Beyond the Grieving–Keeping Each Other Safe

Aug 1, 2016

In recent weeks, our television and computer screens have transmitted terrifying views of violence in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas. Predictably, scores of commentators and politicians have rushed in to opine on these events and their implications for an emotionally reeling nation, largely focusing on what divides us, citing issues of race, gun control, or even immigration.

We should not allow this to distract us from the pain that this violence has inflicted on our families, communities, and country, and on our need to heal these deep emotional wounds. Divided or not, we should heed President Obama’s admonition not to allow ourselves — or perhaps more importantly, each other — to be defined by the violent acts of a few.

Yet we live life facing forward. Looking to the future, residents inevitably ask: how do we prevent that from happening here in San Jose?

The answer begins in defining “that.” This task necessarily injects our ideological and personal views into these tragic events. We might define “that” as mass acts of violence committed by those acting as terrorists as in Orlando. We might describe “that” as attacks by deranged gunmen against police officers, as in Dallas or Baton Rouge. “That” surely also refers to the troubling number of officer-involved shootings of African-Americans nationwide, as in Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge or, previously, Ferguson. To these, I’d add a fourth malady — a concern that doesn’t grab headlines, but has even broader impacts: rising violent crime rates throughout California, and in major cities throughout the nation.

What are the unifying themes among all of these challenges? A mix of two elements: fear — whether racially, ideologically, or religiously motivated — and violence.

We have much work to do to confront these complex societal challenges. We would do well, however, to dismiss those advocating simple solutions — whether they’re peddling tougher stances on crime, on guns or on immigrants. Rather, an effective response calls for a multifaceted range of actions.

Most concretely, we in the City need to do more to provide protection for our protectors while they keep us safe. Last year, the Council approved my budget message calling for increased investment in additional protective gear — ballistic panels, plates and vests — for our officers. We’re also upgrading communications technology for our police, such as new mobile digital communications devices, a regional radio interoperability system, and a new incident command center.

Next, uniquely toxic risks arise from the combination of severe mental illness and the ubiquity of guns, as we know too tragically from our loss of San Jose Officer Michael Johnson 15 months ago, and as we may be seeing in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Those risks will persist until our nation invests sufficiently in mental health services and better regulates gun possession by those with serious diagnoses. Nonetheless, SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia recognizes that we can reduce violent interactions with police by making San Jose one of the first major cities to impose mandatory “crisis intervention team” training for patrol officers to improve their interactions with mentally ill residents.

To be sure, every urban police department must redouble its efforts to advance trust within the diverse communities we serve. In San Jose, we began installing body-worn cameras on every patrol officer this month, which raises police accountability and protects officers against false claims by litigious arrestees. The SJPD has prioritized violence de-escalation training, recognizing that proactive communication early in an encounter can avoid having anyone reach — or appear to reach — for a gun later. We have also proactively sought evaluation by independent experts of SJPD data relating to “traffic stops” and detentions of pedestrians, which will allow academic experts and the public to further scrutinize our department’s tactics.

The heart of the solution, however, lies in the relationship between every beat officer and our residents. Chief Garcia’s “Coffee with a Cop” series of gatherings have helped build a culture of proactive communication. Here we have more work to do, though. You can help by participating in any one of our “National Night Out” events in neighborhoods across San Jose on Aug. 2. I invite you to get to know your officers and neighbors — find out about attending or hosting a NNO potluck or block party in your own neighborhood.

Finally, relationships can only improve as we resume the “community policing” practices that made San Jose a national leader in the 1980s. Sitting down to listen to a parent with a wayward teenager, or to help a graffiti-plagued business owner, constitutes the relationship-building work that makes community policing effective. This requires one commodity in short supply among our rank-and-file, however: time. Officers simply cannot engage in proactive outreach if staffing shortages have them interminably sprinting to urgent calls.

Having lost more than 500 officers over the last half-decade, San Jose has — by a wide margin — the most thinly staffed major-city police department in the nation. To improve community policing and to counter rising violence, we must do all we can to boost our police staffing immediately.

The SJPD and police union have worked collaboratively to devise a strategy to accelerate hiring and improve officer retention, such as by reducing barriers for military veterans, and by incentivizing delayed retirements. We cannot effectively implement this strategy, however, until we resolve one issue that undermines our ability to recruit: benefits. Every police academy applicant knows that San Jose lags well behind other Bay Area police departments on disability, pension and retiree healthcare benefits, and virtually every city in the Bay Area has aggressively sought to hire officers.

Fortunately, we are beginning to stem the tide of departures by reaching agreement with our 11 unions, to implement reforms that will save taxpayers some $3 billion in future retirement costs. Although this settlement has drawn support from proponents of pension reform, like former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and myself, we cannot yet implement it legally.

In the weeks ahead, I will join with a broad coalition of key stakeholders and civic leaders to ask voters to approve the pension settlement on their November ballot. Here too, every resident in San Jose can become part of the solution: whether through a vote in November, or by bringing neighbors out to meet your beat officers.

Let’s work together to make San Jose safer.

Sam Liccardo
Mayor of San Jose

Originally Published in Medium