If you say so, chief

In San Jose, Calif., citizen complaints against police are on the rise. Yet internal investigations of police officers within the San Jose Police Department are down, and pretty dramatically — 83 percent since 2010. Understandably, this has some city officials concerned. Is the brass in San Jose simply no longer interested in investigating misconduct among its officers? Chief Larry Esquivel says no, that isn’t the case at all. He thinks it means his officers are just really, really well-behaved.

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Esquivel maintained that was “a good thing” and that it showed training was paying off, implying  officers were better behaved and didn’t need to be investigated as much.  He didn’t mention the possibility that cops might be protecting one another by not reporting their colleagues’ misbehavior, or that recent cuts might be making officers too busy to investigate their fellow cops.

That chief’s purely positive viewpoint irked the City Council, which ordered Esquivel to look into whether the sudden drop in investigations might be a bad thing, and come back with a better explanation this summer . . .

Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen agreed, and Councilmen Sam Liccardo and Ash Kalra also questioned the chief for further explanation.

Two council members were concerned enough that they wanted to make police officers who are caught lying subject to automatic termination. That doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, given that cops regularly testify in court, and their word in and of itself can be enough to send someone to prison. Here’s how that turned out:

Although he said privacy laws prevented him from discussing specific cases, his forceful and serious tone – “believe me, we take all misconduct seriously,” he said at one point – was enough to convince council members. They voted against a memo from Liccardo and Councilwoman Rose Herrera that would have made lying cops automatically subject to termination, which the majority of the council thought would unduly take away power from the chief.

Most of the more pressing problems in the criminal justice system are the product of bad policy and of elected officials neglecting their responsibility to hold police and prosecutors accountable. If police misconduct investigations in San Jose have dropped by more than 80 percent over the same period that citizen complaints have gone up, then something is wrong. (Keep in mind, we’re talking about mere investigations here, not even actual findings of misconduct, or disciplinary action.) I guess it’s encouraging that the city council is “irked” by these figures. But it’s unfortunate that all it takes is a “forceful and serious tone” from the chief for them to put their concerns on hold. It’s also unfortunate that personnel files aren’t accessible even to the city council, much less to the media or the public. When we’re talking about public employees who carry guns and can detain, apply force and kill, “just trust us” just isn’t sufficient.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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