San Jose’s civilian cop monitor has agreed to step down, citing the police union’s “extraordinary personal attacks” on him as a distraction to grassroots reform efforts.
Independent Police Auditor (IPA) Aaron Zisser, a civil rights lawyer hired by a 10-1 City Council vote less than a year ago, tendered his resignation Thursday after a months-long campaign by the San Jose Police Officers’ Association (POA) to remove him from office.
“I am enormously grateful to community leaders and advocates for their consistent and robust support,” Zisser said in his written farewell to the council. “Unfortunately, the extraordinary personal attacks on my office and my work have become a distraction from the important goals of reform and expanded oversight of the police sought by the public and community groups.”
Leaders of one of those groups, People Acting in Community Together (PACT), said Zisser’s departure amid political pressure highlights the need for a stronger accountability model. They also denounced the POA’s tactics for widening the rift between SJPD and the marginalized communities it polices.
“The resignation of Independent police auditor Aaron Zisser after a heavy-handed attack campaign by the [POA] raises major concerns for community members about the city’s commitment to police transparency and accountability,” PACT organizers Frank Richardson, Akemi Flynn and Jennifer Goto wrote in a statement this morning. “People of color, immigrants, people with mental health issues, and houseless people, in particular, wonder who they can trust to ensure the safety and justice of our community. Police transparency and accountability are essential for trust, safety and justice, for both community members and police.”
Zisser—who at 37 years old became the youngest person to lead the Independent Police Auditor office since its creation in 1993—arrived amid a push by minority-led reform groups to expand civilian oversight by way of a ballot measure. From the outset, Zisser said he would leave that work to the community and focus on making the most of the limited, but in some ways untapped, authority of his role.
But the POA and Chief Eddie Garcia didn’t take well to Zisser’s approach. The union said he lacked requisite law enforcement monitoring experience and the chief found him overly critical of the rank-and-file. That was before Zisser’s first public misstep.
On May 22, Zisser presented to the council his first annual report, which included a statistic on police force that was misleading because it made no mention of the small sample size. Though Zisser ultimately revised that passage, the POA seized on the blunder, calling it evidence of an anti-police bias.
Over the ensuing months, the POA found more examples to support their claim. In July there was the photograph of Zisser posing with families of people killed by police. Then there was the unreported threat—an inmate filing a complaint through the auditor’s office said he would shoot the next officer he saw on the street.
By then, the POA refused to even talk to Zisser. And Chief Garcia, who said he respects civilian oversight in principle, had lost faith in Zisser’s impartiality. Both the union and the chief said they support the community’s desire to bolster IPA superintendence—just not with Zisser in charge.
“We are committed to strengthening the oversight function of the office and will make an announcement net week on specific steps to do so,” POA President Sgt. Paul Kelly said in a statement Friday. “It’s important to note that although we had serious, legitimate questions about the judgment and actions of Mr. Zisser over the course of the last several months, the SJPOA never questioned the vital and essential role that the office of the IPA plays in the administration of justice for all San Jose residents.”
PACT leaders said now is the time for the union to prove that their campaign against Zisser wasn’t just an excuse to stifle accountability reform.
“The SJPOA has claimed that they are supportive of increased independent oversight, just not with Aaron Zisser in the position,” the group said in an email sent to reporters this morning. “Now it is time for them to show it.”
That goes for San Jose’s elected leaders, too, PACT added.
“The severe limitations of our current model and the bullying tactics of the SJPOA have called into question both the independence of the IPA office and the ability for the IPA to make recommendations that would improve policing in our community and increase trust and safety for all concerned,” PACT leaders wrote. “In order to overcome this setback and attract qualified candidates to the position, the mayor and City Council must update the model to show that they do intend to have strong oversight comparable to that of other large cities.”
The council, perhaps hoping to avoid the embarrassment of voting out someone they hired less than a year before, offered Zisser a severance package in exchange for his resignation. Community groups—PACT, Silicon Valley De-Bug, the Minority Business Consortium and the Black Leadership Kitchen Cabinet, among others—had run out of time to place an oversight expansion measure on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Despite the conflict that overshadowed those reform efforts, Zisser said he’s proud of the work his team accomplished this past year. They increased outreach and engagement, held two town-hall forums, prompted changes in how SJPD’s Internal Affairs unit investigates allegations involving physical force and racial profiling. They also called attention to SJPD neglecting to issue annual public reports on police shootings, something required by the department manual, and led a discussion on topics such as crisis intervention, body cameras and community policing.
Mayor Sam Liccardo commended Zisser for his service and wished him well in his next endeavor. “I respect his decision to step down and wish him well,” Liccardo said.
Shivaun Nurre, second-in-command at the police auditor’s office, will fill Zisser’s position until a permanent replacement is found, as she has done twice before upon the retirement of LaDoris Cordell and the departure of Walter Katz.
Zisser, whose last day on the job is Oct. 1, said he plans to continue his police oversight and law enforcement reform work in another capacity.
“I am eager to bring my skills and experience to reform efforts and to building and strengthening independent oversight around the region and nationally,” he said. “I have always sought to help communities accomplish real, lasting reform at those agencies that wield the implements of greatest governmental power and control and that therefore require the greatest scrutiny.”
Chief Garcia said he’s relieved by Zisser’s decision to bow out. “Now we can really start moving forward with someone that we could work with,” he said. “I wish him the best.”