The Back Story: Cops, Crime, & Campaigns

Sam Liccardo
15 min readNov 6, 2022


I’ve generally stayed quiet in the mayoral campaign; candidates should take center stage, and not outgoing mayors. It’s not a secret that I endorse and support Matt Mahan in this mayoral election, of course. In recent weeks, though, it’s been increasingly hard to watch quietly as increasingly shrill accusations about public safety stray farther from the truth.

So, I’m speaking up. Yes, I’m doing so because I believe that Cindy Chavez and the powerful police unions and other unions — which have spent more than $4.8 million through political action committees (PACs) to support her candidacy — are trying to win an election by misleading voters. But there’s more at stake than a single election: manipulative scare tactics debase and undermine our democracy.

Here’s the gist of it: Supervisor Chavez repeatedly points fingers at City leaders for the City’s thin police staffing as the cause of crime. The problem with her argument is that the data shows otherwise: in the very period when violent crime has grown (since about 2016), we have expanded SJPD’s force by about 200 officers, from 920 to 1122 filled sworn positions. (Please don’t take my word for any of this — click through the hyperlinks to more objective sources). Nobody denies that we should do all we can to add police officers, but if Supervisor Chavez was right about police staffing and violent crime, we’d be seeing violent crime drop as we’ve added positions — but we haven’t.

Obviously, there are other factors at play here. It takes more than cops to make a safe community. Under my tenure, the City has expanded many crime prevention programs, including unprecedented investment in education and jobs for at-risk teens and young adults, neighborhood empowerment, gang prevention, and response to mental health crises. But if all of these programs have expanded, why is violent crime still rising?

Supervisor Chavez would do well to look at her own County jail. Several community members and the San José Police Chief joined me in June to blow the whistle on the County’s increasingly lax release policies at the jails — which forced SJPD officers to arrest or cite 103 of the same repeat criminals more than ten times in a 16-month period, for example — due to a “spinning turnstile” at the jail door. Supervisor Chavez has publicly led the effort to “depopulate the jails,” as the county puts it, without sufficient alternatives — such as detoxification and inpatient drug treatment — to keep the community safe. She now claims it’s the judges, and not the County’s fault. Yet County records show that the policies that she has urged have resulted in County officials consistently releasing inmates through a “jail citation” process without review by any judge.

Below, you’ll see a brief summary of three issues relating to our public safety — police staffing, County jail release policies, and funding shortfalls — followed by much lengthier descriptions of the issues and sources. Again, I’ve included hyperlinks to more objective sources and data, so you won’t have to take my word for any of it:

  1. Police Staffing: Facts and Folly

The truth doesn’t have a multi-million-dollar ad campaign behind it. As a result, many residents would be surprised to hear the truth about SJPD staffing, such as that:

2. The County’s Role in Releasing High-Frequency Criminal Offenders

In a single 14-month period, SJPD officers arrested or cited 103 individuals at least 10 times each, only to see them back on the street due to the “spinning turnstile” at the County jail. Predictably, those “frequent flyers” committed new crimes in San Jose neighborhoods — County data shows almost half of their arrestees violating the conditions of their release in 2020 and 2021. Contrary to Supervisor Chavez’s finger-pointing at the judges, County officials have been releasing many inmates without any judicial review, at least since she led a bail reform effort in 2017, and County documents demonstrate it. Cindy Chavez’s advocacy for a “jail depopulation” policy might not have been harmful if the County had boosted safe alternatives, such as inpatient treatment, drug detoxification, and additional supervision of released arrestees. They didn’t.

3. The $4 Billion Source of SJPD’s Officer Staffing Problems

The Mercury News’ editorial board’s recent endorsement of Matt Mahan pointed at how Cindy Chavez’s last turn at the helm in San Jose put the City into a $ 4 billion fiscal ditch of unfunded retirement benefits. Paying the annual cost of that debt forced dramatic budget cuts that had officers leaving the department in droves more than a decade ago. Although we’ve restored some of those losses, a return to the days of giveaways by elected officials currying favor with unions will put us back where we started.

