Police chief responds to concerns

Virtual town hall addresses department policies

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Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee and other city officials answered a lengthy list of questions about local law enforcement oversight and accountability in a June 25 online forum.

Smithee delivered opening remarks about the police reform sentiments that have swept the nation since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody. Among the “challenges” faced by Gilroy and other police departments is an apparent shortage of qualified candidates willing to enter law enforcement careers.

“The most important thing is, when we go through the hiring process, we have to hire the right people,” Smithee said during the June 25 forum, which was broadcast on Facebook and other online platforms. “When we hire, we look for people that are passionate about making a positive difference in the lives of the people that we serve in Gilroy.”

He added, “Police work is so challenging that trying to find people to hire has gotten to the point we have not been able to hire enough people to bring our (department) to full staffing.”

As an example, Smithee said in the last year, three “brand new officers” at Gilroy PD decided law enforcement was not a career for them and quit their new jobs, even after graduating from the police academy and making it through the hiring process.

At the conclusion of the June 25 Q&A session, Smithee said the young people who are increasingly active about police and government reform should consider law enforcement as a career. 

“You can help make these changes from the inside,” Smithee said.

The June 25 session was part of a series of virtual town hall-type forums known as “Straight Talk,” conducted by the City of Gilroy. Interim City Administrator Jimmy Forbis moderated the session and read questions for Smithee. The questions were submitted beforehand by members of the public. Forbis said he received more than 60 questions about local police department policies, practices and other public safety issues.

Forbis said a key goal of sessions like the June 25 “Straight Talk” is to generate ongoing discussion and more openness between city officials and Gilroy residents.

In response to a question about how the Gilroy Police Department investigates allegations of misconduct or policy violations among its officers, Smithee revealed that the department has upheld complaints or findings against 12 officers in the last five years. That’s out of a total of 21 internal investigations against officers in the same time period.

Smithee specified that these investigations are related to complaints or investigations of internal policy violations among officers, and not criminal conduct. He didn’t offer further details about any discipline toward any of the 12 officers whose complaints were sustained over the last five years, nor the specific allegations.

In response to a question asking for clarification about Smithee’s previous announcement that Gilroy PD is “suspending” the use of the carotid hold among its officers, the chief said the technique “could be reinstated” based on likely legislation at the state and federal levels. Smithee said while the carotid hold is now considered a “lower level” use of force method, higher authorities could specify that officers can use the restraint at times when “lethal force” is appropriate.

The carotid restraint, if applied correctly, is not intended to result in serious injury or death. It is designed to briefly cut off a subject’s flow of blood to the brain, rendering the person unconscious while police detain them, according to authorities.

Smithee noted more than once during the June 25 forum that homelessness and mental health are among the biggest public safety challenges facing Gilroy, and these are both “driven by a huge drug addiction problem.”

He acknowledged that people suffering from these issues cannot often be helped by being arrested and prosecuted. Smithee said officers try to direct these subjects to appropriate professionals and assistance programs before deciding to arrest them for any apparent low-level crimes.

Forbis asked Smithee numerous additional questions about local police department policies, accountability, internal disciplinary actions, use of force, the department’s compliance with state and federal regulations and training requirements. The entire session is posted as a video on the Gilroy Police Department’s Facebook page.