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Activists Call For Fundamental Changes To San Jose's Police Department


George Floyd's killing by the police has sparked a national movement to reimagine policing. It's opening up new debates in cities large and small and rattling the political status quo, including in San Jose, Calif. The nation's 10th biggest city has one of the smallest police forces for a metro area of its size. The call there to rethink policing is growing louder. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, there is stiff political resistance.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose likes to see itself as open, iterative and progressive. But during recent protests following George Floyd's killing, the San Jose police reacted with what many called old-school excessive force.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I'm a police officer with the city of San Jose. I do hereby declare this an unlawful assembly.

WESTERVELT: Warnings devolved into a melee, complete with rubber bullets and beatings.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No justice, no peace.

WESTERVELT: Several protesters were badly injured by rubber bullets. One community organizer who has worked with local police on anti-bias training was hit and had to have emergency surgery. The rough response only accelerated longstanding calls not just for reform but, like across the country, to fundamentally alter how this department operates and to take responsibility out of its hands.

RAJ JAYADEV: It's really about shrinking the role of police in our society and trying to reduce police interactions and see if there's other options that are more supportive and less harmful to the community.

WESTERVELT: Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of the civil rights advocacy and organizing group Silicon Valley De-Bug. He points out that San Jose was among the first big city departments to try to address its problems with what were once cutting-edge reforms. They added less lethal tools such as Tasers. They added body cams. They trace race in police stops and use of force and added implicit bias and de-escalation training. None of it, Jayadev says, has worked.

JAYADEV: And they haven't changed the reality that people are still getting killed, particularly Black and brown people are getting killed here in San Jose. The assumption is that police are the only recipients that can answer these calls. What we're saying is, they are not the appropriate apparatus or mechanism to respond to these calls and that there are others that are more equipped to do so.

WESTERVELT: But political leaders here quickly dismissed the idea of defunding and reallocating. They point out that the department has shrunk by about a third in recent years to just over 900 officers today. San Jose has among the fewest police per capita of any big city department. San Jose's Mayor Sam Liccardo, a liberal Democrat, says far more change is needed to confront institutional racism and abuse, including in the police department. But defunding and downsizing, Mayor Liccardo says, is just the wrong idea at the worst possible time.

SAM LICCARDO: Certainly, the challenge of the defund movement is a righteous one. The challenge is that the defund advocates are looking for a quick fix. Basically, go lay off a couple hundred officers and figure out how you're going to go respond to all those calls. And by the way, 600,000 of those calls here in San Jose are life-threatening or priority-one calls, typically involving some threat of harm. And so it's not something you just figure out on the fly.

WESTERVELT: Liccardo recently released a nine-point police reform plan entitled Why Defunding the Police Won't Work. It includes banning rubber bullets, leveraging more data for early intervention and changing the arbitration system so abusive cops can be removed more easily. In his overall proposal, however, the department remains fully funded. The nine-point plan landed with a thud, in part because the following day, San Jose cops were again in the news.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Bigoted and anti-Muslim - that's how a private social media group for police officers is being described tonight.

WESTERVELT: Four active duty San Jose officers and several retired ones are accused of posting racist attacks on Black Lives Matter and Muslims, including one post saying, repurpose the hijabs into nooses.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Racist, anti-Muslim comments, including mocking Black Lives Matter, on a closed Facebook page.

WESTERVELT: The police chief and mayor denounced the comments. Four officers were put on leave while an investigation was launched. It was hardly the first such incident in San Jose. It only added to the drumbeat that the department needs much more than minor, incremental change. Again, Raj Jayadev.

JAYADEV: We're asking for inclusion in that visioning and planning. This is no longer the conversation about, how do you make the police department more liked by a community? There is a ground-level uprising that we have never seen before led by a whole new generation of young people.

WESTERVELT: Jayadev says history won't be kind to what he calls Mayor Liccardo's go slow tinkering approach, one that, he charges, fails to recognize the importance of this national moment of reckoning on the role of police.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Jose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.