Rebuilding San Jose’s Police Department is Going Great, But We’re Not Done Yet

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“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers

Editor’s Note: This OpEd originally ran in the Mercury News

By Mayor Sam Liccardo

Dear Friends,

When I became mayor two and a half years ago, our police department faced a crisis. While San Jose has long had the most thinly-staffed department of any major U.S. city, the Great Recession, layoffs, pay cuts and battles over pension reform all exacerbated our shortfalls. As a result, San Jose had lost about 600 officers in less than half a decade, and the losses would persist for another year.

Today, we see a different future. With the voters’ approval of Measure F’s pension reform settlement last November, we’ve halted the flight of officers from SJPD while saving more than $42 million this year on retirement costs.

A new police contract and new recruiting approaches appear to be bearing fruit: Our most recent academy boasted 54 new recruits, the most in a decade, and by the end of this year, we will have added more than 100 officers to the force. In addition, we’re seeing substantial reductions this year in homicides and other violent crime.

This resurgence, combined with San Jose’s maintenance of the lowest violent crime rate of any major U.S. city during our leanest years, says much about the character and commitment of hundreds of our officers who stayed on through the back-to-back overtime shifts, canceled family vacations, declining pay and plummeting morale.

It also speaks to the leadership of Chief Eddie Garcia to right the ship, and of his recruiting team, led by Lt. Heather Randol, to revive SJPD’s ability to attract the best and brightest.

While the early results appear promising, we still have a long way to go. Increased media attention on policing nationally has created new challenges to recruiting, so we must continue SJPD’s efforts to broaden its recruiting strategy – such as we’ve seen for young military veterans, LGBT candidates, and for returning SJPD officers -without compromising the department’s high standards.

Those standards are critical: In other cities that have too-eagerly boosted their ranks, communities have suffered the transgressions of rookies lacking the judgment of veteran officers. For that reason, we will sharpen our focus on accountability and on building community trust.

When we deployed body-worn cameras on every patrol officer last year, complaints of officers’ use of force plummeted. Chief Garcia also expanded mandatory training in violence de-escalation, implicit racial bias recognition, and street-level mental health crisis management.

He’s launched popular “Coffee with a Cop” gatherings, inspiring constructive dialogue in otherwise police-wary neighborhoods. We’ve boosted pay for multilingual officers to improve communication within our diverse community, attracting recruits fluent in eight languages to a recent academy.

Even with these recent gains, police staffing will remain too thin for several years more. We must continue to think smarter about how we can do more with less.

This requires a focus on crime prevention, such as by expanding our SJ Works program, which provided employment and job skills to more than 1,000 teens living in gang-impacted neighborhoods this year.

We must double down on force-multiplying partnerships, such as District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s community prosecutor initiative that has deterred prostitution in the Washington neighborhood. We’ve doubled the size of our Community Service Officer ranks to improve response and investigation of burglaries and property crime.

We also must continue to invest in better technology, as we’ve enhanced officer access to data in the field, added tools like license-plate readers, deployed money-saving fleet telematics, and time-saving predictive analytics.

We’re on the right track, but there’s no time for sitting. Working together, we can rebuild America’s finest police department.