Who is police oversight serving? Taser issue fuels ideological rift in Santa Clara County

Who is police oversight serving? Taser issue fuels ideological rift in Santa Clara County

SAN JOSE — Civil rights and social justice groups have been adamantly opposed to Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies being equipped with Tasers — and said so during a Board of Supervisors meeting in May reviewing such a proposal.

The board voted to cautiously move ahead with outfitting deputies with Tasers, ordering a report due in September that would sketch out a two-year pilot program and outline probable health impacts as well as address broad community concerns that such stun weapons have been used disproportionately on minorities across the country.

That deflated the community advocates who expressed those concerns said the sheriff’s civilian oversight body, the Office of Correctional and Law Enforcement Monitoring, did not present the supervisors with research that paints Tasers as far more deadly than their “less lethal than guns” billing suggests.

Since then, they have turned their ire toward the OIR Group, the Southern California-based company contracted to serve as the sheriff’s monitor. The local chapter of the NAACP and the Coalition for Justice and Accountability — made up of South Bay civil rights groups — criticized the company as being in step with the sheriff’s office and the board in a betrayal of its public trust.

The Rev. Jethroe “Jeff” Moore, the San Jose NAACP president, sent a letter to OIR Group lead Michael Gennaco and the board in June that elevated the ideological clash beyond the Taser issue and contends that what they are seeing was not what they expected five years ago when they heard that police oversight was coming to the county level.

“We want neutrality, to not just agree with the sheriff, and tell the board the truth,” Moore said in an interview. “Where’s the balance?”

Gennaco has had no problem saying his company is not in the business of telling the supervisors what they should and shouldn’t adopt, but to provide expertise and information about best policies and practices, and liabilities, after a decision is made.

“I’m aware of the issues, the pros and cons,” he said in an interview. “The advocates feel we should adopt their position. But as far as buying (Tasers) or banning, we’re not going there.”

For the most part, the supervisors, including the ones who led the way in establishing the monitor role, see Gennaco and his firm as carrying out the job they envisioned.

“I think OCLEM has done a remarkably good job,” Supervisor Joe Simitian said. “Does that mean any or all board members will agree on any and all subjects? Of course not. We still have obligation to exercise our best judgment independently.”

It might be instructive to consider that in the South Bay, the chief point of reference for police oversight is the Office of the Independent Police Auditor in San Jose. This auditor’s office has historically made policy recommendations, though it has no authority to compel the San Jose Police Department to adopt them.

LaDoris Cordell, who served as San Jose’s police auditor from 2010 to 2015 and whose work on a blue-ribbon county commission — spurred by the 2015 jail guard beating death of Michael Tyree — helped pave the way for oversight of the sheriff’s office, sees misalignment between expectations and what Gennaco’s company signed on to do when it took the job in 2020.

“The idea known to the community, is that as a monitor, you investigate complaints and recommend policies and procedures,” Cordell said.

She added that the current board request for the sheriff’s office and OIR Group to produce the Taser report could create trust issues for community members, arguing it positions the monitor to be seen as part of the effort to get Tasers adopted, only to be later tasked with scrutinizing claims of misuse.

“It’s muddying the waters,” Cordell said. “I don’t think the community is being unreasonable.”

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, the current board president, said that while she does not agree with the advocates’ view that the monitor is compromised, “that doesn’t mean I invalidate their concerns,” and plans to meet with them about the issue.

She emphasized how tailored the monitor contract is written, specifically that OIR Group reviews the legality and transparency of sheriff’s policies and practices, and makes policy recommendations only when existing practices run afoul of the law.

“I want them to tell us if what the sheriff’s office is doing is consistent with best practices. And then I as a policymaker want to take that information, integrate it with any other sources of information that I use, and make decisions,” said Ellenberg, who was the lone vote against the Taser proposal.

Simitian said there are ample instances of OIR Group being a foil to the sheriff’s office, alluding to scathing reports on the previous administration of longtime sheriff Laurie Smith and its handling of high-profile jail misconduct claims that led to multi-million dollar settlements by the county. The firm’s investigations also helped fuel a 2022 civil corruption trial that influenced Smith’s decision to retire and ended with her formal ouster from office.

“Anyone who read those reports will see that they did not pull punches in their assessment,” Simitian said.

Simitian added that the board created a civilian advisory body, the Community Correction and Law Enforcement Monitor board, specifically to take up the positions that OIR Group is steering clear of.

But Walter Wilson, a longtime civil rights activist who chairs the community board, says that CCLEM is given nowhere near the weight of OIR Group, making that a weak prospect.

“That’s why we are we are now,” Wilson said. “The board is not listening to us, so what is the point of this group if they don’t listen?”

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Raj Jayadev, co-founder of the social justice group Silicon Valley De-Bug, says the board response also ignores what oversight means to residents, particularly jail-impacted families and minority groups who are statistically more likely to see a Taser used against them.

“There is a measurable harm and danger in having these consulting firms occupy a role that in the public imagination is way more expansive and purposeful than what they actually do,” he said. “The only thing worse than not having civilian oversight is having one that doesn’t do what they expect it to do.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who with Simitian helmed the creation of the monitor role, joined her colleagues in voicing appreciation for how Gennaco and his company have handled their obligations. But she also said she always expected things to change.

“In a very real way, we were starting something new for us, and my expectation would be that we are learning and evolving as time goes on,” she said. “I never imagined that how we started is how it would stay. Anytime we’re doing something this important, there have to be ongoing discussions on how to make it better.”