The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Monday, February 19, 2007

Vanguard Response to the Police Oversight Report

The Police Oversight report is now out and you can read the full nine-page text on the City Webpage.

Claire St. John of the Davis Enterprise also did a story on this in Sunday’s newspaper.

If you read yesterday’s article, your reaction to it is probably heavily determined by your feelings about this issue going in. If you felt that the entire issue was a whole lot to do about nothing, then you take solace in statements such as this by the Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson:
“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.”
On the other hand, those who opposed the creation of the Office of the Ombudsman and favored a Civilian Police Review Board instead, have pointedly told me that Aaronson’s report just shows them that their feelings on this were correct and that we need to get a stronger system in place that will be able to do a better, stronger, more thorough job at oversight.

I would like to take the middle position in this debate, because I have found Bob Aaronson to be a diligent and well-intentioned person who is incredibly studious and perceptive. I believe that there are fundamental weaknesses in the oversight system - weaknesses that I have laid out ad nauseum in other entries on this blog – however, I believe that those weaknesses can be overcome with diligence and minor structural changes in some of the bodies created by the city council and the police department. I would additionally like to take the middle position, because I believe that Bob Aaronson was well-intentioned and indeed very strategic when he decided to write his report.

I would like to be able to take that middle position, but frankly, I cannot.

I do suggest that people read the full report that is linked above, because the Davis Enterprise did not cover some of the more pointed statements by Mr. Aaronson.
“As I was quoted in a recent Sacramento Bee article, the Buzayan matter was a missed opportunity to begin a meaningful community dialogue around law enforcement issues… Every honest person who played a role in the Buzayan matter must, in hindsight, admit that he’d/ she’d do some things better, more circumspectly, if a ‘do over’ were possible. Healing requires acknowledgment of as much by everyone. Those who haven’t benefitted (sic) from hindsight will simply repeat their mistakes, to the community’s and their own detriment.”
I agree with Bob Aaronson here, and I think it is important for the community itself to understand the point that Mr. Aaronson is making. I find it very unfortunate that this statement did not make its way into the Davis Enterprise article.

However, I also believe that Mr. Aaronson missed out on his own opportunity. And while I understand that Mr. Aaronson has to be cautious and strategic with his position, I think he actually has considerably more political capital to burn than he probably thinks. I do not believe that the city council is in a strong position to be able to fire Mr. Aaronson without handing significant ammunition to people such as myself and others who have been critics of both the police department and city government in general.

Moreover, while I agree with Mr. Aaronson that there is not a Buzayan-level event that he has witnessed to our knowledge, I believe that the community needs to have discourse on the most widespread complaint about the police department—what I shall call pretense stops (in lieu of the more racially charged—racial profiling). These are cases where individuals - who are either of a minority racial heritage, or perceived to be from a lower-socioeconomic status by the vehicle they are driving - are pulled over for minor offenses that other citizens would not be stopped for. This is a very prevalent occurrence in the City of Davis. It is basically a “phishing” operation—where they pull over these cars in hopes of catching a larger fish—an actual criminal who is breaking the law in a major way.

This practice is at times considered good police work and in fact is rewarded. However, it also serves to create tremendous distrust in the minority community because it gives the appearance—that minorities (who are disproportionately of lower socioeconomic status and even those who are not of lower socioeconomic status) are being singled out not because of what they have done, but because of who they are.

This is in my opinion, and the opinion of many in this community, a serious problem and it is not addressed in this report and I feel very disappointed that this was not brought up and that we could not have a discussion on this issue.

Mr. Aaronson has come to the conclusion that the more serious incidents, such as the Buzayan incident, are not an everyday or even a frequent occurrence. I could agree with that assessment; however, my own research – through interviews from calls we have received - suggests at least five to ten more serious incidents per year. But I have a further concern that a lot of these incidents are not being reported at this time, because people either lack trust in the police oversight system, or they lack the financial resources to pursue it through the legal system. Furthermore, people are fearful of being maligned in the public realm as the Buzayans have been.

While Mr. Aaronson compliments members of the police for their treatment of citizens, I have serious concerns about the level of training that some of these well-meaning officers have. I have recently witnessed an appalling lack of police work, where a vandalism incident was reported to the police, an officer came out and took a quick glance and left. However, in the process of cleaning up the scene, I noticed a receipt with the name of an individual on it. The receipt was found just feet from where the police officer parked his vehicle. While the incident itself was not serious, the lack of attention to small details was rather appalling.

This represents an ongoing problem for the Davis Police Department. A similar incident occurred a few years ago when Robert Russell – a gay man whose vehicle was vandalized with over 120 eggs and ruined to a tune of $4,000, was harassed by a group of high school male students who yelled homophobic threats at him all because he had a rainbow flag displayed on his porch. According to a Davis Enterprise article, the grocery bag, the empty cartons, and the receipt remained and were not even picked up by the officers or Gina Anderson, the Internal Affairs officer at the time. Moreover several key people were not interviewed. Not only did Robert Russell end up hiring his own investigator when he saw the lack of work done by those officers assigned to his case, but it was he who went to the grocery store to ask for the video tape. Something that the officers and Internal Affairs should have done.

The report on Tuesday also contains discussion on both the Police Advisory Board (PAC) and the Community Advisory Board (CAB). I will report in detail on the PAC later this week. I have already reported on some of my concerns about the CAB.

The following, is from the City Staff Report written by City Manager Bill Emlen, Interim Police Chief Steve Pierce, and Deputy City Manager Kelly Stachowicz. It is written by city staff (separate from Aaronson’s report) giving feedback on the PAC and the CAB. The report reads:

“The group is meant to provide the Police Chief and other Police Department staff a window into the community. It allows Police Department staff to understand important community issues as seen through the eyes of the community. Members of the group bring to the meetings their concerns, questions, comments and suggestions about police related issues.”
However, I have found the actual workings of the CAB to be different. In speaking with individuals in this group, none of that which is described above is occurring on a regular basis. Issues coming from the public are rarely raised. In fact, the impression I received was that they were often overtly discouraged. Moreover, rarely has input been solicited or received by this body. When the CAB met with the Police Chief Candidate recently, very few tough or substantive questions were raised. “It was a very fluffy interview. Tough questions were not asked,” were among some of the comments made by one of the individuals in attendance that I spoke with.

Moreover, the description sounds more like that of a propaganda purpose than a true advisory relationship. Corresponding with that belief is this mention from the staff report:
“On more than one occasion members have brought controversial issues to a meeting to get clarification on police policies or specific cases. While the Police Department has to be diligent in its protections of confidentiality, misinformation has been addressed and the CAB members have been able to share the correct information with people in the community.”
I read this to say that the police department has used the CAB to promote and clarify their operations—information that is then used to correct information with people in the community. What is interesting is that there is no mention of times when the members of the CAB have brought an issue up with the police and the police were able to correct problems. The reason that such feeback was likely not mentioned in the report is that it probably has not occurred. However, the city council sold the public on the belief that the purpose of the CAB was precisely to give the police department a means to get feedback from the community so that the police could better serve the community.

My previous report, questioned whether in fact the CAB really had a diverse membership—the majority of the members of the CAB are strong supporters of both the police and the council majority. Moreover, they rarely raise tough issues or ask tough questions.

If the council wishes to continue this body, it would be more productive to have them meet in public where a broader cross-section of the community can participate and air their concerns and offer feedback. The alternative would be to alter the make-up of the body to include more people who are likely to be more critical of the department. This would serve a dual function of giving the police better feedback but also helping the critics of the police to better understand the working of the department. This would seem to be of mutual benefit.

The current process however seems to be premised on the notion of cutting public discourse on the issue of police operations. The CAB meets in private. The PAC meets in private. The Human Relations Commission no longer deals with police issues. And the city councilmembers nod their heads but do little else whenever anyone comes forth with a legitimate complaint. The public has little to no access with this entire process - other than the three minutes before city council - and I wonder to what extent these bodies are even aware of the existing problems between the police and certain communities.

My assessment is that in the last year, little has changed in the operations of the police or this city government. And in many respects, the systems in place are worse than the ones that existed on June 1, 2005, before Officer Ly ever met the Buzayan family.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting