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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Special Commentary: Peeling Back The Veneer on Police Oversight

Watching the City Council Meeting on Tuesday Night in addition to reading the Davis Enterprise coverage and the Ombudsman’s Report on his observations one is very tempted to hearken back to May 2, 2003 where President Bush stood on the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the sign Mission Accomplished and pronounced the end of major combat operations. And while this is probably a wholly unfair analogy, it is not without some truth to it. Because in reality while there was almost a jubilant atmosphere at the council chambers on Tuesday, the real and tough work lies not behind us but ahead of us.

And yet the very message of the other night is that there are structures in place that will lead us in the right direction.

Don Saylor perhaps summed up this feeling very well, “It is heartening to see the work of so many in the community on this issue. I think there’s a genius to what the community has done in response to the complaints we’ve heard.” Leaving aside the very obvious and blatant irony of his statement, one needs to remember that this system is largely untested by a strong and substantial case. What we have seen at best is that this system in good times, may be adequate—and even then I have my doubts.

At best I would suggest that this new system is indeed untested, but in many ways I believe even stronger that many of the problems that we dealt with over the last year and indeed over the last twenty years are still occurring now and that they have simply not come to our attention just yet in any sort of public way.

I think some of this false sense of security comes from this statement from the report of Bob Aaronson, the Ombudsman: “Of what I observed first-hand, there is little that is troubling about how the Davis Police Department responds to the public. To the extent that any incidents have prompted my concern, it has typically been misjudgments and not misconduct.”

In many ways this gives those such as the City Council Majority and their defenders strong political cover and these words set the tone for the meeting on Tuesday Night. And yet we must note that those words themselves are at best heavily nuanced. He said “little” not “nothing” and he couched in terms of what he observed “first-hand” which leaves much of what he has read second and third hand in play.

It is at this point at which I believe this veneer of mission accomplished begins to fray as quickly as that banner on the USS Lincoln. For one needs only travel out into the community—the minority community—to realize that all is not as rosy as it seemed in council chambers. If you talk to many people instead of optimism and euphoria you have at times heated anger and frustration. For these people, Saylor is indeed correct that there is much more “heat” than “light.”

The very sense I get is that neither the Ombudsman nor the Council Majority has ever really traveled into these circles. It is easy to see from a police cruiser police interactions in the openness, what is more difficult to see is what happens in the darkness of night and in the shadows away from the bright lights of public scrutiny. In other words, is the Ombudsman who goes on ride-alongs experiencing the truth of police interactions or is he witnessing a cleaned up and sanitized version. Is this the Heisenberg principle at work—that in the process of studying the phenomena of police-community interactions, you are actually altering police-community interactions.

Perhaps the most frank discussion of Tuesday evening’s meeting was on the Community Advisory Board. While many members of this board—all of whom are staunch defenders of the police—come forward on Tuesday to praise its work, it was enlightening first to hear the city staff admit that the CAB is not an oversight body like the Police Advisory Board or the Ombudsman. What it most resembles is a sounding board for the police chief.

Steven Worker, himself an ardent defender of the police and the council majority, admitted that the selection process might indeed appear problematic to the outsider and lend itself to the perception that the body was not representative. And although he did not offer a solution, his admission of the problem was enlightening. Moreover the concern was raised both by Worker and Sharla Harrington who spoke in public that the private nature of the meetings and the lack of specificity of the minutes also seemed to undermine it.

In truth this body was described by one of the few members of the CAB who is a critic of the police, as filled with people who are strong supporters and rarely ask tough questions. Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald (my wife and former chair of the HRC) pointed out that this body had actually existed prior to its reformation in 2005 and that prior to its disbanding by Chief Jim Hyde it had been a very effective and diverse body and that the new body was the one that lacked the diversity. It is a diversity in a different sense than sheer demographics, but rather a diversity of thought on police operations. There are simply too many defenders and not enough critics and the purpose of the meetings is wholly sanitized.

Perhaps the most outrageous comments of the evening were made by Councilmember Stephen Souza. First Councilmember Souza asked Mr. Aaronson if there was a required certification for an ombudsman. Actually he less asked it than asserted it. Mr. Souza clearly should have researched this prior to his question, for he would have clearly found that there is no certification required. Secondly he suggested that perhaps Mr. Aaronson could review the operations of all city departments. This was an astonishing statement that Mr. Souza once again should have taken up in private. It seems to me as an observer, that Mr. Aaronson would have politely explained that he was already working far more hours than the city was paying him and he is barely scratching the surface of what needs to be done.

When this position was created I strongly questioned how someone could be a part-time Ombudsman and only come to the city of Davis just a few days out of the month and be able to perform the vast tasks expected of him. This was not discussed on Tuesday night, but it seems clear that there is simply not enough time or resources available to provide the kinds of oversight and scrutiny that this system clearly needs. Mr. Aaronson in his position as Ombudsman, needs to be given far more resources than have thus far been allotted. And while Mr. Aaronson will not complain about this, I certainly both can and will.

This gets back to my primary complaint of that evening and let me say I respect the concerns that Bob Aaronson did express both in his report and in his statements on the lack of a strong supervisory structure, problematic in-car computers and in-car recording systems, and frankly his statement about the lack of communication was in fact a home run.

However at the end of the day, Mr. Aaronson, in my opinion simply has not seen the dark underbelly of the city of Davis quite enough. He has not spoken to a number of very credible people who can tell him of years of abuse running up until this very day at the hands of some within the Davis Police Department. And unfortunately, he has joined our city in progress and I do not feel that he has spent sufficient time getting up to speed on the last year let alone the last twenty years.

The implication of Tuesday night was mission accomplished, but in fact, the reality is more like mission incomplete. The suggestion was made that we have made tremendous progress in the last year and in reality I would suggest that we have made tremendous progress in one area and one area alone—we hired an ombudsman. Unfortunately I think the city council believed that this position would be a catch-all and one of the reasons they believed that was in fact that they never really believed there was a problem to begin with.

The reality is that the position cannot possibly catch-all the problems in this community with the police. And I myself believe I have fallen into a false sense of security that somehow with the hiring of Bob Aaronson, that all of these problems that have been twenty years in the making would go away. I feel that I have backed off this fight to a considerable measure out of deference for Mr. Aaronson. Now after reading the press coverage I feel that I myself have made a mistake. It is not that Mr. Aaronson is poor intentioned—in fact, just the opposite in my opinion. He is a very good, decent, and sincere man. It is simply that he has too big a job ahead of him to leave it all to him.

Where we have fallen backwards is that there is no one that is a public body that can help him out. The Human Relations Commission has been disbanded and it has been replaced by a body that is at best a shadow of its former self. The Community Advisory Board has been somewhat exposed as a non-oversight body, and it was advertised as one of the pieces of the oversight puzzle. The PAC is a body that appears to audit IA’s (internal affairs investigations) and that is indeed an important purpose but it is also a limited one. And the Ombudsman himself has a Platte River of responsibilities and if taken to the logical conclusion it would literally mean his work was a mile wide and an inch deep. Fortunately he is far more dedicated and diligent than that. But at the end of the day, he too needs help and that help is not coming from the Davis City Council who has already declared mission accomplished.

The problems in our community did not happen overnight and they will not be cured in a five month period. While I remain disappointed in the tone of the report, I also realize that this presents an opportunity for this community, if people are willing to actually go out into the field and discover for themselves what a lot of people have to deal with on a daily basis. The mission is in fact not accomplished and in many ways it has only just begun.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting