There is no honor amongst thieves, especially drug dealers who dabble in thievery. In the early afternoon of July 24 last year, a man arrived in San Jose with a backpack full of marijuana. He intended to trade its contents for cocaine, according to a police report. But when he met another man in a Safeway parking lot on the south side of San Jose, the drop was squarely on the pot peddler, and he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
Somehow the weed courier grabbed the weapon and made a run for it. He didn’t get far. The suspect who lost his pistol proceeded to get in a car and run down the man in flight, dragging his body approximately 50 yards—half the length of a football field—before fleeing the scene. The victim was transported to the hospital with severe, but not life threatening, flesh wounds.
Dumb criminal stories, in which ill-conceived misdeeds stack up exponentially, can inspire forehead palm prints and website posts. For the top brass of the San Jose Police Department, the sequence of events inspired an amateur comedy hour.
In an email sent to three of the department’s highest-ranking officers, Police Chief Larry Esquivel set the tone for the laugh-in with an email time-stamped 8:09am the next morning. Esquivel included the blotter report and the message: “Lol…really?!?!”
Deputy Chief Dave Knopf, who oversees the department’s Bureau of Administrations, took the boss’ cue in the first reply by asking Lt. Anthony Mata, who oversees the department’s Research & Development unit, to reach out to the victim and advise him about how to register for a city-approved medical marijuana collective.
“There’s no cocaine allowed, but at least he can sell his [marijuana] without getting ran [sic] over by a car!” Knopf noted.
Mata responded: “just called the hospital and he checked out…i’l [sic] send a drone to his house,” before adding a follow-up email with a since-removed YouTube link and a requisite “munchies” joke.
Assistant Chief Eddie Garcia, SJPD’s second in command, couldn’t resist getting in on the fun and sent two emails. Perhaps unsure if his first joke hit the mark, Garcia’s second message mocked the growing concern among community members that crime is on the rise in San Jose.
“Can you people keep my City safe please!” Garcia wrote.
The exchange might be funnier if it wasn’t the latest example of unprofessional behavior in the department. Pop culture tells us to expect veteran homicide detectives to slowly remove sunglasses in the twilight of a grisly murder scene and whisper to their partner, “Guess who ain’t coming to dinner?” (Answer: the dead guy.) But there is an expectation for the police chief to be above the fray, or at least know better than to begin his workday using his city-furnished email account to make fun of injured crime victims.
“It’s not [appropriate],” Esquivel admitted last week in a phone interview, after initially declining San Jose Inside’s request to talk. “It’s stuff that we probably could do a better job of. Sometimes humor probably should not be conveyed—that kind of humor at all, in any case. Believe me, there’s things we could do better on.”
Those “things” are explicitly laid out in hundreds of emails between the city’s top crime fighters, which were obtained through a public records request. The missives provide an echo chamber for the bro culture that permeates a department where morale has admittedly bottomed out.
Over the last year, Esquivel and his command staff have sent emails that suggest indifference for rules on accepting gifts while also routinely disparaging civilian oversight by the city manager’s office and elected officials—the bedrock of a democracy. Garcia, who is frequently mentioned as Esquivel’s inside track successor when the chief retires, has shown a particular disdain for concerns raised by anyone outside the command staff’s inner circle.
With police leadership that projects an unflinching face in public but follows a different code when it thinks nobody is looking, officials at City Hall are starting to wonder if the San Jose Police Department is in even worse shape than previously imagined.
San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel says emails between him and his command staff don’t reflect their true character. (Photo via Twitter)
San Jose Police Chief Larry Esquivel says emails between him and his command staff don’t reflect their true character. (Photo via Twitter)
‘Terrible Way to Lead’
Over the last six years, pay cuts, aggressive pension reforms and a perpetual media battle between the police union and City Hall have facilitated an exodus of nearly a third of San Jose’s police officers through retirements and resignations. Amidst this all, reports surfaced of SJPD officers badmouthing elected officials to residents, gleefully passing around a traffic ticket for the former mayor, accepting inappropriate gifts, broadcasting cloaked threats on Twitter and dispensing with community outreach when adding new tools and weaponry to its arsenal. It’s a phenomenon by no means limited to San Jose, as America’s local law enforcement agencies become increasingly militarized.
Unbeknownst to elected officials and the civilian appointees who oversee the department, the police department’s top brass has in many ways set the tone for the culture of disrespect for citizens who pay their salaries, as well as the outright contempt for the representatives whom the voters elect. SJPD command staff has frequently vented frustration over directions from the city manager’s office—which suffered its own leadership upheaval last month—but only after removing certain recipients from email chains.
Throughout the past year, emails show, recently elected Mayor Sam Liccardo leaned heavily on Esquivel and Garcia during his time as a councilman to address concerns that ranged from street prostitution south of downtown and recruiting officers from the Vietnamese community to complaints that officers actively politicked on the clock.
In one such instance, Liccardo threatened in a late September email to start sending citizen complaints directly to Internal Affairs, the branch that self-investigates cops, rather than give Garcia and Esquivel a heads-up to ferret out misconduct. Ed Shikada, the city manager Liccardo ousted after winning the mayor’s race, instructed Esquivel and Garcia to begin telling staff on a weekly basis to refrain from making political statements to residents.
In a Sept. 20 reply email, Esquivel told Shikada that he’d “already made it a priority for staff discussion.” But not everyone was on board. Garcia sent a message that same day fuming, “We’re going to reprimand staff no less than weekly, for something that isn’t occurring????!!!!!! Terrible way to lead..”
It’s worth noting that Liccardo has been grooming Garcia for the chief position, according to City Hall sources. When the mayor-elect began to assemble a transition team in December to streamline his entry into the office, Liccardo made a noteworthy choice by including Garcia as one of just eight members—and the only city employee. But emails appear to show Garcia—described by many as gregarious and an articulate public speaker—is too immature for the top slot.
In the final weeks of the mayor’s race, local media latched on to a former cadet’s claim that the police union president had encouraged her and other recruits to leave the department. She wrote an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News stating that the union meant to keep SJPD understaffed and hurt Liccardo’s candidacy. In an Oct. 20 email, Shikada told Esquivel and Garcia that the city’s new workers comp and benefits communication rep, Roger Hurtado, should be present for all future academy sessions in which police union reps address recruits.
Garcia proceeded to take Shikada off the email thread and vented in a manner consistent to other messages he thought were private—despite using his city email account, which is subject to public records requests.
“Geeeezus!!!!” Garcia wrote. “Can he let us work thru this!!!!”
Garcia told San Jose Inside that he’s “embarrassed” and offered an apology “for having vented in that manner on a couple of issues.” But emails show he and the command staff often express frustration or outright contempt when they believe no one is watching. Their liberal use of consecutive question marks and exclamation points is gratuitous and juvenile, yet it also emphasizes their dissatisfaction. One could argue San Jose’s top cops are in many ways guilty of disregarding the very instructions they’re being asked to deliver to the troops—not talking trash behind their bosses’ backs on company time.
“It’s definitely concerning,” said David Vossbrink, the city’s communications director. “I think the concern is kind of the tone of leadership and the level of professionalism and respect you’ve cited.”
In October, media outlets across the nation picked up on stories regarding the cozy relationship between the San Jose Police Department and San Francisco 49ers. In addition to extensive secondary employment work for the team, which the chief has since suspended, top command staff was found to have repeatedly violated policies that forbid officers from accepting gifts of a certain value, and specifically tickets to sporting events.
In back-to-back years, Asst. Chief Garcia received tickets to 49er games, as did Deputy Chief Jeff Marozick and Police Chief Esquivel. All three officers were forced to reimburse the club for the cost of tickets. Esquivel told San Jose Inside that he and his command staff were “reprimanded in terms of policies,” and “little things probably could have been done differently.”
But newly discovered emails suggest SJPD top officers continue to misunderstand or outright flout ordinances pertaining to gifts.
In several emails to a department spokesman who handled media requests regarding the 49ers tickets, Garcia wrote he was “so over this … lol,” adding that he doesn’t “really know where the story is here” because he reimbursed the cost.
Norberto Dueñas, interim city manager of San Jose and a personal friend of Esquivel and Garcia (in one exchange Dueñas and Garcia call each other “brother” in emails), told San Jose Inside that’s simply not the case.
“We do training. We have policies in place. We know what the threshold is on the limits of what we can accept. We do that over and over again. That was bad judgment. They should have known better,” Dueñas said.
Garcia also accepted luxury suite tickets to a San Francisco Giants game last spring, writing “I’m in!!!! :)” when a representative from NextDoor.com made the offer. For unknown reasons he did not attend.
But tickets to a few sporting events could be worth pennies on the dollar compared to services the command staff has received from Barry Rhein, a management and sales coach who prefers to end his emails with the sign-off, “Bigs hugs bro :)”
Early last year, Rhein met with Chief Esquivel and his command staff to assess their personal and professional goals and discuss how to make them better leaders—here or with other police departments. The back and forth messages are filled with the kind of uplifting marketing-speak one might expect from an Andy Samberg spoof about cops bettering themselves. But throughout the emails no discussion of payment is ever mentioned—except for an email deputy chief Phan Ngo sent expressing his concern to Garcia.
“I think it’s great that Barry wants to provide on-going team and individual coaching to us, but if this is done for gratis it may create a conflict of interest because he’s a SJPD reserve officer—a subordinate to all of us,” Ngo said. “If we were to move forward as is, essentially he will be providing a service for free, that he would charge other people, because this is what he does for a living.”
Garcia did not respond to that email, and subsequent messages show that command staff went ahead and accepted Rhein’s coaching—although one could argue, based on the emails, that his services didn’t exactly improve leadership and communication.
Rhein did not respond to requests for comment, but Esquivel told San Jose Inside that he viewed the meetings as “in-house training” which did not represent a gift. He added that he mentioned the coaching to Debra Figone, the longtime San Jose city manager who retired in late 2013. This would have occurred before Ngo’s concerned email.
The problem with the arrangement, however, occurs on several levels: First, Rhein’s responsibilities as a low-level reserve officer almost certainly do not include coaching the police chief; second, his services could have been contracted as a city expense but no paperwork exists for such an agreement; third, the coaching would have to be considered a gift as it was not conducted during his time “on the clock” and services were extended only to a select few rather than the whole department; fourth, the services almost certainly exceed monetary limits on acceptable gifts, as Rhein’s client list includes multi-billion dollar corporations such as HP, SAP, IBM and Oracle; and finally, there is potential that a quid pro quo occurred. Esquivel recently approved Rhein’s application for a highly coveted concealed weapon permit.
On the weapons permit, Dueñas admitted: “That would be a concern.”
One of the great ironies to be found in the SJPD command staff emails is the contempt in which top officers view transparency. This contempt, of course, would never truly be known unless conversations were held in a forum such as emails, which are subject to public record.
In August of last year, SJPD found itself under fire after the website Muckrock published documents that showed police had quietly acquired a drone through a grant program funded by the Department of Homeland Security. The decision to acquire the $8,000 drone was made with the City Council’s approval despite no public discussion, leading the ACLU, concerned citizens and community activists to express privacy concerns.
In a rare instance of proactive public relations, SJPD admitted that it should have conducted outreach beforehand and announced it would hold a series of community meetings to address concerns.
“In hindsight, SJPD missed an opportunity of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the UAS device to our community,” read a department press release. “The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project.”
But internal emails show a much different tone from command staff on how SJPD should use its new toy. In an Aug. 7 email to the chief, Asst. Chief Garcia voiced frustration with having to report to the city manager’s office on drone use.
“How many People do we need to run this by?!” he vented. “Geeezus!”
A day later, communications director Vossbrink chimed in to an email chain between the city manager’s office and SJPD command staff by suggesting the city “include critics and skeptics so that they’re part of whatever process we develop and thus enhance transparency.”
Garcia sent a private email to Esquivel and Lt. Mata with the response: “0 M G !!!!!!!!!!!!”
More emails show Garcia and other command staff bristle at the thought that civilians or elected officials should be included in the process. On Sept. 29, after some back and forth regarding the drone with Jennifer McGuire, then budget director in the city manager’s office, Garcia wrote a private email to Esquivel that read: “Bro….. I’m kinda speechless. They are terrible.”
When asked what he meant, Garcia said he wasn’t sure. “I will say during the time there was a lot of hoops to jump through, but I don’t know specifically who I was referring to,” he said.
While the emails seem to suggest SJPD command staff has one persona in public but another when they believe no one is paying attention, Chief Esquivel appeared to distance himself from comments made by his No. 2.
“Eddie can speak for himself,” Esquivel told San Jose Inside. “I know you’re talking about one or maybe two emails. I deal with thousands of emails. That’s not really who I am. I consider myself very professional. I’m proud to wear this badge and I’m truly committed to making this organization better. So, it’s not where we put on one hat and then put on another when we’re not in front of the public. I’m not a politician.”
Liccardo, who most certainly is a politician, declined to speak on the contents of the emails, instead ceding judgment on the matter to Dueñas, his newly installed interim city manager.
“The city has policies for using email and other communications, and we are all subject to those policies and rules,” Liccardo said. “I’m confident the city manager is going to handle this appropriately.”
Josh Koehn is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.