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After years of controversy, San Jose seeks new police chief

By Kelsey Williams | 11 Oct 2010

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San Jose is hiring a new police chief, but despite controversy, few residents came to the recent public meeting.

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As San Jose searches for its next police chief, city officials and leaders of prominent minority groups say they are hoping to begin a new era of trust and openness between the public and the police department.

Since August, when Chief Rob Davis said he would retire by the end of October, City Manager Debra Figone’s office has organized seven citywide public forums and several smaller neighborhood meetings for citizens to describe the qualities and background they’d like to see in the next chief. Spanish and Vietnamese-language translators were provided at the forums, and the city also has posted online surveys in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

At the same time, leaders of San Jose’s many minority advocacy groups have scheduled forums and done surveys of their own to help make sure as many voices as possible are head.

“Will people go to a city sponsored forum? Do they think their input will be heard?” asked  Raj Jayadev, an outspoken critic of Chief Davis and executive director of Silicon Valley De-bug, a collective of writers, artists and community activists. “Unfortunately, (there) is a track record where these didn’t happen.”

Walter Wilson, who works with the African American Community Services Center, praised the city manager’s office for putting in place “a process that we can begin to start trusting.” He was quick to add, “that trust is in the beginning and … not 100 percent yet.”

The wariness stems from several recent incidents involving San Jose police. In October 2008, the “San Jose Mercury News” reported that Latinos had been arrested at an inordinately high rate for public intoxication and resisting arrest. The disclosure, based on statewide crime data, spurred community outcry and the creation of a public intoxication task force by the city.

Relations strained further in 2009 when police officers shot and killed  a Vietnamese man, Daniel Pham, in his home after he allegedly attacked them with a knife, and when the “Mercury News” posted on its website a cell phone video of officers repeatedly beating and using a Taser on an unarmed San Jose State University student, Phuong Ho.

After the cell phone video was made public, two critics of Chief Davis, Richard Konda  and Jethroe Moore II, called for his resignation, citing an “ongoing pattern of inadequate responses [and a] lack of understanding of the severity of the issues.” No charges were filed against the officers in the Pham and Ho shootings.

When he announced his retirement in August, Davis, who is fluent in Spanish, told reporters that he did his best to reach out to minority communities during his six years leading the police department.

Despite the city’s efforts, turnout at the seven citywide forums was modest. The final meeting was held Oct. 4 in a large conference room in the Mexican Heritage Plaza, where roughly 150 black chairs were neatly aligned facing a large screen that displayed the agenda. Only about 20 chairs were filled, all but six by city staff.

Shawn Spano, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, has served as the facilitator for the events. He said the Oct. 4 forum was the “smallest turnout that we’ve had” while the “largest was about 40 or 50 (people) and the other ones have been somewhere in between.”

Still, Figone is optimistic about the information the city has received. Throughout the meetings, she said, themes have emerged: citizens want a police chief who is  “culturally competent” and a proactive communicator; they also want someone who is open to oversight of the department and is known for promoting ethics and integrity.

Information on past and future meetings, as well as the online surveys, can be found at www.sanjoseca.gov/PoliceChiefRecruitment.asp. On Oct. 25, there will be two meetings sponsored by affiliates of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability. Spano said members of the city manager’s office plan to be present at both.

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