and the ambiguity of grainy video clips.
Billed as a “Courageous Conversation on Race,” Saturday’s forum was organized by the NAACP’s San Jose/Silicon Valley chapter, the same group whose president, Pastor Jethroe Moore II, called for Davis to step down in a Nov. 18 newspaper opinion piece. Panelists at the Mexican Heritage Plaza event included District Attorney Dolores Carr, San Jose Councilmember Ash Kalra, former councilmember and ex–NAACP president Forrest Williams, educator Wiggsy Silversten and Victor Garza, who chairs the county’s coalition of Latino organizations.
Moderating the afternoon discussion on the crisis in relations between the police force and the city’s ethnic communities, Huffman read a statement submitted by 2008 Independent Police Auditor Advisory Committee members Alfredo Villaseñor and Sofia Mendoza: “There seems to be a perception in the minority community that the SJPD have caused serious harm, many arrests and fatalities to the people of color in San Jose.” A round of applause greeted the statement.
Davis then took the mic and launched into an eloquent, empathetic response, the kind that will buy him time until the next YouTube video, his retirement eligibility or another high profile law enforcement job.
“Let’s be very clear,” he said, “We are not perfect. We are not perfect, and this is not an easy job that we ask our men and women to do.
“There is no other job that receives as much scrutiny as that of being a police officer in this country. None. We accept that, and we continue to do our jobs because we know that there are those moments where we can help make a difference in our community.
“It concerns me, obviously, when people say there has been a breakdown, that there are members of the minority community who do not trust us. But, I also have to say that we are doing what we can to try and address those issues.”
SJPD’s troubles date back at least a year, when the San Jose Mercury News published a series of articles concluding that Latinos were disproportionately impacted by discretionary drunk-in-public arrests. That was followed with another series this September deconstructing the department’s practices.
The confidence gap grew in October, when the Merc posted a cell-phone video to its website showing officers whacking Phuong Ho with batons on the hallway floor of his apartment as the unarmed, clueless, crying college student begged to pick up his glasses. A roommate called police after Phuong earlier brandished a kitchen knife in a soap-splashed steak squabble.
The Merc followed with another series of articles that attempted to show that the SJPD initiates force during an inordinate number of arrests. Week after week, the newspaper has unveiled new allegations against the department, most recently on Nov. 29 in an examination of Steven Payne Jr., one of the officers in the Phuong Ho case.
As activists and daily newspaperdom seem to want nothing less than a head on a stick, city government has responded in the way it frequently does: memorandums, reviews, task forces and hearings.
At last week’s council meeting, Davis presented a report laying out current efforts to review his officers’ use of force, which include a task force review of 200 resisting-arrest reports by the city auditor, the city manager and the independent police auditor.
Bobby Lopez, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, became so convinced that the force was receiving unfair coverage from the daily newspaper, he took the unusual step of paying a political consultant to launch a website, ProtectSanJose.com.
A week after the publication of the Merc’s October use-of-force series, which nostalgically referred to former Police Chief Joseph McNamara, the former chef himself wrote a opinion piece for Protect San Jose taking aim the newspaper’s drumbeat of criticism. “Recent coverage of the San Jose Police Department was biased and unfair to what is probably the best large-city police department in the nation,” McNamara wrote. The Merc ran the piece on its op-ed page.
“They are stirring the fire, they are throwing the gasoline on it, then they are blaming the person who got burned,” says Lopez. “We are being unfairly scrutinized, and the San Jose Mercury has been wrong.
“My fear is that with the activists and the Mercury News continually bombarding us, if you say something enough times, people begin to believe it. And that’s the problem with what’s happening.”
San Jose District 2 Councilman Kalra, who has led the council charge to examine use-of-force issues, says he and his colleagues have had to work around the coverage of the issue in order to get the real facts.
“It’s been one-sided in the sense that all the news that’s been coming out and all the facts that have been highlighted are the negative facts, that’s for certain,” Kalra, a former public defender, says.
“At the same time, those facts and those numbers we should be concerned about. Not necessarily because of what they say about our police department, but because of the perception that they may leave with the community.”
Following the Mercury News reports, the City Council brought in the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity (CPLE) to research claims of police bias against minorities.
UCLA social psychologist Phillip Goff, who helps direct CPLE, presented his quarterly findings to the San Jose Public Safety Committee on Nov. 19. His early findings uncovered no bias in the San Jose Police Department.
Goff’s remarks surprised many at the meeting and drew the attention of the City Council, the POA and others tracking the debate.
Raj Jayadev, a journalist and activist who attended the Public Safety Committee, expressed amazement at Goff’s conclusions.
“The CPLE parachutes in and says, ‘Actually, you know what, there was never a problem, no racial bias.’” Jayadev says. He calls the CPLE’s findings so preliminary and incomplete that they should not have been introduced to the committee at all.
The Merc, for its part, did not focus on the CPLE’s preliminary findings. Instead, reporter Sean Webby noted that the group’s research “showed a ‘significant concern’ among black and Latino residents ... that the police department was ‘a haven of racially biased police.’”
Lopez believes that the newspaper, in spotlighting the most negative aspects of a mostly positive report, once again revealed its anti-cop slant. Mercury News managing editor Bert Robinson defends the newspaper’s coverage.
“I think we’ve been very fair,” Robinson says. “We’ve bent over backwards to put the police perspective on the public drunkenness issues, on the use-of-force issues. But I think that there are certainly people who would prefer we don’t write about these issues at all.”
The Chief Makes A Vow
At last Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council approved a $97,500 settlement to two men, Ascension Calderon and Samuel Santana, who contended that they’d been the victims of excessive force and false arrest at the hands of the SJPD in 2006.
La Raza Roundtable chairman Garza says he supported the two men in their claim.
At Saturday’s Conversation on Race, Garza weathered criticism for not joining the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP chapter, the Asian Law Alliance, Silicon Valley De-Bug, La Raza Lawyers and other local groups in calling for Davis’ ouster.
“I believe we should try and make every effort to work within the system and with the system by having meetings on a regular basis and following up,” Garza says. “My experience has been that we are much more successful doing that than by attempting to embarrass [the police department] publicly.”
“How can you be impartial with the police chief and the mayor when it appears you have a close, personal relationship with them when they attend and support you at the Raza Roundtable meetings?” Villaseñor and Mendoza asked Garza, via written question.
Davis jumped in to give a response to the pointed question.
“Victor does not always agree with Rob Davis,” the chief said. “I guarantee you there have been a number of times where he’ll say, ‘I disagree with you, chief.’ But what Victor Garza also will do is say, ‘How is [it] that the two of us can sit down and try to figure out a way to solve the problem.’”
Davis went on to praise his officers but stopped short of denying that a problem exists. The problem, in Davis’ eyes, is one of perception.
“That doesn’t mean that at any given moment, based upon videotaped incidents or a particular crime or statistics that may come out, that the community won’t question what we do,” he said. “But I’m going to challenge the people of the community to recognize that it is not just the police department that has a responsibility to address the issues of racism. It’s not good enough to simply do the complaining. You’ve got to do more. Sit down at the table. You’ve got to be part of the solution. We’re willing to do that. We’re all ears. We will be there. That’s what we do.”