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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Assessing the New Human Relations Commission

It's been a week since the Human Relations Commission met for the first time since council dissolved the former group. There have been many charges levied toward the group and there have been many changes designed to prevent what happened last year from happening again. Many in the public feel that the previous Human Relations Commission overstepped their authority.

Councilmember Stephen Souza would agree with that take. In the Davis Enterprise last Friday:
Council member Stephen Souza stressed to new commissioners that their job is to work to bring community members together through education, not by investigating alleged cases of discrimination. "Your role is to educate, not to adjudicate," Souza said.
In Monday's blog entry however, we saw that in fact, according to the Davis Anti-Discrimination ordinance, the Human Relations Commission's role was to do both. The Ordinance authorizes the HRC to "investigate and mediate" complaints of violations of the Davis Anti-Discrimination ordinance. When Jamal Buzayan came before the Commission last summer and complained that the Davis Police Department violated his daughter's rights, the commission was fully within their authority to investigate his complaint and make recommendations to the City Council to address the problems that they found. They did so in their final report on February 21, 2006.

Now the council wants to essentially do away with the power that the ordinance grants the Human Relations Commission.

The California Aggie yesterday ran an article on the new Human Relations Commission. In it they quote John Pamperin, a longtime member of the commission.
"As we progressed in dealing with the political issues I felt some of our constructiveness got caught up in the campaigns for City Council and district attorney," Pamperin said. "It makes it difficult to look at the civil rights concerns when the issues are one candidate's or another's."
Unfortunately, the Aggie does not attempt to contact any of the former members to respond to this article. Nor does the Aggie respond to inquiries from this blog as to why they presented such a one-sided view of things. The quote from Pamperin is accurate, but it is also misleading. The politicizing of the process as Pamperin puts it came after the City Council rebuffed the HRC's attempts to forge a solution within the process. Moreover, it came after threats from the council following a February 7, 2006 meeting to examine the membership of the HRC and possibly make changes to it at that point. While the council would not act until late June to finally disband the commission, the atmosphere was poisoned and the membership within the HRC realized that working with this current City Council was impossible. Even then, the politicizing of the process came from outside of the HRC meetings and only by members of the HRC as private citizens.

Looking ahead

The City Council may have disbanded the former HRC and filled it with new members that it probably hopes will be closer to their own viewpoints, the problems that erupted last spring will not go away. In many ways, the police issue itself which served as the flashpoint for dissension, is only the tip of the iceberg of larger problems that have been ongoing within this community for over 20 years. Indeed past members of the HRC going back to 1986 have noted that the police issue is not new, it came up in the mid 1980s, it came up in the early 1990s, and it has come up again, because no one has done anything about it. If there is one small victory for the past HRC, it is that they forced City Council to start to address the problem of police oversight.

While the Council did not implement the recommended policy of the HRC, they did hire a police ombudsman who for the first time offers independent eyes to investigate the police. Unfortunately, at the same time, the council has made the process less rather than more transparent. There is no public body aside from the council themselves, with the power or authority to listen and act on public complaints about the police. There is no public body that can handle and discuss publicly police issues and complaints.

Furthermore, there is a huge divide within our community on the issue of race. Again, the police issue serves as an illustrater of this divide. When the issue of police came up last spring, the vast majority of people in Davis came out in support of the police--even liberals and progressives. Why? Because most people in Davis have had positive dealings with the police and rely on the police to protect their property and persons from harm. However, there is a sizeable segment of the population--African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslim-Americans and others that have had very different relations with the police department. It is here, where the complaints about not only racial profiling but also violations of civil liberties and rights have emanated from.

The role of the Human Relations Commission needs to be to bridge that gap between white and brown, white and black, so that they can work together to solve these kinds of problems. Unfortunately, this may be the one job that the new Human Relations Commission is least capable of doing.

At Tuesday's City Council Meeting, Stephen Souza praised the new Human Relations Commission as a "very diverse group of people." Unfortunately, I think that assessment is wrong. The Davis Human Relations Commission has traditionally been the most diverse group in the city. On the last commission, there were five or six different ethnicities on the commission, and in fact, it was a minority-majority group. That is no longer true. It is now a largely white body.

Why? Unfortunately, people of color did not apply to the commission. This fact will unfortunately hinder the commission's ability to bring diverse groups together. Many in the minority community were outraged that the commission that advocated on their behalf was disbanded. There was a fundamental distrust of the City Council and City Government to begin with and that has been exacerbated by the disbanding of the past commission.

Moreover, the problems faced by those in the minority community as not always readily apparent to the rest of the city. I'll use myself as an example because if I did not follow the Human Relations Commission and get to know people who were coming forward with complaints against the police, I would never have known there was a problem in this city. I've never been pulled over by the police or had any sort of negative interaction with them. It is only through my acquaintances and friends that I have learned of the true nature of what is going on in our otherwise great city.

Without first hand knowledge and without community trust, the task ahead for the HRC appears doomed. The new chair John Dixon and much of the membership are people of good intentions. But at least right now, none of them seem to have the fire and drive of the former chair to make the kinds of changes that are needed. The minority community lost a great friend when the HRC was disbanded. The progressive community now needs to come together to ensure that this type of thing never happens again.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting