Despite a difficult year when the San Jose Police Department endured a sharp rise in crime and a continuing exodus of police officers, including its chief, a new report reveals that in 2012 the force still received fewer formal complaints from the public.
The annual review of Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell found that there was a 7 percent decrease in citizen complaints -- numbering 329 -- last year.
"That's a very good thing," said Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge, after the 182-page report was posted Monday on the city's website. "I'm getting the impression from people in the community that they understand the police are doing the best job they can under some very difficult circumstances. At the same time, there's always room for improvement."
The number of complaints that resulted in officer discipline after internal review was also down, from 10 percent of cases in 2011 to 3 percent last year, a 20-year low. The majority of those cases required officers to undergo training or counseling. None involved resignation or termination of an officer.
San Jose police spokesman Sgt. Jason Dwyer said the department took a proactive stance in the past year to cut down on the number of complaints.
"I don't know if there was a huge catalyst or a specific event; it's just an ongoing effort to improve customer service," he said. "I think we hit the mark this time."
Dwyer said the department held mandatory training sessions that emphasized the importance of initial contact between citizens and officers.
"When things go bad, they usually go downhill from the very first meeting," Dwyer said. "Either you start off on the right foot or you don't."
The auditor's report notes how Cordell's office did not agree with the findings by the department's Internal Affairs Unit in 16 percent of the 345 cases it reviewed in 2012 -- either by stating "disagreed" or "closed with concerns." But even that number was a slight improvement from 19 percent in 2011.
Cordell also singled out the force's Internal Affairs Unit for praise, stating that it has become much better in completing investigations in a timely matter and has improved its level of cooperation with the auditor's office.
"I think on the whole this is still a very safe city, and that's remarkable when you consider just how low our numbers (of police officers) have dropped," Cordell said. "That says a lot about the officers, and I applaud them considering everything they face."
Crime became the hot-button issue in San Jose last year as the city marked a 20-year high with 45 homicides. Last month, the police department released figures that indicated a nearly 30-percent increase in property crimes from 2011. The 28,463 property crimes were the most since 1995.
Also, San Jose's ranking among the country's safest large cities -- based on an analysis of FBI data -- had slipped to fifth. In the previous five years, the city ranked third or fourth. San Jose ranked tops in the country for a six-year stretch from 2001 to 2006.
Those figures added fuel to the raging debate between the police officers' union and Mayor Chuck Reed and his City Council allies over the role of pension reform in reducing the size of the department and whether it is driving officers away. The force had shrunk to about 930 deployable officers at the start of the year -- before a police academy class of 44 graduated. In 2008, there were more than 1,400 sworn officers.
Following officers out the door was Chief Chris Moore, who retired earlier this year. Acting police Chief Larry Esquivel, a 27-year San Jose veteran, is heading the department while the city searches for a replacement.
"The last couple of years have been hard on cops and hard on residents," Dwyer said. "There's a heavier workload, uncertainty in pay and benefits and a lot of flux -- these things weigh heavily on officers."
But the report from council-appointed Cordell represents some encouraging signs. The auditor is intended to provide transparency and oversight of the police force by investigating complaints, examining investigations of the Internal Affairs Unit and recommending improvements to procedures and policies.
No rubber stamp
The 329 complaints either came to her office or directly to internal affairs. Cordell's staff also audited all the "force" cases and 80 percent of other conduct cases that were closed by internal affairs last year. The report, for the first time, included summaries of cases where her office disagreed with the department's final decision. The point, Cordell said, is to show the public that her office is not a rubber stamp.
"We can't tell the police to do anything," Cordell added. "But by shining sunshine on these cases, we're making the system better for everyone and hopefully improving fairness."
The report notes that "contrary to our expectations," officers with greater experience received a larger percentage of negative "courtesy and procedure" allegations compared to officers with less than five years of experience.
And while Cordell was complimentary of Esquivel, the report makes clear that she was unhappy with the acting chief overturning one of Moore's final decisions to document detentions.
Moore mandated that officers record information such as age, ethnicity and cause for pedestrian stops when no arrests were made. That was a result of Cordell advocating that minorities found the practice of "curb-sitting" to be demeaning. Esquivel quickly suspended Moore's change in procedure.
"It wasn't even out there for 15 minutes," Cordell said. "He thought it was written too broadly. But I don't agree with that."