Union says Calif. watchdog attended 'anti-police rally,' calls for his removal

San Jose’s civilian police watchdog continues to absorb criticism, with the mayor joining the latest chorus of calls questioning his impartiality


By Mark Gomez
The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The young tenure of San Jose’s civilian police watchdog continued to absorb a torrent of criticism from the officer rank-and-file he is tasked with keeping an eye on, with the mayor joining the latest chorus of calls questioning his impartiality.

The police officers’ union doubled down Friday on a campaign against Independent Police Auditor Aaron Zisser, saying that he should resign immediately because he attended an “anti-police rally” earlier this month where officers were “threatened.”

Councilman Raul Peralez voiced his own concerns, not entirely surprising since he’s a former police officer. But late Friday afternoon, Mayor Sam Liccardo, in a statement released by his office, also expressed concerns about Zisser’s conduct.

“An IPA’s most valuable asset is her or his credibility. That credibility depends on impartiality — both in both appearance and fact — and I am concerned that Mr. Zisser’s recurring questionable judgment undermines that,” Liccardo said.

The police auditor is hired directly by the City Council, and a move to fire him would require the support of 10 out of the 11 council members.

Zisser said the police union’s depiction of his brief attendance at a rally seeking justice for an 18-year-old San Jose man killed outside his home by police in 2016 is unfair and inaccurate. Zisser said he met with the group before they started their march and rally in an effort to “let them know I’m hearing their message.”

On July 7, relatives and other community members gathered to protest the fatal police shooting in 2016 of Anthony Nunez, an 18-year-old man who prosecutors determined was suicidal and pointed a gun at officers before being shot. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office determined the officers were justified in using lethal force.

The group marched to the San Jose Police Department, where they gathered outside the building and called for justice. At one point, Nunez’s mother singled out the two officers involved in the shooting and said “we’re coming for you. You murdered Anthony Nunez in front of his home.”

At a news conference Friday, the union provided media a photograph showing Zisser with a handful of people standing behind a banner which read “Justice for Anthony Nunez.” Earlier this month, the civil-rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug posted video of the rally outside the police department on its Twitter page.

“We are here today to condemn an individual, not the office,” said Paul Kelly, president San Jose Police Officers’ Association. “Aaron Zisser is soiling the reputation of a city institution time and time again by exhibiting poor judgment, misleading the public and city officials with bogus statistics and participation in a protest rally against the police department that culminated in a threat to police officers caught on video.”

Kelly also said Zisser should resign and “become a criminal defense attorney or an advocate for those convicted of crimes that are in jail. He has no business continuing the charade of being a neutral third part overseeing this police department.”

Police Chief Eddie Garcia said while he had the “utmost respect in the office of the independent police auditor” he was dismayed by Zisser’s actions.

“I’ve always worked with IPAs that not only had a passion for the community but respected the work of my rank and file. That is missing now. The repeated acts of disrespect by the current IPA are reprehensible, and he has damaged the credibility of the office to its core.”

Zisser said he made a “quick stop” as the group was gathering blocks away from the police department to let them know someone in city government is listening. He said he did not make any remarks to the group, and did not participate in the march to the police department.

“I think it’s important, as often as possible, to go where the community is leading the conversations in more organic ways, rather than convening in my office,” Zisser said. “That’s not always where people feel comfortable sharing what’s on their minds.

“Going into their space, meeting them where they are, that goes a long way to building trust in the community,” he said. “It’s very important my office be trusted in the community.”

Zisser said just because he listens to a community group doesn’t mean he adopts their message.

“I go to SJPD events, a lot of them,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I adopt their message. I hear their message and hear their challenges.

“I have to hear all views, all sides,” Zisser said. “That is the nature of this job.”

In June, the police union delivered a formal request to Liccardo seeking Zisser’s removal, a letter signed by more than 500 of its officers.

The union’s calls were first sparked by a controversy that marred the annual police audit report spearheaded by Zisser, which the union, the police chief and several city council members including Liccardo criticized as distorting certain use-of-force cases. The report did not initially disclose that what appeared to be startling percentages of racial disparities were based on just three arrests.

On July 13, the union again called for Zisser’s termination when his office failed to warn the department about a jailed suspect’s threats to shoot the next officers he encountered on the street.

“I’ve taken my licks and I don’t begrudge the POA for legitimate criticism of me,” Zisser said. “But this is really demonizing families who are most acutely affected by policing. People who most deserve to have their voices heard.”

Raj Jayadev, director of the civil-rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug, said the police union’s most recent claims against Zisser are “disturbing and insulting.”

“He goes to police events, academy graduations,” Jayadev said of Zisser. “No one is saying that somehow discredits him as being objective.”

Peralez said he takes the union’s allegations “very seriously” and does not believe the association is simply “crying wolf.” Peralez said he expects the council to take up the issue in closed session when they return from recess.

“Independent should be somebody that can exhibit that independence on all sides, not necessarily just separation from the police department,” Peralez said. “Equally, you want to ensure that your police auditor is also independent from any of what may be protest groups or individuals or organizations that have been predominantly anti-police.”

Jayadev did not mince words when asked about the possibility Zisser could lose his job because of the union campaign against him.

“That essentially ends the notion there could be something as independent civilian police oversight in San Jose, hands down,” Jayadev said. “No candidate would ever consider coming here. They know it would be a total lie, a false position.”

Staff writer Emily DeRuy contributed to this report.

©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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