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In San Jose, The Public Has An Eye On Police Conduct


It is a story that's played out in cities across this country. Black men dying after encounters with the police and the public outcry that follows. The latest case is Freddie Gray, a young African-American man who died in police custody in Baltimore. Gray's funeral will be held tomorrow. This case, like the ones in Ferguson and Staten Island, N.Y., have - has raised questions about police conduct and brought demands for stronger civilian oversight. Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell is the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose, Calif. We asked her to explain how civilian oversight works in her city.

JUDGE LADORIS CORDELL: The way the auditor model works is that when we get a complaint, we don't investigate. The police department's internal affair units investigates the complaint. But then once they investigate, they're required to write a report about their investigation. And our job is to audit that report to ensure that their analysis was objective and unbiased.

MARTIN: In your experience, are you usually satisfied with their investigations? And if you're not, when you disagree, what happens then?

CORDELL: So if we just look at 2014, our office agreed with about 84 percent of the investigations and the findings from the police department that were conducted by the internal affairs unit. When we disagree, our process is to take that disagreement back to the internal affairs unit and explain what our disagreement is. Maybe the investigation wasn't thorough, or we may say your analysis was not unbiased. It was biased in favor of the officer.

MARTIN: Are they compelled to take action then?

CORDELL: Our office can't make the police department do a thing. So we go back, and if we have to, and very rarely do we ever do this, appeal what they have done to the boss of the police chief. In San Jose, that's the city manager. We very rarely utilize it.

MARTIN: Can you give us an example of when you were able to make real change within the department because of the oversight that you have?

CORDELL: Sure. One example is this. When I first began my work as the independent police auditor, I saw police officers requiring people they had detained sitting on the curbs. And when I asked a police officer about it, I was told, well, we do this for officer safety. And when I asked for further explanation, what I got was, well, if I have detained five gang bangers, and it's just me, I'm going to have them sit on the curb, and I'm going to have them cross their legs so that it takes a little more time to uncross to get up and either run or to attack me. I understood that.

But what I was hearing in the community, especially in communities of color, was that it was mostly people of color being made to sit on the curb and for traffic stops, for example. So what I did starting about two years ago was pushed - our office pushed very hard to get the police department to collect data on every single pedestrian stop and vehicle stop that did not result in an arrest or a citation and to document the person's age, race, the reason for the stop and what the officers made these individuals do when they were detained. So we should have that data soon.

MARTIN: Do you have a good relationship with the police department? You can see how there would be a tension kind of inherent in this dynamic.

CORDELL: It's a very good relationship in that we sometimes disagree. We're not disagreeable with one another, that is the chief and I. We meet regularly. And with the Police Officers Association, the POA, my relationship is a good one. They understand that I will not hesitate to criticize, but at the same time, I don't hesitate to say to them when they're going doing a good job to let the public know that. I haven't mentioned this to you, but I am African-American. So in this role, one has to walk a very delicate line. Can things be improved? Absolutely. The big issue right now facing all police departments I believe is the issue of implicit bias in policing, which is unconscious bias. But it used to be that race was the elephant in the room. But in policing, it is no longer that way. People are now talking about it, not just the community, but the police themselves.

MARTIN: LaDoris Cordell is the independent police auditor for the city of San Jose, Calif. She retires from the post this summer. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Judge Cordell, thank you so much.

CORDELL: My pleasure, and thank you for dealing with this issue. It's so important. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.