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Monday, August 06, 2007

UCLA Incident Demonstrates Need for Independent Review and Policy Changes

The recent ruling on last fall's Tasering of a UCLA student gives us the unusual opportunity to review and scrutinize the police review system in addition to discuss policies on use of force by police departments.

In August of 2006, the fledgling Vanguard, took on a seven-part series of review of the Davis Police Oversight system--evaluating each part and making recommendations for changing it.

One of the key criticisms was the use of the Internal Affairs Department (IAD) as the agency with original jurisdiction over IAs. The chief problem that was cited at this time was a relatively low number of sustained complaints by the IAD in Davis. From 2003-2005 there were 74 complaints, only 5 of which were sustained.

These numbers were used by then Chief Jim Hyde and Davis Councilmember Don Saylor (among others) to demonstrate the lack of need for additional police oversight.

However, a 2002 report by the US Department of Justice warned that:
"[T]he meaning of a complaint rate is not entirely clear: a low force complaint rate could mean that police are performing well or that the complaint process is inaccessible; likewise, a high force complaint rate could mean that officers use force often or that the complaint process is more accessible."
Further statistics suggest that the low sustained complaint rate in Davis is actually not atypical. For instance one year in Los Angeles, there were 561 complaints against the LAPD and none of them were sustained.

The UCLA case provides us with another example as to why we cannot merely rely on IADs to provide oversight of police departments.

The initial review of the UCLA case
"cleared Officer Terrence Duren and two colleagues of wrongdoing. Details of the review are confidential but it concluded officers did not violate campus policies, according to a statement released by Norman Abrams, former acting chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles." (See Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2007).
Furthermore, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the officer involved has been involved in a number of other controversial incidents on the campus. This is a frequent problem in oversight, that you have officers often who are repeat offenders, who end up being involved in incidents over and over again. The people that these officers harm are not only the citizens, but their law abiding and dedicated colleagues.

Fortunately in this case, instead of settling for the IAD report, someone made a decision to bring in Merrick Bobb, a noted police accountability expert.

Bobb found that the officer's decision to use a taser here was "unnecessary, avoidable and excessive."

The student is by no means innocent here either and that should be noted and was noted by Mr. Bobb.
"This story has no heroes... While the student should have simply obeyed the order to produce the card ... the police response was substantially out of proportion to the provocation."
Citizens have the responsibility to cooperate with the police always. People ought to know their rights and when they can assert them, however, when push comes to shove, obey the police and dispute their conduct later. However, police are professionals and trained, and they need to respond to difficult situations appropriately, this was not a case where an officer was in danger and therefore the use of force here was clearly not justified.

This case also provides us with an opportunity to examine use of force. We have talked about it in the past as well, especially regarding an incident that did not escalate quite as far as the UCLA incident was, but that had to do with the actions against a UC Davis student involved in a bicycle stop sign incident which also grew out of hand. The key question is how should non-cooperative individuals be treated by the police.

In this case, Mr. Bobb makes specific recommendations for chaing policy on the use of Tasers on "passively or mildly resistant individuals." The main question is, when should officers use force against an individual? It is obvious that if an individual is violent or represents a physical threat to the officers or the public, that use of force is justified.

But if the individual is simply being non-compliant why are you using a taser three times? There have to be other means by which to handle a situation.

Merrick Bobb makes some very strong recommendations to "forbid their use against passively or mildly resistant individuals." Moreover he recommends:
"Restrict Taser use to violent, actively aggressive or imminently violent subjects -- and only after a warning. Discourage repeated shocks. Prohibit shocking of handcuffed prisoners."
Acting UCLA Chancellor Norman Abrams and UCLA Police Chief Karl Ross were both in agreement with the policy change. That is a good start.

But the secrecy of the internal investigation given state law protecting confidentiality of the police involved in citizen complaints led to the independent investigation by Merrick Bobb. The concern is that this was a very high profile case, how many other complaints have also been swept under the rug at UCLA and other UCs across California?

This is a very serious point in evaluating complaints against UC Davis police officers. We have heard of several in the last year and note that there is no Ombudsman or any sort of police oversight system on the UCLA campus.

The City of Davis does have an Ombudsman and they have a three member Police Advisory Committee (PAC) reviewing IAs. Some of my concerns about the Police Oversight system in Davis have been alleviated in the past year. However, a big one that remains is the lack of willingness of individuals to file IAs.

As the UCLA case attests however, a small minority of officers are repeat offenders in violations of the rights of citizens and it is those small number of officers who probably cause the majority of complaints. A system that can identify those officers, can protect the law abiding and dedicated majority of police officers from the type of adverse scrutiny that they do not deserve. Officers put their lives on the line every day and we need to put a system in place that protects them and the citizens.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting