Council again snubs citizens with dismissal of Independent Police Auditor.
Let me take a stab at the job description for the next San Jose Independent Police Auditor. I think I’ve got it.
Qualifications are as follows:
• Must have flexible definition of “independent.”
• Must be willing to satisfactorily explain any police activity as “the norm,” regardless of glaring empirical evidence to the contrary.
• The successful applicant can multitask—listening to and tracking problems with police practices from the public, while also refraining from offering any logical policy recommendations.
• Applicants who properly fit in city council and police union pockets are encouraged to apply.
Note: This is a temporary position, contingent upon applicant’s ability to never initiate, affect, or be rumored to be in the vicinity of law enforcement oversight.
The City Council’s decision to discontinue the current IPA’s contract was not about Barbara Attard. It was about a false promise of transparency in government. It was ultimately a bold repudiation of public participation in local governance.
For anyone who witnessed Attard’s attempt to expand the office’s powers into a properly functioning office of oversight, and the Council’s reaction, her removal is hardly a surprise.
Last year, after the IPA annual report was analyzed, Attard proposed several policy recommendations. Among the proposals was an attempt to close a nonsensical loophole in critical officer-involved incidents.
She asked that the city manager “direct the SJPD to conduct administrative investigations in all critical incidents in which an officer’s use of force or any other department action results in death or serious bodily injury.” At the time, only officer-involved shootings mandated an investigation and an IPA review. But the number of non-shooting fatalities had increased due to the introduction of Tasers, to which were attributed five deaths, two of which are currently in civil litigation.
The city manager responded by saying that such changes would mean a “fundamental paradigm shift in the City’s current oversight model.” Any time anyone uses the words “paradigm shift” to respond to a city policy recommendation, you know there’s some exaggeration. The council followed suit by not only denying Attard’s recommendations, but actually gutting the office even more by removing any investigative powers from the IPA.
The lesson there was a pre-cursor to an eventual removal. San Jose City Council was saying, “Don’t ask for more than what you have, ’cause if you do, we’ll take what you’ve already got.”
But the message was not directed to Attard—she was merely responding to the mounting calls by the public to increase police oversight. The steady rise in the number of complaints—from 329 in 2003 to 547 in 2007—mandated policy improvements for police oversight.
On the evening of the city council meeting to discuss police issues, the Council chambers in the new City Hall was more packed with members of the public than ever before. These community members, in comment after comment, all but begged for more oversight. The council looked them dead in the eye and steamrolled through their collective request.
To the hundreds that were at those council meetings, and attended the previous community forums, it was an admission that important matters of the public’s well-being can be decided with no regard for public input, and in fact, to the contrary of their opinion. Democratic governance turned out to be a conditional.
And the cornerstone of healthy democratic process in local government, transparency—the key issue that helped Chuck Reed win his seat as Mayor—was also exposed as more talk then action.
Reed told the media and dozens of community members at a recent press conference regarding the suspiciously large number of drunk-in-public arrests that the decision to suddenly dismiss Attard “was not a public discussion.” Why not? Why wasn’t the vote done through a process that built in the public’s point of view, or even during an open city council meeting? The answer is in the council’s actions the previous year—because the public’s opinion has proven to be irrelevant in the decision-making process, particularly when it comes to police oversight in San Jose.
The council’s actions against Attard have left us all in a stuck position. If the public had concerns that the Independent Police Auditor was ineffective, they certainly know now that whomever comes in next will be coming into a powerless office. Yet given the constant barrage of police misconduct issues hitting the news, the City must have some mechanism in place for oversight to occur.
The answer might not be in getting a new IPA, but creating a new system altogether, one where civilian oversight and public concerns are built in to the process and protected, and can lead to improvements in police and community relations. Who knows what that system may be, but for now, we can call it a paradigm shift.