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

Friday, August 17, 2007

Interview with Davis Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson

Last year around this time, the City of Davis hired its first Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson. Aaronson has served in the capacity of independent auditor for the City of Santa Cruz among other municipalities. At the time this culminated a rather tumultuous year in Davis that saw allegations, protests, and the disbanding of the city's Human Relations Commission. Now a year later, things have calmed down, but have the underlying problems that led to these complaints and protests dissipated, the Vanguard sits down as talks to the Ombudsman Bob Aaronson to get his take on the current situation.

You’ve been here nearly a year, I know you’ve talked about it before, but is Davis what you expected?

No. Davis is a much more interesting place than I expected. And Davis is a much more interesting place culturally than I expected. As someone who has passed by Davis thousands and thousands of times, I did not have a clue.

What are your impressions of the Davis Police Department?

I don’t think that’s changed a whole lot since my discussion in front of the council. I think there are a lot of good people in the Davis Police Department. I think there are a lot of the challenges, some of the challenges are because of history, problems that have been present historically and you still live with the ghosts and then there are problems that are related to how many people are comparatively new at being peace officers. I think those are quite significant challenges.

So far, what are your impressions of Landy Black?

So far my impressions of Landy Black are positive. My sense is that he is getting out into the community; my sense is that he’s making connections within the department. And my sense is that those connections are good. Landy Black strikes me as an eminently decent guy and someone who is a real cop.

What has the primary focus of your position entailed?

There are two different things that I have been doing. One component that I have been doing is responding to citizens who have complaints and on average I am probably talking to between half a dozen and a dozen people a month. They call to talk about their situations and telling them what the process is and sometimes all it is is explaining to them that the procedural issues that they saw were appropriate.

The second part of what I’m doing is almost like being an organizational facilitator. And an example of that is being part of a process that got the cameras and the computers working. But there are also a myriad of ways that I have become an alternative channel for communication for different parts of city government about what’s going on. And what the problems are.

Do you believe that Davis was in need of an independent police oversight system?

I’m not the right person to ask because 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. That’s why we have cops. Because in the absence of cops, some of us are going to speed. Some of us are not going obey traffic laws and commit offenses. We need oversight. I think we all need oversight and benefit from it. It’s the reason why we don’t come into the world hatched out of eggs. We come into the world with two overseers.

Do you believe that the Police Internal Affairs Department serves an effective function or do you believe that too often police departments seek to protect themselves from scrutiny?

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. There are instances where organizations will have a tendancy in order to avoid the limelight or order to avoid the harsh reality will try to find a way to avoid getting to the right result. But the number of times I’ve seen that happen I could probably count on two hands. And that’s based on over 20 years of work with law enforcement.

What changes would you like to see in the Davis police oversight system?

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.

What do you view as the biggest mistake made by former Chief Jim Hyde during his tenure? How can we work to prevent repeat mistakes with the new Chief, Landy Black?

I try to have this rule that if I was not present, it is not fair of me to find fault. I have not viewed my charge as what occurred prior to my watch although I’ve accumulated some information about it. I think there is a host of things, where if I had been involved I would have hoped would have been responded to differently. I certainly have not been shy about the fact that I believe there was a missed opportunity for the community and the department to use the Buzayan incident as a means of having a discussion as opposed to a means of having an argument.

You mentioned that the city of Davis missed out on an opportunity during the contentious 2006 year. What do you think as an outsider looking in, should have been done differently?

If I had been involved in the underlying incident and I have not listened to tapes and I have not reviewed reports, but I have read enough information. I think I would have made different decisions about what occurred at the scene. Decisions that were not as intrusive. I think that decisions that were made in my view don’t amount to misconduct or I certainly haven’t seen anything that would suggest to me that they were misconduct, but I would say that in my view they are misjudgments. Candidly on the other side of it, I will also tell you… if I had been, if my family had been in the situation, I think I would have responded differently as well. And that to me is the point of the Buzayan case, there were opportunities for everyone to learn. Not just for the department to learn about how to handle something in a way that it is as effect but less intrusive, but also for the community to learn about how they can more effectively interact with the department in a way that increases the likelihood of a more positive or less negative outcome.

Does Davis PD have a problem of racial profiling in your view?

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.

The DPOA has repeatedly asked for more police officers as a means for crime prevention, do you believe that such hires are necessary?

I am far more conscious about how much I don’t know than how much I do. If I were going to answer that question in this sort of a public fashion, I would want to have done some sort of a serious study of auditing response times, auditing workloads and the like. In all honesty, I don’t know. To answer that question one way or another would require me on some level to speculate.

What lessons can we learn from the UCLA tasering incident?

That one to me is pretty clean. Tasers are less than deadly force. But are probably the equivalent to the use of the baton. It is pretty hard to kill someone with a baton, but you are likely to have more moderate range injuries. You can argue it one way or another. I would be surprised if any officer would have used a baton on the student in the UCLA PD case. When you have a passive resister, you should not be using Tasers. To me that is a fairly basic lesson and one of the problems has been… that most of the first round of instruction in how to use Tasers was controlled by Taser International. And Taser International, and I’ve viewed some of their instruction, in the first round, but definitely in the first round there were scenarios where Tasers were being used on people who were not violently resisting. Hence what happened at UCLA PD.

(I follow up: So how best would it be for police officers to handle people who are not cooperating but not violent resisting and not a physical threat to either the officer or the public?)

Depends on the situation and the size of the person. Officers get taught all sorts of control holds and take down techniques, in the academy and in the FTO process. In an instance where there’s a large crowd gathered, the use of a Taser on someone who is not actively resistant and who is not actively violent is actually increasing the risk to the officer not decreasing it. Now it’s important to be clear and I have viewed on a number of occasions the videotape of the UCLA PD incident and my problem with the videotapes while the videotapes are very troubling, it’s really hard to be able to see enough of the student in a lot of the frames to know what things I would have done or what things I hoped an officer would have done.

What changes can Davis do in the next year to improve relations between portions of the community and the police department?

I would like to see a way that members of the Davis police department become more involved in the community as individuals and as officers and that means community meetings, neighborhood meetings, it also means encouraging people to do ridealongs with the Davis Police Department. There does need to be more of a connection. There clearly does.

You have previously mentioned problems with both supervision, chain of command, and overall morale—have these areas improved under the new chief? What further needs to be done?

Morale has improved because the department is grateful to have a new chief on board. But the underlying issues—the new chief has been there for three and a half months. You don’t fix a damaged family in three and a half months—this is clearly a work in progress. And the underlying issues involving supervision, chain of command, and communication are still there. They remain to be resolved in a successful way.

My biggest frustration for the past year has been the inability or unwillingness for people with legitimate complaints against the police department to come forward—what can we do about that?

That’s a good question. I have had a similar experience and not just with you but with other people who have brought forward to me that there are people who they were in touch with who had complaints and I have begged, cajoled, pleaded… You know, I have two different ways of expressing it. One is that I have an Amnesty International T-shirt that says ‘All it takes for the triumph of evil is for enough good people to be silent.’ The other one is just a more straightforward one. In the absence of people willing to bear witness, no one goes to jail. I understand why people are reluctant, I genuinely do, I understand that for a lot of people, it’s an act of bravery, it’s an act of courage to come forward with a complaint. But it’s really important, and part of the side benefit is that people who come forward with complaints ultimately, regardless of any other resolution, feel unburdened by having done that.

How can we effect change in the absence of people willing to come forward and to use your words—bear witness?

I don’t know, I think that’s probably my single biggest challenge. One of the things I could do is to do more outreach in the community. I have been reluctant to ask the city for more hours, because the city is trying to be fiscally responsible and I respect that. And the problem with what I talk about in terms of getting out into the community is that it’s time consuming. But there is a way candidly that I feel that I know the Davis Police Department right now better than I do the community.

I’ve been told you are not a big fan of anonymity on the internet, can you share your thoughts?

I tend to work by analogy. I think that people’s behavior on freeways is much worse than their behavior at parties or in bars because they are basically anonymous. I think that when you provide people with an anonymous environment a lot of the social controls for some people tend to dissipate. And if we can be anonymous, there are people who are prepared in a theater to stand up and scream [obscenities] to a guy on stage. Now they would never do that if the guy on stage could see their face and see who they were. But in a darkened theater there are people who do that. I have watched and I respect both the vote that was taken and also the sentiment that there are people who otherwise would not post if it was [not] anonymous, but if no one has noticed it, I’m an outspoken person, I’m not shy about offering my perspective and part of my attitude as a student of race relations and the holocaust is you got be willing to speak out and put your name to something.

Your impressions so far of the Vanguard? How can the Vanguard become a more effective tool in the community?

The most positive thing I think about the Vanguard is that there are things being reported in the Vanguard that I haven’t seen in any other media outlets that are at least available to me. And I appreciate that because I don’t just study Davis police issues, I study all of the Davis community issues to better educate myself. So I really appreciated that. I think there have been times that I have been concerned that the tenor of comments and discussion and some of them of them are by the bloggist and some of them by the commenters that are less than civil. I guess the starting place for me, if I caste you as evil, I lose the opportunity to have an effective conversation with you where I really get through to you. I worry about that aspect. That being said, I’m not arguing that the bite should go away. I think part of the bite is what works about it. It’s also true that I think in the year that the Vanguard, I ought to be interviewing you about the Vanguard because it has been about a year and three months or a year and two months that you’ve been doing the Vanguard, and I ought to be interviewing you about how’s that year been, what do you think your successes have been and what have your failures been. I think that the Vanguard has matured in that past year in really powerful ways. I’m sure that you asking in a way is a little self-serving… but I’m grateful that the Vanguard is there. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s rare I don’t learn something.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting