Messages to the next police chief

A San Jose grassroots coalition spent months telling the city what they wanted in a new police chief.
Silicon Valley DeBug

While researching Tasers in the wake of last week's police commission hearing, I came upon an online series published while the city of San Jose was considering candidates for police chief. Created by Silicon Valley De-Bug as part of an effort with San Jose's Coalition for Justice and Accountability, the project featured the messages of people who wished to share their personal stories with the next top cop. Each week leading up to the selection of the new chief, the group posted another "Message to the Next Police Chief."

One video featured Art Calderon, whose 68-year old father was beaten by San Jose police, addressing how officers could improve their relationship with the Latino community. A young homeless person weighed in on their interactions with the police. Another contributor wrote that he was bipolar and wanted the next chief to train officers to be sensitive to people with mental-health issues, since he was slammed against a squad car once while delusional.

Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, told the Guardian that the project also included surveying 3,000 community members in three different languages, and organizing seven community forums to generate input from communities of color on what qualities and characteristics they hoped to see in the next chief. When the former chief retired, "We knew for sure that we were standing at this really historic moment," Jayadev said. "We wanted to get as much community input as possible." The coalition was motivated to improve relations between police and communities of color in San Jose amid a history of fatal officer-involved shootings, accidental deaths following deployment of Tasers, and disturbing accounts of excessive use of force, particularly against young people of color.

The group focused their questions on three "hot-button issues," Jayadev said, including use of force, racial profiling, and concern surrounding police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Based on a review of the survey responses, the coalition generated a list of six tenets they hoped would guide the selection process for the new police chief.

San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore, who was sworn in last week, wasn't DeBug's first choice, Jayadev said. However, Moore has met with the Coalition for Justice and Accountability and plans to sit down with them a second time. Although the community lacked decision-making power, Jayadev noted, thanks to De-Bug's project "there's going to be clarity on what the community wants."

Meanwhile, San Francisco is undergoing its own process of selecting a new police chief, and the San Francisco Police Commission is expected to submit the names of up to three applicants to Mayor Ed Lee by March 15. The process is overshadowed by the mayor's race, since a newly elected mayor could opt to initiate a new candidate search if he or she isn't satisfied with Lee's pick.

That uncertainty hasn't discouraged the 75 hopefuls who reportedly submitted applications. Police Commission Secretary Lt. Tim Falvey told the Guardian that the number of candidates under consideration was recently whittled down to 25, but he declined to say how many candidates were to be interviewed by commissioners. Nor would he say when the interviews were taking place, or where they were being held.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Commission held three community meetings in February to garner community input on the selection of the next chief, with three commissioners present at each forum. Asked if there were any notes, recordings, or other documentation of those meetings available, Falvey said nothing like that was required since they weren't official commission meetings. "I don't know if [commissioners] just took mental notes, or maybe they took notes for themselves, but that's not something I have here," he said.

Falvey said the turnout ranged from 25 to 45 people at the three meetings, which were held at the United Irish Cultural Center on 45th Avenue, the Southeast Community Facility in the Bayview, and the San Francisco LGBT Center in the Castro. "A lot of people wanted a track record in community policing," Falvey noted when asked what points came up repeatedly during the community forums. Another common issue was improved relations with the nightlife and entertainment industry, he said.

At the end of the day, the choice lies with the police commissioners -- four of whom were appointees of former Mayor Gavin Newsom -- and of course, Mayor Lee.

Falvey said that candidates had expressed concern that they did not want their names publicized, and that every effort was being made to keep the applicants' identities secret until Mayor Lee makes his final announcement.

What do San Francisco community members want in a new police chief? And in the end, how much will their opinions matter?