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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Assessing the Davis Ombudsman Position: Part 1

On the night that Davis City Council put the Human Relations Commission on “hiatus” one comment caught my attention. Outgoing Councilman Ted Puntillo said:

“They told us their concerns of no oversight, no this, no that. We tried to compromise and we came up with a blue ribbon panel and I think if you know who’s on that blue ribbon panel, you respect everyone of those people. We also came up with a professional ombudsman who does this for a living. But, you know what, that was just rejected out of hand, wouldn’t even consider that… At least give it a chance, how can you reject something that you don’t even know how it works. So that tells me right there that this commission is not even trying to work with us.”

The charge that the ombudsman was not given a chance is an effective one. But an analysis of the implemented Ombudsman model reveals several potentially damaging weakness in the proposal.

In what follows over the next six or seven days, I will breakdown the ombudsman proposal as follows:

  • Questions about the intent of the implementers, the City Council, City Manager, and Police Chief
  • Apparent weaknesses in the implemented ombudsman position
  • Concerns about the support committees the Community Advisory Board (CAB) and the Police Advisory Board (PAC)
  • Alternatives and suggestions for improvement

In my decision to do this series, it was most difficult to find the proper place to start this examination of the ombudsman proposal. The background of it is rather straight forward. Last summer, the Davis Human Relations Commission heard a series of complaints about police conduct on a number of occasions. The chair formed a subcommittee who drafted a report and made recommendations to the City Council. The HRC recommended for civilian review of the Davis Police Department. This proposal was opposed immediately by Police Chief Jim Hyde, the Davis Police Officers’ Association, the City Manager, and eventually by the City Council.

On January 17, 2006, City Manager Jim Antonen presented his alternative which included a recommendation for the Ombudsman. On February 21, 2006, the HRC presented their Civilian Review Board proposal, this was rejected by Council who then implemented steps for the development of an Ombudsman position. This was completed on May 2, 2006 with the passage of the current model. To date, it should be noted, the city has not hired an ombudsman. It should also be noted that the position is advertised as being part-time. (Here’s a description of the position on the application: )

Those who argue that the HRC has been ineffective miss a key point, and that is that the City Council would never have created an Ombudsman position. The City Council not only implemented this program, they did so reluctantly, and as I will argue in the next few days, they implemented one of the weakest possible models of oversight.

The fundamental problem and the focus of this entry is that the Davis City Council never acknowledged a problem with the police department. In fact, they’ve made measured and strong statements to the opposite.

The first step toward solving a problem is admit that there is a problem. This has never occurred with the Davis City Council.

  • When the city council passed their ombudsman on May 2, 2006, Don Saylor said, “Every specific case that has been raised has been shown to be without merit.” Never mind that the city’s insurance company is now prepared to pay out in excess of $1 million in an effort to settle these cases that are supposedly without merit.
  • Mayor Ruth Asmundson at the May 2, 2006 City Council Meeting apologized to Officer Pheng Ly on behalf of the city of Davis. This despite the pending litigation against Officer Ly and the City Davis based on his actions (please see: On June 20, 2006 Asmundson was asked by members of the public to apologize to Halema Buzayan, Asumndson’s response was that she felt Halema “had learned her lesson.”
  • Ted Puntillo in an April 23, 2006 Letter to the Editor, published in the Davis Enterprise wrote, “Please do not confuse the dismissal of the case against Halema Buzayan as an indictment of the police action. The judge made no mention of police misconduct. Many cases are dismissed every day in the interest of justice and expediency. I have not changed my mind on the conduct of Officer Pheng Ly, who is an outstanding police officer”
  • Don Saylor at the April 18, 2006 City Council Meeting said, “Another disturbing aspect of the irresponsible treatment of this case by some in the media is that the facts of the interactions between the Davis Police Department and between the juvenile and her family have been misrepresented to the point of comic book caricature. This has done harm to the juvenile, to the police officer, to our sense of community, and potentially to our safety in the community. The police officer who carried out his duties professionally has had his reputation attacked unjustly.”

Not only did the council fail to acknowledge the problem, but in communications with the public, Puntillo repeatedly described his support for even an ombudsman as “forced.” “I think we will be forced to hire a police ombudsman.” “I think the chief would be okay with that.” Thus, they did not see a problem and these steps were taken only reluctantly in an attempt to alleviate public pressure.

There is a clear pattern by the majority on the Davis City Council to deny that a problem exists in the area of policing and oversight of the police. Bob Dunning in his May 9, 2006 column attacked the former chair of the HRC saying, “this "model" is not about the current council, which is as replaceable as a burned-out light bulb.” He is correct, that this model is not merely about the current council. It’s not merely about those who implemented it. But it is important to understand the motivations of those who implemented it because that forms the basis of the model itself. The next four days we shall examine the weaknesses of the actual model and we will then see the problems that it faces in trying to oversee the operations of the police department and as importantly serve the needs of diverse members of the public.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting