When the Facebook posts came to light, Sgt. Paul Kelly—head of the San Jose Police Officers’ Association—condemned them as an “online ring of hate.”
Within hours of the social media comments going public in a June 26 exposé penned by the partner of an active SJPD cop, the agency put four officers on leave for—among other things—allegedly mocking Black Lives Matter protesters and Muslims and disparaging a predominantly Latino and Vietnamese beat in San Jose’s East Side.
Chief Eddie Garcia vowed to fire anyone who made hateful comments online.
Mayor Sam Liccardo echoed the outrage.
As did Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who assigned his Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases handled by the accused officers.
Though the POA has helped cops get their jobs back before after being fired over similar allegations, Sgt. Kelly said he’d chart a new course. This time, he pledged “swift action” against anyone who took part in expressions of bigotry.
Kelly said the union would “immediately file charges” to expel officers who participated in hate speech online, spend no POA resources to defend them and change its bylaws to allow the board to quickly oust members in the future. Because, he added: “There is zero room in our department or our profession for racists, bigots or those that enable them.”
Faced with calls to resign, however, and the prospect of POA members defecting to the Silicon Valley Fraternal Order of Police, Kelly has since seemed to change his tune.
Instead of announcing as much in an email to members, he’s relayed the message verbally, over the course of two meetings on Monday—one in the early morning and the other before the start of the graveyard shift.
From the second deck of the San Joses PD patrol car parking garage on Mission Street, Kelly said he regrets the way he responded to the Facebook fiasco and assured that the union has been fighting relentlessly for members in the face of unprecedented public backlash against their profession.
“We didn’t get the message right,” Kelly offered, according to audio and written transcripts of the briefing obtained by this news organization. “I’ll take the heat for that, and it’s my fault and I apologize. … You got your stomach punched, then you have to worry about your union backing you up.”
Fear not, he told them.
“Your union will f*ckin’ back you up,” Kelly promised. “We’re doing it now. We did it before that. We f*ckin’ didn’t’ do right on the Facebook [issue], so we tried to pull back the message—but it was too late. So that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”
Kelly invited the scores of officers who attended each briefing to talk or shoot him an email to “ask us questions that you may not want to ask in front of everyone.”
Revelations about the Facebook comments came just in the nick of time in terms of contract negotiations, Kelly reportedly observed, but at the worst time possible in the sense that the nation’s embroiled in anti-police sentiment over systemic abuses.
San Jose signed off on a one-year renewal of the POA’s contract just days before the bigoted Facebook comments came to light. During negotiations, Kelly said the union was fighting pressure to do away with the kind of arbitration that allowed Officer Phil White to get his job back in 2016 after Chief Garcia fired him for making thinly veiled threats of violence on Twitter against Black Lives Matter protesters.
The city, however, eased up, Kelly said.
“They’re changing to transparency in arbitration,” he told members on Monday. “They’re changing the judges in arbitration. A whole bunch of things will be happening.”
Another pressure the union now faces is the city trying to bolster civilian oversight by giving greater authority to the Independent Police Auditor, an office led for the past two years by Shivaun Nurre. Kelly described Nurre as amicable compared to her predecessor, Aaron Zisser, whose tenure the POA opposed for political reasons—to derail a planned 2018 ballot measure that would’ve expanded the powers of his office. (For more on that whole saga, click here, here or here.)
“We ran the last one out of San Jose ‘cause he was bad and dirty,” Kelly said of Zisser. “We don’t have a bad one right now, to be honest with you. We deal with Shivaun very well, and anyone in Internal Affairs will tell you that.”
Still, Kelly said, there’s fear of the Independent Police Auditor [IPA] gaining what he called “full investigating power.”
“They’ll take right from IA [Internal Affairs], grab it to IPA and run with it,” he warned union members. If that’s the case, then the union will “have no oversight. They’ll be done with their investigation and get the chief to sign off on it.”
Thankfully for the POA, Kelly said, the city granted a one-year contract extension without asking for anything in the way of reforms. It happened quietly, from June 23 to 25, despite “alllllllll the weight that our board had” from historic demands for more accountability, and even calls to defund police to prioritize other services. (Here’s a link to the ultimately agreed-upon extension).
“Thank God it ratified,” Kelly exclaimed. “If we didn’t seal the deal” that day, he said, he’d have “choked.” He added: “We never worked so hard for f*ckin’ zero.”
The contract renewal gives the union a chance to negotiate for higher wages later this year, likely in August, Kelly said.
“But to be honest with you,” he went on to say, “we need to buy 12 months,” or risk having the city “slap on 50 things on the table” related to police reform. “This way we can at least talk about it,” he said. “We can slow it up. We can let the smoke clear up with all this f*ckin’ chaos going on. That was the goal of the board from the very beginning.”
Over the course of both briefings, Sgt. Kelly criticized DA Rosen, calling his pending review of suspected hate speech from SJPD cops a “fishing” expedition.
The union president also weighed in on the handful of police reform bills being debated in the state capitol, calling the prospect of proposed changes “horrific.”
Lawmakers want to raise use-of-force standards, Kelly said, and to “open back up” SB 1421, which was already enacted to force police departments to publicly disclose officers’ disciplinary records related to serious misconduct.
“We’re just battling as things are going across the nation,” Sgt. Kelly lamented. Though the union was “able to slow things down” here in San Jose on the push to “defund police,” he said the Facebook scandal was “a f*ckin’ disaster” for that effort.
“Our executive team realized we were in trouble,” Kelly said. “So, a decision was made to come out hard and fast. And I will tell you, right away … that we screwed up.”
Kelly said the “words in the messaging” and words in a video he posted in the hours after the Facebook posts were published by San Jose Inside and the anonymous Medium blogger were misguided, to say the least.
“We didn’t think in two hours that everybody just got their asses kicked,” he said. To the officers gathered during the briefings on Monday, he said: “You just got your asses kicked,” even after displaying heroism for “saving our city and their community.”
“The last thing they need was to have their union speak out against them and kick them back down,” Kelly said. “That wasn’t the purpose.”
Monday’s members-only briefings came after a week of the POA being bombarded with emails wondering why Kelly seemed so quick to throw officers under the bus.
In one message forwarded to San Jose Inside, an officer accused the union leader of selling members before an investigation was even underway.
“The denial of fairness and due process for officers is hard to take whenever and wherever it occurs,” the letter states, “but it is inexcusable when it comes from someone like you, whose position exists to ensure that fairness.”
“No one wants to work with a racist, and I doubt anyone would oppose the removal of an officer who professed racist beliefs,” the author went on to say, “but I also believe, and I’m sure many members agree with me, that any officer accused of such beliefs is entitled to a fair process. What you have done, as our elected representative, is acted as judge and jury before any process at all has taken place. You are not a king entitled to do and say whatever you please. You were elected to serve the membership, and for reasons I stated in this email, you have failed at one of your most important duties.”
Per the author, Kelly’s actions in recent days suggest he’s no longer up for the job.
And so, the letter concludes, he “should resign.”