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Friday, August 25, 2006

Part II: The Ombudsman and Problems with Police Internal Affairs

This is part of two of a seven part series examing the Davis Police Ombudsman Position. Yesterday, I reviewed the Davis City Council’s attitude toward police oversight in general and speculated that they implemented the system reluctantly and that as we examine the system itself, we will see that reflected in the weakness of the model overall.

In order to understand the Davis Police Ombudsman model, we must examine the Police Internal Affairs Department (PIAD). The Internal Affairs department is important because under the Davis model, the PIAD continues to perform the primary investigation. The following is directly from the City Council May 2, 2006 Agenda item (emphasis in the original):

Development of a police ombudsman function is in addition, not in lieu of, existing processes – We must be clear that the police ombudsman provides a complementary level of oversight to police actions; the position does not replace them. The police ombudsman is not meant to circumvent the Police Department. The position does not normally do investigations in lieu of the police doing them.

To this point, we have assumed we need a new process for review of police complaints. The question is, does Davis have a problem with regards to police complaints and is the current process suitable for addressing these problems.

At the February 21, 2006 City Council Meeting, then Police Chief Jim Hyde, described what he called a fairly low number of police complaints and an extremely low number of sustained complaints.

· 2003 -- 23 citizen complaints filed; 2 sustained

· 2004 -- 17 citizen complaints filed; 0 sustained

· 2005 -- 34 citizen complaints filed; 3 sustained

These numbers were purported by the chief to reflect a very low level of need for police oversight (basically low complaints—lack of sustained complaints). The utter lack of sustained complaints has been cited again and again by the police and the council as evidence that this problem is being blown up beyond all proportions. On May 2, 2006, Don Saylor said, “Every specific case that has been raised has been shown to be without merit.”

A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Justice warns against such a conclusion.

[T]he meaning of a complaint rate is not entirely clear: a low force complaint rate could mean that police are performing well or that the complaint process is inaccessible; likewise, a high force complaint rate could mean that officers use force often or that the complaint process is more accessible.

The problem with the data presentation by the chief is that it lacked any sort of means to evaluate the wrong numbers. Are these numbers low as the chief suggested? Or are they actually high. Saylor on February 21 actually asked the chief the right question, asking him how this compares to other communities. Hyde dodged this question by stating that communities vary and therefore are difficult to compare. And Saylor never pushed him on the issue.

If he had, we might have gotten a very different story. A good example appears in John Burris’ book, “Blue versus Black.”

Los Angeles in 1995 was the poster-child for police corruption that eventually led to the FBI and the Department of Justice mandating changes. In 1995, there were 561 citizen complaints against the LAPD. Of these, ZERO were sustained. Zero. Now you can argue, well that is because the citizens are making faulty complaints that have no merit. Yet if we look at another figure, Los Angeles ended up paying out $34 million in settlements to lawsuits filed against the Police Department during that year.

Los Angeles can represent a baseline for a measure of police corruption. Los Angeles in 1995 had roughly 3.5 million people or 55 times the population of Davis. If we prorate LA to a city the size of Davis, we might expect 10.098 complaints in Davis in a given year, and zero sustained. What we see over the last three year period is 74 complaints or nearly 25 per year, 2.5 times the expected rate of complaints. Instead of zero sustained complaints, there were actually five.

The lesson here is that for a city the size of Davis, what looks like a small number of complaints, is actually a much higher rate than for 1995 Los Angeles with a thoroughly corrupt police department.

The next question is why there are so few sustained complaints by Internal Affairs Departments. And the problem is universal, in 2002, there were around 26,000 complaints nationwide. About a third of all complaints in 2002 were not sustained (34%). Twenty-five percent were unfounded, 23% resulted in officers being exonerated, and 8% were sustained.

Burris’ experience as a litigator against police misconduct leads him to the following conclusion about Internal Affairs investigations: They “offer little opportunity for the complainant to be heard. Invariably, when it’s his or her word against a police officer’s, the complaint is judged “unfounded”—even when the officer in question has a history of misconduct or abuse complaints. And, even when Internal Affairs “sustains” a complaint, the sanctions often fall painfully short of being reasonable—or punitive (84).”

This is not to suggest that every complaint against a police officer has merit or is accurate. “People lie to get off the hook; they lie to get back at an officer who may have arrested them, or a friend, or a family member; they overreact; they resist a legitimate arrest and cause the actions that take place. But it’s ludicrous to believe that 84 percent of citizen complaints are unwarranted—as Philadelphia’s records suggests. (85, emphasis added).”

Burris also cites a Dateline NBC story from 1999 where they sent an undercover reporter into several precincts in New York City. In all but one case, the African-American reporter was treated with hostility and sarcasm. He was asked repeatedly what he did and whether he was on probation, etc.

These occurred in New York, but the experiences that citizens in Davis have had is not much different. In the recent Buzayan case, the Internal Affairs Officer, Sgt. Gina Anderson is accused of using an interview with the minor to attempt to coerce and intimidate her into confession.

In the current process, a citizen files a complaint; Sgt. Anderson investigates that complaint and issues a finding. The individual can then appeal the complaint to the City Manager, who does not conduct a new investigation, rather he simply reviews the existing investigation and issues a ruling based on that. As we will see tomorrow, the new system put in place by the Davis City Council, does not change this process nearly as much as they purport to.

---Doug Paul Davis Reporting