San Jose police officers can remain on duty while suspended

San Jose cops suspended for misconduct may now be allowed to serve their suspension while still on duty, drawing concerns from the city's police watchdog and criminal justice experts.

Under the most recent labor contract between the city and police union, officers facing a suspension for violating a department policy or city ethics code may now be ordered back to work while taking a pay cut for a period of time.

The San Jose Police Officers' Association said the change, proposed by the city during negotiations last year, is needed because of a critical police staffing crisis. City officials said it's simply another option for issuing discipline that's already in use for most other city employee groups.

But Independent Police Auditor Shivaun Nurre, who noted the changed policy in her annual oversight report released on June 3, told San Jose Spotlight it raises transparency questions.

"If the department claims to take misconduct seriously, there are supposed to be consequences," Nurre said. "If they water down the consequences, I have a concern."

Officers do not get to choose the option, it must be assigned by a police department supervisor and approved by Human Resources Director Jennifer Schembri. The amount of time at reduced pay can vary to account for the money an officer would have been docked during a standard suspension.

Previously, when an officer faced a suspension, city policy required them to take unpaid time off work, losing their paycheck and other benefits for an amount of hours in line with their misconduct.

Officers are also able to negotiate a settlement with the city to serve a reduced number of suspension hours, with the remainder held off unless the officer commits the same misconduct again within a defined timeframe, usually a few years, officials said.

Greg Woods, a senior lecturer in San Jose State University's Department of Justice Studies, said the change to the suspension policy appears too deferential to SJPD, and could further erode trust in police in the city.

"It's almost like we're rewarding bad behavior," Woods told San Jose Spotlight. "Will we now be subjecting ourselves to having ethically challenged officers on patrol in San Jose, though at a reduced pay? Does that equal accountability? I think there are members of the community who would absolutely, emphatically disagree."

Tom Saggau, a police union spokesperson, said he thinks the change isn't a big deal, as a suspended officer still faces the punishment of an equivalent loss in earnings.

"When you're suspended there are two things that happen. One is you lose your pay. The other is you can have your feet up at the beach," Saggau told San Jose Spotlight. "You can go off on a Hawaiian vacation on those days off if you want to. So instead of that, they're taking the (financial) hit and still being able to deliver public safety services."

The San Jose City Council approved the new policy in December, and from Jan. 1 through June 5 of this year, four police officers and one community service officer have been suspended. One police officer was fired. Three of the four suspended police officers, and the community service officer, were assigned pay reductions to fulfill their suspensions, according to city data.

Schembri agreed the key punishment of a suspension is a reduction in pay. She also noted city investigations and an officer's due process rights typically mean they return to work after a violation, even under a standard suspension.

"Quite often, there's a great time span between when the event or conduct occurred, and when the suspension occurs," Schembri told San Jose Spotlight.

Schembri also said suspensions are about setting a standard of conduct, and the city isn't putting bad cops back on the street.

"I think if the city felt we had an officer that did something that was egregious where they shouldn't be an officer and shouldn't be on the streets, then the recommendation would be termination, not a suspension," she said.

Woods acknowledges there may be good reasons driving the policy change, such as the need to keep police response times reasonable. But these changes indicate a move away from broad community calls for more stringent police oversight in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, which led to mass protests against police brutality and violence against protestors by police.

"We tend to forget the lessons of this era that we're still emerging from," Woods said.