1. Police Staffing: Facts and Folly

  • Defund the Police”

The last time that police staffing aroused controversy in San Jose, I refused the demands of some protesters to “defund the police” in June of 2020. At one of several demonstrations in front of my wife’s and my home, protesters spray-painted expletives across the front of our house, and on our porch and front door. I defied the demands of the protesters to defund the police for a simple reason: our community wants– and our public safety demands–more police officers.

I never heard Cindy Chavez speak up against defunding the police, nor have I read about her doing so. It wasn’t “comfortable” for many elected leaders to speak up for the importance of funding police departments to protect our most crime-impacted neighborhoods. Many large cities cut their police budgets to appease protesters, and most of those cities have seen larger rises in crime than has San José. Yet we increased the San Jose police budget that month — and in every one of the eight years I’ve served as Mayor — after enduring many hours of angry testimony from “defund the police” advocates. I would have welcomed Supervisor Chavez advocating for police staffing at any of those public hearings — but she didn’t show up.

Adding Police Officers

Here’s what we’ve done about police staffing: In the last eight years, I worked with colleagues at the City to identify the dollars to expand officer staffing at SJPD, such as negotiating a historic pension reform effort with 11 unions, reducing retirement obligations, paying down city debt, and seeking voter approval for revenues to restore police positions. Over eight successive budgets, we increased the San Jose Police Department budget by 50% since I became mayor in 2015. The result: while many other city police departments have shrunk in recent years, San José added more than 200 sworn officers in the last half-decade. We’re continuing to push to expand our ranks today; the Council approved my proposed budget that added another 20 officer positions this June, focusing on boosting walking patrols. We also voted to “build in” additions of dozens more officers in the next five years’ base budgets,

In all of those eight years, the first time I read about Cindy Chavez saying anything about police staffing came in her mayoral campaign a few weeks ago, when she joined the police union at press conferences to fill headlines with dire warnings of a looming “mass exodus” of SJPD officers. As the Mercury News account observed, all of this coincidentally occurred while the police union was at the negotiating with the City, seeking a very large pay increase — at the time, a 14% pay increase, with a $5,000 “cash bonus.” The police union, of course, has been the leading the charge in gathering $4.8 million of mostly union contributions to political action committees (PAC’s) to support Chavez’s mayoral candidacy — dwarfing the contributions supporting her opponent, Matt Mahan. The source of those contributions? The union dues deduced from the paycheck of nearly every officer. So yes, your tax dollars support the police union’s millions in advocacy with Cindy Chavez to pay them more — with your tax dollars.

This is already irony-rich territory, but here’s even more irony: the vacancy rate of officers at SJPD is about 4.5% today. That’s the lowest vacancy rate of any of our City departments, and one of the very lowest vacancy rates of any large-city police department in the state. Even the police union conceded in a recent letter to City negotiators that “it is not inaccurate to state that the vacancy rate for sworn officers is low.” I explained police staffing in greater detail a few weeks ago, which you can read here.

  • Officer Pay

As suggested above, the police union enlisted Chavez in their effort scare voters about a non-existent “SJPD exodus” to elicit more money at the bargaining table. Not only is there no “exodus,” but pay is the least of the SJPD’s problems. Police union members earn an average annual salary, including overtime, that exceeds $189,000. T hat’s not a typo; it’s about $189,200 for all ranks, and among the “officer” classification, the average salary exceeds $164,000, making SJPD the highest-paid group of employees in the City. And that doesn’t include benefits like pensions or health care.

I supported every one of those pay increases in the last decade because our many good officers earn — and deserve — every dollar. But before anyone — including any mayoral candidate — tries to scare you into believing that low pay is driving a “mass exodus” at SJPD, consider that among the 17 large departments in the Bay Area to which SJPD is routinely compared in police wage surveys, San Jose has the third-highest paid officers in the region. And that’s a region that has the very highest police salaries in the United States.

