Monday Morning Thoughts: Picnic Day Should Be a Wake Up Call on the Need for Real Transparency

This evening from 7 to 9 at the Davis Community Church, the Davis Vanguard and Davis Phoenix Coalition are hosting a forum on Picnic Day and Police Oversight.  And, while there are a number of components to this, I think a key need is the need for transparency.

Transparency has been the part of the system that has been missing since really even before the Picnic Day incident occurred.

In March, the longtime police auditor announced he would not be renewing his contract when it expired at the end of June.  In a public meeting later in the spring, he acknowledged that one of his problems was the lack of access to police internal review files for him to review, and he felt at this point like he could not effectively do his job.

The problem of transparency goes a lot deeper than this, however.  On April 24, the city put out a press release that has since been roundly criticized, alleging that “two Davis Police Officers” were “assaulted by Picnic Day crowd.”

We have since learned from eyewitness accounts and video evidence that the statement contains a number of false and misleading claims and has since been removed from the city’s website.

For instance, “Before the officers could act, the unmarked police vehicle was surrounded by a large hostile group and several subjects began to yell threats at the police officers in the car.”  And, “One subject quickly moved to simulate he was pulling a gun on the officers.”  Not to mention, “As the officers exited the car and began to identify themselves as the police, two officers were immediately physically attacked by multiple suspects and beaten on the ground.”

Finally, “The surrounding crowd was hostile and presented a serious threat to the officers, who were easily identifiable by their displayed badges and attire.”

The video shows a different picture of a crowd that was large but fairly peaceful before the police arrived in an unmarked car and pulled directly and perhaps menacingly into the crowd.  The video shows that one officer could have easily exited from the driver’s side and avoided the confrontation from a crowd that was not surrounding the vehicle.  And in contrast to the description, it appears that the physical confrontation was limited to a few people and it is not clear from anything that the police were easily identifiable at any point in time.

The lack of transparency here goes even further than the initial description which seemed to act more as a propaganda piece than an investigatory tool.  The city followed up their decision not to use the still-under-contract police auditor with the inexplicable decision to hire former Sacramento sheriff and right-wing talk radio host John McGinness to head up the investigation.

Neither the police chief nor the city manager did their due diligence in terms of looking into Mr. McGinness’ background, and the city was largely embarrassed when the Vanguard’s brief investigation found that Mr. McGinness claimed on the air that African Americans were better off before the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The city had to quickly backtrack and create a new process for hiring an independent investigator who looked more independent – McGregor Scott.  We are still awaiting the results of his investigation, but the Vanguard is getting some indications that his findings will not be a whitewash that exonerates the officers and the city in this investigation.

However, we remain troubled by the lack of transparency in this entire episode.

This past week, Will Kelly in a guest piece in the Vanguard noted the September 19 discussion of the ACLU-sponsored police surveillance ordinance that would require public disclosure and accounting of new equipment, like the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), that would be acquired by the police department and could be used to do surveillance.

Mr. Kelly points out in his piece, “As important as this ordinance is in its own right, it also serves as a prelude to the much broader discussion about creating a civilian oversight body that was officially launched at the July 11th City Council meeting. In this context, Police Chief Darren Pytel’s recommendations to the City Council regarding the surveillance ordinance serve as an indication of what kind of input we can expect from the police department in the coming months.”

He wrote that “it is troubling that Chief Pytel recommended that the council modify the surveillance ordinance to make it completely toothless. More precisely, he recommended that the ordinance be amended to allow the Davis police department to ‘acquire and use [any] surveillance technology authorized by a valid state or federal search or arrest warrant.’”

However, the city council, backed by numerous members of the public, held firm in this case, pushing back on the police chief and asking staff to look into implementing the original HRC/ACLU-backed ordinance with more teeth.

Mr. Kelly’s point here is that we were shown a glimpse into the modus operandi of the police and, in fact, this entire Picnic Day incident has given us such a glimpse.

Chief Pytel from the start has argued that he completely supports police oversight, including civilian review, but his actions have suggested otherwise.  From his dealings with the previous police auditor to his release of the Picnic Day press release to his hiring of John McGinness and finally his staff report and recommendations on the police surveillance ordinance, all indicate a reluctance to put best practices into action.

It was very telling during the September 19 discussion that he told the council flat out that we don’t want the criminals to know what we have and do not have.  Very understandable, but the citizens of this community have a trust issue because, guess what, back in 2014, the police department unbeknownst to the city council acquired an MRAP, which caused a large degree of consternation in the community.

The council has not forgotten this.  Nor have the citizens.

This entire Picnic Day incident has illustrated the need for a system that enforces transparency because, from the start to the finish, transparency has been fleeting at best.  I believe we deserve better.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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