LaDoris Cordell will retire from her post as San Jose’s independent police auditor this summer, the city announced Wednesday. During her five-year term the former judge brought unprecedented accountability to the San Jose Police Department.
As the city’s third IPA—the office was created in 1993—Cordell focused on building trust between police and the public through greater transparency.
“In her time as independent police auditor, she has increased outreach to all of San Jose’s communities and encouraged thoughtful discussion of policy issues at a time of national debate over public safety,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said.
Her last day will be July 3. San Jose has three months to find a successor, allowing time for public input.
Cordell, 65, has used her civilian police oversight to publish detailed yearly reports about officer conduct and hand down recommendations for progressive policies about race and transparency.
"The only way to build trust in any system is transparency," she told San Jose Inside. "The more you are transparent, the more people trust you."
Though her office is limited in authority, police often voluntarily adopted her suggestions. There has always been some tension, though, as the city's police union sometimes doubted her objectivity while working with civil rights groups that have been critical of law enforcement.
"When I came here, the first thing I wanted to do was to make it clear what this office was about," she said. "The message was that we are here to make this a better police department. We are not adversarial. The way that I approached this was to do as much outreach in the police department as I did in the community."
When Cordell stepped into her role as independent auditor, the police department was under scrutiny for alleged racial profiling. She called for a policy to collect data about all detainments where people were let go without a citation or arrest, with a goal of finding out whether or not officers unfairly target minorities, in particular Latinos and African Americans.
On Jan. 1, 2014, San Jose police began taking details reports about traffic stops, documenting the person's race, age, why they were stopped and whether they were cuffed, put in a cop car or made to sit on a curb. Now that SJPD has a year's worth of those reports, the city has to find someone to objectively analyze the data.
"We need someone who can analyze this without spinning the data," Cordell said. "Then this needs to be made public."
For years, Cordell has also pushed for San Jose to equip its officers with body cameras, which could have two major effects: 1. Many people believe police check their behavior when cameras are rolling; and 2. Police and the city are better protected from unfounded complaints made by the public. SJPD is in the middle of its third body cam pilot.
When SJPD got into hot water about its close ties to the San Francisco 49ers, which hired off-duty cops for security, Cordell suggested doing away with the secondary employment program entirely. For the time being, Police Chief Larry Esquivel has suspended any side work with the club.
No doubt, Cordell’s standing as Northern California’s first African American female judge and a respected civil rights leader raised the profile of San Jose’s IPA office.
A theater major as an undergrad, Cordell ventured into the legal field with a little uncertainty. But she soon realized that her background in performing arts equipped her well for the courtroom.
"Litigation is law and theater," she said. "As a lawyer you put on a show for your jury and you persuade them. When I became a judge, I became the producer and director. Those skills really did help."
After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1974, she established herself as the first lawyer to open a private practice in East Palo Alto, a largely African American and Mexican community. Meanwhile, as assistant dean of student affairs at her alma mater, Cordell created a minority admissions program that made the law school a national leader in enrolling students of color.
In 1982, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County, where she became the first judge in the state to order Breathalyzers installed on cars of convicted drunk drivers. Six years later, she won a seat on the county’s Superior Court. After 19 years on the bench, Cordell retired from the bench to serve eight years as vice provost and special counselor to the president of Stanford.
With every job, her goal was to leave it better than when she started.
"You go in thinking, 'This is a precious moment,'" she said. "You do everything you can to make things better. That's been who I am."
Throughout this time, she has served on various boards, won numerous awards and become sought-after for her legal opinion. Last year, with the nation reeling in the wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri, she wrote an op-ed for Slate promoting the dissolution of criminal grand juries.
"They're all secret," she told San Jose Inside. "I think it's appalling."
In retirement, Cordell plans to focus on music and art. A classically trained pianist, she will continue to work with the African American Composer Initiative, which she founded six years ago.
Cordell's first priority, however, will be to write a memoir, a personal look at her time on the bench and how it changed her.
"I came into the job at 32 years old absolutely terrified," she said. "I was the first black woman judge, which created so much pressure."
But she relished the role.
"I was ready," she says. "That robe fit."
While many judges specialize in one type of case, she worked with all kinds: civil, criminal, probate, family, juvenile, traffic, small claims and more.
During her last eight years on the bench, she ended each week by writing a letter to her parents back east. She wrote about the people who came into her courtroom, the ones changing their names or bickering over wills or facing serious life-changing charges, the tragedy and occasional comedy. She wrote about the personal impact of holding so much authority over people's lives.
"The hardest one is sentencing," she said. "Having to think about what to do with people who've done awful things, how to protect the public while showing understanding."
When Cordell retired from the bench in 2001, her mom pulled out that box of letters—hundreds of them, brimming with stories she may otherwise have forgotten—and gave them back.
"They're going to be a big help to me," she said. "That's where I'll start."
This story has been updated.