The Plank In the County’s Eye

In all of her criticism over San José Police staffing, County Supervisor Chavez has overlooked the severe staffing shortfalls in her own County Sheriff’s Department, which she oversees as a County Supervisor. In June, her County Sheriff threatened to shut down two County courthouses due to a “staffing crisis” that shrank the number of County deputies from 530 deputy sheriffs in 2019 to only 370 today. I don’t blame Cindy Chavez for the problems with the Sheriff’s Department — even though it would be easy to do so, because she votes on their budget and policies, and because of her longstanding political support for recently-convicted Sheriff Laurie Smith. Nonetheless, I don’t blame her because the truth matters, and I know that every major police and sheriff’s department in the nation struggles to hire officers and sheriff’s deputies, particularly since the fallout of George Floyd’s murder.

I do believe that Cindy Chavez should consider her own role in contributing to the budgetary challenges that have undermined SJPD, however. We’ll return to that issue shortly.

2. The County’s — and Supervisor Chavez’s — Role in Releasing High-Frequency Criminal Offenders

In July of this year, a coalition of concerned residents, small business owners, the San Jose Police Department, and the San Jose Mayor’s office publicly exposed problems with excessive releases of County jail inmates resulting from the “jail depopulation” policies championed by Supervisor Chavez. These policies were exacerbated by a pandemic-related bail order of local Superior Court judges that gave the County additional authority to release inmates without a judge’s review.

Together, those policies resulted in a spinning turnstile at the jailhouse door:

San José Police Chief Anthony Mata expressed in that July press release that “the high rate of releases of jail arrestees–too many charged with serious crimes or with repeat crimes–has made our officers’ work protecting the safety of our community more difficult.” Here is what the data showed for a span of only 28 months between January 2020 and April 2022:

¹ See page 17 of the County report in the hyperlink for the relevant data. Although some officials publicly assert that released arrestees commit new crimes between only 5% and 7.5% of the time (p.10), the County’s own August 5, 2021 report to the Public Safety and Justice Committee shows (pp. 16–17) that such statements are misleadingly incomplete. The County’s own “success rate” reports combine arrest data with failures to appear in court and other violations. Moreover, rapidly growing caseloads of pretrial service officers (p. 13) make supervision increasingly thin, in the view of several sources, making it extremely unlikely that all or most criminal violations are being accurately detected.

In short, the data shows that a few hundred offenders took advantage of the County’s release policies to commit crime frequently in San Jose, with little consequence. For a typical meth-addicted burglar, for example, a few days in jail would at least have provided sufficient time to come off the drug and interrupt (or slow) their pattern of rampant criminal activity. While most released arrestees committed, at worst, other low-level crimes, several others (as described more fully in this hyperlink) have done far worse, as some media reports have detailed cases of homicide, child molestation, and felony domestic violence.

  • The County’s Role

A half-decade ago, as a “zero bail” movement gathered steam among many California counties, and Supervisor Chavez vocally supported efforts to release in-custody arrestees, proposing alternately to have non-profits or even the County pick up the cost of bail for inmates. Three years later, the Santa Clara County Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Susan Ellenberg proposed through a formal memorandum an explicit policy of ‘depopulating the jails’ that the Board adopted. That policy would continue to constrict jail capacity–reflected by the County’s floundering jail replacement plans–and ultimately release habitual criminals back to neighborhoods in the name of reducing jail populations.

Supervisor Chavez (and her County Executive Jeff Smith) have repeatedly urged in the media that “we’re not the judges” with the authority to grant bail or release inmates. That’s precisely the problem: at the prodding of Chavez and the Board, the County is releasing inmates anyway.

Since at least 2017, County officials have released likely hundreds of inmates from County jails without seeking approval from a judge, through what the County Counsel calls a “Jail Citation,” a process that is described in detail on page 6 of a November 16, 2021 County memorandum that you can find here. In fact, the form displayed below is still used by County officials, requiring releases of many misdemeanor arrestees without any judicial review. As you’ll see from the document, the County’s rules would appear to require release of some misdemeanor arrestees even if they had a prior record of violent crime–such as the murder suspect in the Bambi Larson killing–or evidence of multiple failures to show up in court:

The very bottom of the document reveals its issuance by the County Executive (“CEO’s Office”) in 2017, the same year that the County completed work on a “two year effort by a bail release work group set up by the county and spearheaded by Suprvisor Cindy Chavez” to reduce jail populations with more pretrial releases, according to the Mercury News.

To be fair, much of the problem was exacerbated by a series of pandemic-era orders that had Superior Court judges conceding release authority for hundreds of inmates to County officials. After meetings with judges, op-eds, and a July press conference to expose problems with excessive releases, those bail orders were allowed to expire, and jail populations have restored somewhat in recent months.

Yet the problem had earlier roots — starting with Chavez’s efforts to depopulate County jails many years ago, and those problems endure today, particularly with the County’s practice of releasing inmates without a judge’s review or order.

Undoubtedly, many good reasons support a reform of jail release policies, particularly those mired in racially and economically discriminatory practices of the past. Yet we should all agree that the decision requires a view of many competing factors — including public safety. Those decisions are best left to judges, and not to unaccountable County bureaucrats. More importantly, the County pushed through these policy changes without sufficient alternatives–such as drug detoxification, inpatient drug treatment, or sufficient supervision–that would address the safety threats. (Although the County did deploy hundreds more ankle monitors to released arrestees, it lacks anywhere near the staff to adequately supervise those individuals.)

For more information and original source documents, check the footnote below for hyperlinks to key County documents and statistics.²

² For more information:

3. The $4 Billion Source of SJPD’s Officer Staffing Problems

When the Mercury News editorial board recently endorsed Chavez’s opponent, Matt Mahan, it described Chavez as the “driving force for the costly pension benefits that plague the city to this day, requiring a reduction of the size of the city’s police force and severe cuts to library hours and parks maintenance work.”

Here’s why: Two decades ago, during her tenure as San Jose Vice Mayor and as organized labor’s leading voice on the Council, Chavez and City unions urged the Council to dramatically expand retirement benefits, particularly for public safety employees. Chavez and the rest of the City Council approved retroactive increases in retirement benefits for police officers and other City employees. That meant that many employees received benefits that they didn’t fully pay for — and that nobody had budgeted for. That Council also appointed union-friendly retirement board members who applied optimistic assumptions and rosy interpretations of the retirement plans’ shaky financial condition. In return, the POA, Fire, and other unions backed Chavez in her unsuccessful November 2006 mayoral run, with dollars, hundreds of volunteers, and campaign muscle. History repeats itself.

Two years after Chavez’s departure from the City Council, the City’s Auditor and external analyses revealed that San Jose had incurred billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities for pension and retiree health benefits due to multiple factors, including retroactive benefit expansions and rosy assumptions. In the decade following the benefit expansion votes by Chavez and her colleagues, the City’s annual required contributions to the pension funds quadrupled, squeezing every other City budgetary priority, from parks to streets to police.

The skyrocketing retirement fund payments forced hundreds of layoffs, a hiring freeze, and severe cuts in city services–including police–in the following decade. Our taxpayers will shoulder that multi-billion-dollar debt for another decade still, based on the current amortization schedule.

There is good news on the horizon, though: with the passage of Measure F in 2016 and strong fiscal discipline, we have finally turned the corner this year, and the annual retirement cost burdens on our taxpayers have finally begun to drop. If we maintain fiscal discipline, we will steadily see more General Fund dollars available to allocate to police and many other underfunded services.

Yet we cannot forget the lessons of history: a lack of fiscal discipline by the City Council twenty years ago triggered severe pain for our residents and workforce, from which we have only begun to recover. We should support our police officers with good salaries, and we do. But we need sufficiently independent City leadership that can exercise the fiscal restraint to pay our cops — and for many other critical City services that our residents (and taxpayers) deserve.