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June 20-26, 2007

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vigil for Steve Salinas

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
On her own: Noreen Salinas, center, at a vigil calling for an investigation into the death of her father, Steve Salinas.

Cop Rock

Why the debate over improving police oversight is missing the chance for real change

By Raj Jayadev

NOREEN SALINAS has taken pictures from every possible angle outside room 119 at the Vagabond Inn. The 29–year–old Salinas has traced the pathway from the parking lot, and has measured the distance from the room to the manager's desk in the next building. It's become her life's focus since her father, Steve Salinas, was tased to death in room 119, while naked and unarmed, by the San Jose Police Department on May 25. Weeks later, having received no substantive information from the SJPD as to why her father is dead, Salinas is trying to get answers for herself.

She calls it "putting my cop hat on."

Despite the veil of mystery surrounding the incident, and the use of a controversial weapon, his daughter's amateur sleuthing may be the only investigation Steve Salinas' death receives. According to current protocol, the San Jose Police Department is not obligated to conduct an administrative investigation into an officer-involved death if it does not involve a shooting. Even the city's police oversight body, the Independent Police Auditor, can do nothing for Noreen Salinas, since there is no guaranteed review.

The case of Steve Salinas could not be more timely, as a once behind-the-scenes intradepartmental debate has erupted into a bare-knuckle fight over civilian oversight of the police in San Jose. Unfortunately, the public conflict—a battle of reports, press conferences and paid consultants—has been dominated by the issue of how complaints are classified, rather then the changes that could lead to a case like Steve Salinas' being officially investigated.

On Davis' Watch

The spillover to the public began after the Independent Police Auditor's office released their 2006 Year End Report two weeks ago, which offered a statistical analysis of complaints lodged against the San Jose Police Department, as well as several policy recommendations. Currently, if a civilian wants to make a complaint against a San Jose Police officer, whether it be a claim of racial discrimination, use of force or general offensive conduct, they can file a complaint at the Independent Police Auditor's office. That complaint then gets transferred to the Internal Affairs office of the San Jose Police Department.

The dispute has been framed around the way complaints have been classified at the Internal Affairs office. Independent Police Auditor Barbara Attard claims complaints have been misclassified as "inquiries," which leads to minimal or no investigation of the cases. "A number of misconduct issues have been labeled as inquiries, which means officers' names are not being tracked, thus undermining the ability of the SJPD to identify potential officer misconduct," she says.

Attard points to a large percentage increase of inquiries, from 35 percent in 2004 to 52 percent in 2006, over the past two years. This is also a time period in which Chief Rob Davis has been head of the SJPD. Davis and the city manager have responded by questioning the numbers, analysis and conclusions of the Independent Auditor report. According to the city manager's Administrative Report, the IPA report has "improper statistical analysis"; it recalculates the numbers by taking out all inquiries. Consequently, the level of complaints against the San Jose Police Department goes down significantly. There is perhaps no more effective way of discrediting an audit than by saying it started with the wrong data.

Possibility for Real Change

But as both sides attempt to convince the public of the validity of their classifications, it is the IPA recommendations around investigations that could alter the fabric of police accountability in San Jose, and could lead to real answers for Noreen Salinas.

What the IPA is proposing to the City Council is 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." Currently, only officer-involved shootings mandate an investigation and an IPA review. That policy was enacted in 2005, after the high-profile death of Cau Bich Tran, a 25-year-old Vietnamese mother who was gunned down in her home by the San Jose Police Department.

But the number of nonshooting fatalities has ironically increased after the city authorized tasers to reduce officer-involved deaths. Including Salinas, five people have died after being shocked with tasers by the San Jose police since the weapon was issued to every officer in 2004.

Although focusing on the classification issues, the city manager's report does respond to Attard's recommendation regarding critical incidents, using words such as "unwarranted" and "incompatible," and saying that such changes would mean a "fundamental paradigm shift in the City's current oversight model."

Attard points to two cases of officer-involved deaths in 2006 that led her to recommend mandatory administrative investigation and review of "critical," nonshooting incidents. In January of 2006, Jorge Trujillo was taken into custody by the SJPD and died in a hospital 20 hours later. The Santa Clara coroner's report noted blunt impacts on the head, torso and upper and lower extremities, with at least one impact being consistent with a baton strike. The report also noted multiple pepper spray and 20 taser applications. No administrative investigation was conducted, and the IPA was unable to review any SJPD documents in the case. Last week, the estate of Mr. Trujillo filed a $6 million federal lawsuit against the San Jose Police, citing 25 officers, the city and Chief Rob Davis.

In the case of John Martinez, the SJPD engaged in a vehicle pursuit of Mr. Martinez on June 19, 2006. The van Mr. Martinez was driving collided with a wrought iron fence, and, according to the coroner's report, may have penetrated his body through the windshield. The report goes on to say the Mr. Martinez was tased, according to paramedics, and he died in a hospital five days later. The cause of death was "bronchopneumonia complicating penetrating chest injury." Again, no investigation ensued, and the IPA was denied any SJPD documents regarding Martinez's death.

Into the 21st Century

Even outside of the specific San Jose cases, Attard says that she is just trying to stay current with most civilian oversight models across the country. At the time of its inception in 1992, the San Jose IPA was considered innovative and "one of the first of its kind," according to Attard. But as a technology for community input to police accountability, it has been surpassed by the evolution of civilian oversight. "In the last 14 years, as new oversight models have developed, they've been given powers such as the ones we're asking for." She points to cities such as Denver, Portland, Sacramento and Boise, all where oversight was developed after looking at older models such as San Jose. Those models of oversight had review of investigations, and limited independent investigative powers built into their original charters.

Pierce Murphy is the president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and the head of the Boise oversight system. It is a "monitor" mechanism, similar to an auditor. Murphy, who has been the head of the office since its birth in 1999, says that having investigative powers has been instrumental is building the public's trust in their office as well as in the police department.

"The community has greater confidence in the eventual outcome of a complaint, because someone outside of law enforcement, or not beholden to, can investigate. For those who have that question 'Can they police themselves?' it answers it," he says.

When asked whether investigative powers are outside the purview of the auditor model, a claim held by the city manager and the SJPD, Murphy gives an example: "If you are the investigator of bank fraud, you don't have to be a banker, but you have to learn about banking." Murphy says while independent reviews and investigations "can be interpreted by some that the police cannot be trusted ... in final analysis, the question is what will engender trust and public confidence in the police agency and the veracity of the investigative process."

Nothing less than public confidence in the police is what is at stake right now, as the city begins deliberations on the IPA recommendations on June 21. The mayor and council were compelled to call this "Special San Jose City Council Meeting on Police Issues" after a series of public forums held by the Human Relations Commission around the relationship of the public and the police earlier this year. At the forums, each attended by hundreds of people, community members recounted stories of racial profiling, harassment and abuse, some speaking directly to Davis, who was present and taking notes. Both forums had to end because of limited time before all the testimonies could be heard.

In the meantime, Noreen Salinas is hoping the City Council supports the recommendation of mandatory investigation and IPA review. But she is certainly not waiting with bated breath, as she continues to press the SJPD for information. She has repeatedly asked for the police report, and is told she will be able to see it in a few weeks. She has also called for an investigation by the district attorney's office. On the evening of June 8, in front of the district attorney's office, Salinas, supported by the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, a group formed after the death of Cau Buch Tran, held a vigil for her father.

"My father was a good, loving man," she told the crowd. "I want to know exactly why the police did what they did, and I want them to be held responsible for their actions."

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