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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
POLICE WATCH: Skyler Porras, of the ACLU and the Public Intoxication Task Force, says the city is stonewalling the group's efforts.

Response Time

San Jose city leaders seem reluctant to confront a mounting controversy—again

By Erin Sherbert

THE Little Saigon debacle demonstrated that, at times, the San Jose City Council isn't good at confronting controversy. Such is the case with the most recent community uproar over policing tactics.

The litany of concerns about some San Jose Police Department policies has become familiar—from overly strict enforcement of public-intoxication laws to racial profiling to "attitude arrests." Last week, the Mercury News fueled the fire with a report that San Jose police arrest more people for disturbing the peace than any other big-city department in the state, and that about 70 percent of those arrested are Latino.

These issues have further crystallized concerns over San Jose's policing model. Police Chief Rob Davis has denied any racial profiling, yet community members continue to pressure the City Council to get to the bottom of these concerns.

City Manager Deb Figone, Davis' boss, seems to concede that she has a crisis on her hands. "Clearly, we have gotten a wake-up call through the issues raised," Figone told councilmembers last week. "And when management gets a wake-up call, it's important that we pay attention. Even the best system can develop blind spots."

Meanwhile, amid these concerns and criticisms, the policymakers who give Figone her marching orders have kept a low profile. While some members of the City Council have begun to raise questions—about the statistics—others have said nothing.

Councilwoman Madison Nguyen, chair of the city's public safety committee, refused to talk on the record abut the issue. Instead, she said she wanted to wait until this week, when Davis is expected to roll out some short-term reforms.

As Councilman Sam Liccardo recently put it, "No elected official wants to take on the police department." But the council can't ignore the issue. Instead, it has tossed it around like a hot potato. In November, the council created the Public Intoxication Task Force in response to the community concerns. "I think the task force was a way for the council to punt the issue," Liccardo said.

Figone, who has been charged with leading the task force, has gotten caught in the crossfire of this debate. The task force, which includes the police chief and members from the ACLU and Latino community groups, is supposed to come up with alternatives to arresting people for public intoxication. However, the group has been frustrated from the start.

After the chief refused to hand over 4,000-plus arrest records, the task force fired off a letter to Figone on Feb. 25 saying that the group was "stuck." The group had been hopeful that they could have greater access to police records. Davis later agreed to release a sample of 282 arrest records for the task force to review.

The bad feelings intensified on March 18, when the chief, the mayor and the city manager held a press conference, announcing the city's plans to bring in a consortium of social scientists to review and research San Jose police models. This independent group is supposed to look for trends of racial profiling, among other things that the task force was trying to look into.

This announcement came as an unpleasant surprise to the community task force members. As one put it: "The task force was clearly nothing more than a PR tool for the city."

Liccardo, who represents the downtown district and has been the most outspoken critic of the police chief with regard to the downtown-policing model, had signed off on the mayor's memo to bring the consortium on board. He attended the press conference but later said that he didn't realize that the task force was not informed about the consortium. After the announcement, Liccardo says, he picked up the phone and called the members, apologizing for "leaving them out in the cold."

On April 8, the members from the Public Intoxication Task Force faxed a letter to each councilmember stating their refusal to work with the consortium. According to the letter, because of "unresolved issues" stemming from the way the city handled the announcement of this consortium, the group would be declining all pending invitations and requests to meet with the consortium leaders.

Skyler Porras of the ACLU says that the task force members are frustrated with the city leaders—not the members of the consortium.

"We want to make it very clear that this letter was sent without prejudice toward the consortium; this is not a reflection of their organization and our long-term willingness to work with them," Porras says. "This a response to what we see as the city stonewalling our efforts on the task force itself and the process by which they brought in the consortium."

But it seems that the city's policymakers aren't jumping to pander to the task force's demands. Porras and other members have been traversing the 18th floor, knocking on doors to try and get some councilmembers on their side. But she wouldn't say whether they've found any alliances. 

After receiving the fax from the task force, Mayor Chuck Reed matter-of-factly dismissed the group's concerns. "It is unfortunate they don't want to participate," he said, "but there will be many other in the community who will work to solve the problem."

Figone's mission now is two-fold. Before she can steer this task force forward, she has to mend a few fences. Regardless, she stands by the city's decision to bring in the consortium, saying it is the most honest way to resolve the policing concerns.

But she's quick to point out that the community's trust is slipping. This would be detrimental to the city at this time, Figone told councilmembers at the April 8 committee hearing. She also warned that councilmembers should choose their language carefully when speaking publicly about the police force. San Jose's officers need to know they have the council's support, she said.

"I am committed to providing whatever leadership in what way I can to maintain credibility in the eyes of the community, because when credibility is lost it is hard to regain it. That said, I am concerned, and what I would like to appeal to the council and the community is that we maintain cool heads as we move forward."

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