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Monday, January 21, 2008

Complaint Sustained for Rude Conduct by Davis Police Officer

On the night of December 26, 2006, Lasonja Porter, an African-American and a longtime Davis resident was driving home late at night from some errands. It had been raining heavily that evening, the roads were slick and the visibility low. Not far from her residence, her vehicle hit the curb, incapacitating her vehicle and requiring a tow.
"My husband and my son decided to stay by the car and wait for the tow truck. As they waited for the tow truck the Davis police came by and said 'can I help you?' They said, 'no, our tow truck is on the way. '"
For reasons not completely clear, instead of helping the stranded family out, the police officer decided to make their life more difficult. According to Ms. Porter, the officer told them that if the tow truck did not come in five minutes, they would call their own. And in fact, the police officer did call their own tow truck.

While they were waiting for tow truck to arrive, Ms. Porter's husband asked the police officer how his Christmas was. Instead of making polite conversation, the officer lashed out.
"He said, 'you don't give an 'f' about my Christmas.' He just went off on my husband."
Both tow trucks would arrive at the same time, however, the police insisted that their tow truck remove the car and take the vehicle to Dixon.
"I was questioning why did they do this. What for--the car was waiting on a tow truck. They said nope, they're not going to give back the car. I explained to them that it was my manager's car, they didn't care. I told them that this is really harassment."
Upon request, Ms. Porter received the police report the next day.
"When I got the police report, I was very stunned. The police report read--'when I noticed who the suspect was, I immediately called Eric Labbe to the scene.'"
Ms. Porter explained to me that Eric Laabe was a police officer who had a history with herself and her husband. They had previously filed a complaint against him because of the aggressive manner in which he had interacted with them.

They had a series of meetings with the police, but it took a meeting with then interim Chief Steve Pierce for the police to finally agree to pay for the tow truck. Meanwhile, Ms. Porter was forced to have pay for the car to be towed back to Davis where it would be taken to her manager's residence to be repaired.
"Two people was there waiting on a tow truck. And the tow truck did come. At that time, they could have taken into consideration that they really was waiting on a tow truck and let me leave, but they didn't. Because when Eric Labbe got there, he just went off. He's a really aggressive police officer which we had complained previously for his aggressiveness. He'd cuss you out in a minute."
"One of the witness... she's a white lady, she heard the police officer cussing, so she left a message with Steve Pierce and told him that I did not like how he was cussing. I asked him to get on the phone, he was 'hell no.' I mean they was really going off that night."
Ms. Porter then filed a complaint against the Davis police for their handling of this case. Unlike so many of these encounters, this one did not end there.

A letter dated January 8, 2008 arrived from new Davis Police Chief Landy Black. Ms. Porter admitted she almost did not read the letter, it looked like so many other letters from the Davis Police that routinely denied the validity of her previous complaints.

This one appeared to be going the same route:
"Your complaint stemmed from a December 26, 2006 encounter members of your family had with our officers on Covell Blvd., involving a traffic collision and a towed vehicle... Your complaint was thoroughly investigated. I personally review the investigation and render the final decision in matters of this nature."
However, as I said, this one was different:
"Based on the evidence, it became clear the conduct of the Davis Police Officers whom you and/ or your family members interacted with did not meet the highest standards of conduct and service that we expect from our members. In particular I determined that your complaint of Rude Conduct had merit and a basis in fact. It has therefore been classified as SUSTAINED, meaning that there is clear and convincing evidence that the officer(s) engaged in the prohibited conduct."
Chief Black then went on to sincerely apologize:
"I apologize for this breach of high quality, professional police service that the Davis
Police Department prides itself in and the impact that it had on you and your family. It is our desire that these sorts of breaches are not repeated. Your complaint has served to make us aware of this shortcoming and steps will be taken to improve our ability to serve the community respectful fashion."

When this letter was forwarded to me, I had a similar reaction that Ms. Porter did. I almost did not read it. And through the first almost paragraph and a half, it read like any other denial of claim letter. Then I read the next sentence:
"Based on the evidence, it became clear the conduct of the Davis Police Officers whom you and/ or your family members interacted with did not meet the highest standards of conduct and service that we expect from our members."
I was stunned. For the first time since I have been involved in that process, there is a glimmer of hope.

For Lasonja Porter it is a validity and legitimacy, letting all know that she has a legitimate complaint about the way she has been repeatedly and routinely treated by the Davis Police Department. It will not be nearly as easy to dismiss her futures complaints about the treatment given to her by members of the Davis Police.

For the rest of the community it is the promise that this may in fact really be a new day. That the new chief is serious when he talks about professional standards for the conduct of his police officers and that he is willing to hold them accountable when they breech the public's trust and do not up hold the highest standards of quality and professional police service.

It is with great irony that we must acknowledge that when it comes to complaints against the police department, a sustained complaint actually increases one's trust in the service provided by the police and a denied complaint decreases that trust. The reason is simple. People make mistakes. Police are people and inherently there will be times when they do not respond in manner that is indicative of their training and professio. The key is not that they may occasionally err in their ways, but rather how the police department and chain of command responds to those breaches.

Had Chief Jim Hyde responded to the complaints by the Buzayan family in this manner, it is likely that that case would have long since been over and there would be no federal law suit pending.

While this action by Chief Landy Black will not be a fix-all to the rash of community complaints against the police, it does offer us hope that those complaints will not be summarily dismissed and perhaps that will become the step by which a segment of this community can begin to regain their trust in our law enforcement.

And so on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, we hold forth the promise of a new beginning.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting