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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Commentary: A One-Year Review of Police Oversight in Davis

One year ago from August 24, 2006 to August 30, 2006, the fledgling Vanguard in the wake of the then Davis City Council majority of Asumundson, Puntillo, Saylor and Souza voting to put the Human Relations Commission on hiatus ran a seven-part series examining the Davis Police Oversight System. Within a month or two, the city of Davis would hire Bob Aaronson as the police ombudsman for the City of Davis. Last week, the Vanguard interviewed Mr. Aaronson and discussed his first year on the job. Today the Vanguard will discuss a number of police oversight issues and make him regret putting his thoughts on the record (just kidding).

My initial response to the proposed oversight system now in place was strong opposition. There were three reasons for that primarily. First, there was no public component to it--there was no place where an individual could make a complaint in public and receive a public redress of their grievance. Second, the Ombudsman position itself was fairly weak--it was a part-time position, the Ombudsman acted basically as an auditor who reviewed completed investigations if the individual making a complaint was not satisfied. Finally and probably most pointedly, I failed to trust the council to produce a system that would work given their misgivings about and opposition to the need for oversight to begin with.

I will begin with the last point. The other points will be evaluated as I look back over the recommendations I made on August 30, 2006.

To be quite frank, one of the reasons I never trusted the council to create an oversight system that worked is that the very first meeting that I ever saw from them (January 17, 2006), Councilmembers Don Saylor and Ted Puntillo spent their time attempting to demonstrate how unnecessary police oversight in Davis was.

That statement was summarized by this quote by Ted Puntillo:
"What I want are police officers out there that are using their training and their instincts, I don’t want them thinking about oh somebody’s going to be reviewing what I’m doing. "
Don Saylor stated that they had "thoroughly reviewed the complaints against the city and found them totally without merit." This was a stunning statement given it did not seem likely they conducted their own investigation of these complaints. Puntillo then added that this would be "an eye-opener for many in the city."

Up until the point at which these statements were made I have lived in the city of Davis for nearly nine and a half years and had never been involved in city politics. By the time this little scene was done, my life would be unalterably changed. And let me tell you, Ted Puntillo was right, it was an eye-opener for me to hear elected public officials make these sorts of blatantly irresponsible statements.

A few weeks later, on February 21, 2006, then-Police Chief Jim Hyde and Councilmember Don Saylor went through a series of statistics to demonstrate to the public how low the number of sustained complaints were in the city of Davis. Basically what Jim Hyde told Councilmember Saylor was that there were 74 citizen complaints from 2003 to 2005 and of those only 5 were sustained.

Statistics are given a bad rap because most people do not understand how to properly analyze them. This leads to the assumption by many that statistics can be used to say whatever you want them to say. This is patently untrue however. One needs to be able to interpret statistics properly. To his credit, Councilmember Saylor on that date did ask the correct question--asking Chief Hyde how these numbers compare to other communities. However, Chief Hyde dodged this question by stating that communities vary and therefore are difficult to compare. And Saylor never pressed him on the issue when he clearly should have. Had he pressed him, he would have found out that the number of sustained complaints was right around the national average whereby less than 10 percent of all complaints are sustained by the Internal Review Process and in fact, Davis had a higher number than a lot of other jurisdictions.

Ombudsman Bob Aaronson when asked as to whether Davis was in need of an independent oversight system said:
"I’m someone who believes that every law enforcement organization ought to have some form of oversight. I’ve worked with a lot of organizations around the state and to me it’s not a critique of law enforcement it has to do with the fact that in absence of oversight not everyone is going to be squared away."
I still believe that a good police oversight system benefits rather than harms the interests of police officers. It fosters trust that they are doing their jobs the proper way and also provides an outlet for those who are dissatisfied with the handling of their encounter with a police officer. Often that dissatisfaction stems from misunderstanding about the law and an individual's right under the law. By having someone who is independent of the police be in the position and have the authority to explain to an individual that the incident was handled properly, it allows for those who would otherwise distrust the police to be educated about proper procedure.

Getting back however to my original trepidations--the point of this demonstration is to show why I was skeptical of this city council, who had pointedly and deliberately argued that we do not need police oversight, would then be able to turn around and create a police oversight model that would work. They never laid out the case for oversight as Mr. Aaronson did. They took oversight to be a criticism of all police because it arose from specific complaints against the police rather than a means by which to foster community trust in the police.

The jury is still out on that bottom line however. As a whole, I think Bob Aaronson was a good hire. In the comments to the interview last week, some complained he was probably too cautious with his assessment. I would tend to agree with that viewpoint. He has made it a point to protect his political capital until the big case comes forward. While I can understand that desire, I think there are enough data to really look into past practices so that we can come to terms with them and correct them for the future.

At the same time, we have not seen the big case yet either. My biggest problem has been the lack of willingness of those in the community with what appear to be valid complaints that are worthy of investigation (it may turn out that the investigation would clear the officer of wrongdoing, but investigation is still needed) are not willing to come forward. These people are often unwilling to come forward. Part of the reason for that is that they are afraid to. In part, they saw what happened to Buzayans and decided it just was not worth it. That has been a source of much frustration personally.

One of the big questions is that of racial profiling and whether it occurs in the department.

When asked in a California Aggie article if there is "racism within the Davis Police Department," Chief Landy Black who had been in the department for two months at the time responded:
"It's absolutely untrue. I think there was a great deal of political influence in what was going on. There was a need from some people for [their own] publicity, and with the current climate of policing, it gets you notoriety to claim racist policing."
While that was perhaps not the best way to ask the question, I am still uncertain as to how the Chief could know this that soon. Nevertheless, I am not altogether convinced that racial profiling equals racism rather than poor policing technique or even laziness.

During the course of this year I asked the same question of both Former UC Davis Police Chief Calvin Handy who also serves on both the PAC (Police Advisory Commission) and the CAB (Community Advisory Board) and the Ombudsman Bob Aaronson.

When I asked Calvin Handy here was his response:
"My first act as [UC Davis] police chief here was to meet with large groups, students, staff, and faculty, and they had this consistent belief that racial profiling was happening in the city of Davis... After 12 years it is kind of amazing given how much we engaged in the process that people are saying the same thing. This problem has just gone on for too long and too pervasive."
Last week Bob Aaronson said something remarkably similar:
"I have not seen first hand evidence of it. Where I have seen documents or I have seen incidents first hand that would allow me to establish that that occurred. On the other hand, there have been enough complaints by people of color that I’m not prepared to say it’s not an issue. As well there is some statistical information that I don’t know enough about to know whether it’s credible and if it is credible what it’s really saying. But clearly there is something there that requires more attention."
Part of the problem that I have had is how would you even go about proving racial profiling? It is a difficult problem to address.

In response to my evaluation last year of the Police Oversight system. As I examine it now, there are probably several recommendations that I would no longer make, but there are several that I think are still pretty valid.

First, I believed that it would be difficult to have an Ombudsman without it being a full-time position. From my discussions with Bob Aaronson, I believe that more than ever.

Aaronson's response here makes a lot of sense--that it is a matter of balancing priorities:
"Clearly I would like to have more time to spend in Davis doing more active outreach to the community and also doing more ridealongs. But the challenge for a place like Davis—because the implication and the question is ‘what instead’ or ‘in addition to’—the challenge for a community like Davis, and it’s the reason why I came here, most oversight models are geared toward far larger jurisdictions and larger departments. I have a hard time arguing that a jurisdiction the size of Davis ought to be spending a quarter of a million dollars on oversight. I have a hard time arguing that. I could see spending a couple of million dollars on oversight or more for the city of San Jose. But smaller oversight, no one is really trying to figure out a way to do that and so my work here and my work in Santa Cruz also are efforts to explore is there a cost effective way to use some of the oversight tools in a smaller jurisdiction."
It is worth noting that Councilmember Stephen Souza keeps trying to expand the role of the ombudsman to cover the entire city, a notion he first brought up in February of 2006, a notion he mentioned again in March of 2007 and a notion he most recently mentioned in conjunction with a proposal to remove the investigation authority from the Human Relations Commission. I do not see how this is a possibility without hiring a full-time ombudsman with a professional staff.

Second, I recommended that the Ombudsman be given a stronger role in the initial oversight. As this system has developed, it has changed structurally even though it has not changed on paper. What seems to have happened is that the PAC reviews the Internal Reviews from the Department and that the Ombudsman acts as almost a public liaison who assists and talks to individuals about complaints and helps them if they wish to file a formal complaint.

Third, I suggested using the PAC to replace the Internal Affairs Department.

Bob Aaronson last week suggested basic support for Police Internal Affairs departments:
"In my experience, most internal affairs organizations do a good job 90 to 95 percent of the time on cases. And of the remaining five to ten percent, are not handled the way I’d have them handle them. Not out of malice but out of a lack of training."
I differ from Mr. Aaronson here though I lack his over 20 years of direct experience as an ombudsman. My experience had demonstrated in fact a problem with the internal affairs departments in general. Too many cases are returned as not sustained even when the individuals have valid complaints. One of these cases locally was the Bernita Toney case who complained that a police officer falisified a police report. The internal review process concluded this complaint was not sustained. Yet in a court of law, a jury found that the police report had in fact been falisified when they decided to acquit Ms. Toney of all charges against her. This is but one example. The worse example was the use of the Internal Affairs department to threaten and intimidate Halema Buzayan instead of investigating the complaint against Officer Pheng Ly.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Aaronson commented about Davis Police Sgt. Gina Anderson's, who is now in Citrus Heights, handling of the Buzayan Investigation.
"[B]ased on my explicit training to the Department, they now know that you cannot try to advance a criminal investigation through the investigation of a citizen complaint."
The suggestion here is that this was inadvertent and due to a lack of training. Perhaps. But the effect was to intimidate and threaten a minor who was attempting to file a complaint against the actions of a police officer.

My fourth suggestion was to strengthen the CAB. The CAB is composed of many individuals purportedly from diverse segments of the population, but for the most part only a few of these individuals were critical or skeptical of the police department. It was not until March, that the city finally admitted that this was not part of the oversight process. Nevertheless, it would behoove the new police chief to reconstitute the CAB and place on it more individuals who are critical of the police for the very reason that he would get better feedback from the community if he did so.

Fifth, I suggested improving community outreach. The new police chief seems amenable to that, and some of that is going on. But without specific impetus, I think there are segments of the population that would not be reached. Along the same lines, I suggested improving representation on the boards, make the CAB meetings public. This has not occurred yet.

Finally, I suggested they reinstate the Human Relations Commission. They did this but really stripped this commission of its power and influence. They did at least keep the civil rights ordinance intact, but the HRC is not the body that it was prior to June of 2006. I have spent enough time on this subject, but I think the community really misunderstood what the HRC was aiming to do with police oversight and the valuable function it performed prior to 2006.

In many ways, I do not think either the Ombudsman's job or the Chief's job have started yet. We are still waiting for the "big one." That will occur at some point, it is inevitable no matter how well-intentioned we are, something is going to occur. The question will then become, are we properly equipped to handle things. Overall, I would say that some of my fears about this system have been alleviated. I think we were fortunate to land an individual with the experience of Mr. Aaronson. But as he discovered in Santa Cruz, when you rule against the police there is a heavy price to pay. We have not seen whether anyone can withstand that kind of pressure just yet and that will be the crucial test for this system.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting