Ten years ago today I took a small step that would prove to be completely life-altering – I created a small blog on the free “Blogger” website which you can still access to this day (http://davisvanguard.blogspot.com/2006/07/welcome.html).
These days I invariably get the question as to why I started the Vanguard in the first place. In a way the world has come full circle, because the reasons I started the Vanguard 10 years ago mirror the debate we are having in this nation on the role of policing, use of force, and police oversight.
A simple request for independent police oversight was met with a forceful pushback and a brutal smear campaign against my wife and many people of color in this community.
It all began one day when my wife asked me to record a city council meeting and, for whatever reason, instead of turning off the TV, I left it on as I did my work. January 17, 2006, in arguing against the need for police oversight, then-City Councilmember Ted Puntillo stated: “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.”
That was one of those moments where I suddenly believed that the community I had lived in for 10 years at that time was not the community that I thought it was.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The attacks were mean and vicious. One person wrote in a letter to the editor, referring to my wife and Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia, “Ms. Greenwald and Ms. Garcia apply their racist views to every possible issue that confronts them. They look at the world through their prism of hate. … The mere fact that they support numerous frivolous and hate-based lawsuits against the city should be enough to invite them and the rest of the Human Relations Commission to practice their trade in a more appropriate city. I recommend Johannesburg, South Africa.”
Another wrote, “Davis must rid itself of this antiquated, racist commission and its bully chairperson, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald.”
But the biggest stunner was what we would learn later – these vicious and mean-spirited attacks were being coordinated right out of the police department by embattled police chief Jim Hyde.
In his resignation letter, he wrote, “The destructive and divisive behaviors of the Human Relations Commission and in particular, their chairperson, have limited my effectiveness to work with this fine community. Despite the great work of the members of this police department, the HRC has divided the community along race and religious lines to fulfill a self serving political agenda. In my 27 years of government service, 10 years of clinical psychology, and 16 years of working with non-profit organizations, the HRC is the most dysfunctional and incestuous group I have ever witnessed. I hope that City Council will correct this community problem.”
The city would act, and it would disband the Human Relations Commission. The Enterprise would it pile on with a one-word headline, “Enough!” Bob Dunning would write a June 29, 2006, column entitled, “Spewing venom doesn’t bring us together.”
It was a month later that I formed the Vanguard, believing that this community had, in my words at the time, “a dark underbelly.” On the surface, Davis was a progressive and liberal community. But scratch beneath it and there was a visceral and ugly side that most people did not experience due to privilege and providence.
It was a lonely and helpless feeling throughout July 2006. The solution I came up with was to create the Vanguard as a way to get out the other side of the story, to cover the stories that would never make it to the mainstream news, to shine a light on the dark underbelly of Davis.
The reality is that we lost the battle on police oversight, but we won the war. While the HRC pushed for a Civilian Review Board, the city compromised by hiring what was then called a “Police Ombudsman” and was later known as the “Police Auditor.”
When the chief left, the city council nine months later would hire Landy Black as chief. The department began to change. In 2006, there were 40 complaints against the Davis Police Department. While that may not sound like a huge number, keep in mind the vast majority of police misconduct goes unreported for a variety of reasons. By 2015, that number was five or six. For those who say, well that number is inflated by the activists, actually, there were 30 complaints filed in 2004 and 34 complaints filed in 2005, most of them before the first public call for police oversight.
Not only did complaints go down, but claims against the city in those years were in the millions of dollars, and almost all of that consisted of government claims filed against the police department in advance of civil suits, and that number significantly declined.
The system of oversight and the new leadership in the department helped completely transform the culture of that department. Under the leadership of Landy Black and Darren Pytel, the civil rights community has worked with the police, not against the police. We have seen the addition of a restorative justice process as an alternative conflict resolution (ACR) process. We have seen additional transparency added, such as body worn cameras.
None of that was really foreseeable in the dark days in July 2006 when the Vanguard began. But little did we realize that police-community relations, use of force complaints and police oversight would explode into a national issue.
A few years ago, several years after the founding of the Vanguard, I was cleaning out some files and found a letter to the editor from May 2006 from Paul Nicholas Boylan. I wouldn’t meet Paul until some years later in 2011, when he applied to fill the vacancy created when Don Saylor was elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Paul Boylan was highly offended by the attack on Cecilia. He wrote, “James Hechtl recently wrote a letter bitterly critical of some of our local civil rights activists and social justice advocates. Mr. Hechtl objected to their belief that the Davis police practice ‘racial profiling.’ He got upset over an ‘open mic night’ where Davisites could discuss the issue.
“He pointed out that a City Council member encourages this ‘potentially unlawful behavior.’ He called our social justice advocates a ‘cancer’ destroying Davis. Then he invited them to go back to Africa.”
He wrote, “It was so offensive it had to be a joke.” He accused Mr. Hechtl of “evoking the darkest, evilest, most disturbing moments of the civil rights movement by suggesting they go back to Africa.”
Over the years, the Vanguard would transform, broaden its scope. We would serve as a watch dog for city government and the courts. We would provide a vehicle for public discourse and a voice for the voiceless.
As I have noted a number of times, there are so many different types of outrageous conduct we have witnessed over the years at the local level. But one of the most outrageous was the decision in December 2008, by a de facto 3-2 vote, not to read the Davis Fire Report, which had been written by Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson at the behest of the city.
The backstory is simple: in June 2008, the Yolo County Grand Jury came out with a finding that admonished the Davis firefighters for, among other things, getting drunk and sleeping it off in the fire station. But immediately, it was clear that a more serious problem was a hostile work environment and accusations of retaliation for speaking out against union leadership.
Then-Mayor Ruth Asmundson and councilmember Lamar Heystek successfully pushed for the city to investigate the complaints and, three months later, Mr. Aaronson finished his report.
The only question was what would the public get to see. At the time, it was a given that the council would be able to read the report and figure out what action was merited. What no one ever anticipated was the possibility that the council would never read the report.
Councilmember Sue Greenwald at the time argued, “I’d like to get a council consensus that we have access to all the information.”
Both Stephen Souza and Don Saylor were adamant that the council not read the full report.
“Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them,” Don Saylor stated. “I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”
Stephen Souza would add, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”
In my 10 years of covering Davis politics, this was probably the most brazen display I have ever seen from public officials.
As Rich Rifkin would write several years later, “Not only did those three (Don Saylor, Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza) – who together had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions plus other support from members of the Davis firefighters’ union – not want to let the taxpayers and residents of Davis see what Mr. Aaronson had found. They decided no one on the Council should be permitted to learn its contents.”
I watched in January of 2009 at 2 am as Bob Aaronson attempted to tell the council subtly that he disagreed with City Manager Bill Emlen’s summarization of the report, but the firefighters’ union had their three members of council and nothing was going to come of this.
However, this incident did not sit well with me. And so, in 2013, with a new council, I reached out to my friend Paul Boylan and we took the city to court, not once, but trice, and so in May of 2014, we finally got the entire report, that the council tried to bury, released to the public.
It was a victory for perseverance and transparency. But it was the dogged determination and the moral outrage of Paul Boylan that made it possible.
These are but a few areas over the years in which the Vanguard has had a strong impact on city policy. The Vanguard continues to grow, transform and evolve. But our very roots are in the struggle for civil rights, fairness and transparency.
I am proud of what we have accomplished over the last 10 years, I look forward to the next 10 years, and I look forward to having each of you join us this evening from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Davis Senior Center to celebrate 10 years of struggle, hard work and progress.
—David M. Greenwald reporting