Sunday Commentary: Chief Pytel Owes Us a Better Explanation

Davis Police Chief Darren Pytel

When I first read the police account on April 24 of last year, I immediately questioned the veracity of the press release.  Some of it was gut feeling and intuition.  But some of it was that the scenario didn’t seem plausible.

The description was that they saw a large crowd, pulled close to the group to take action, then, “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.”

As we began to know more about what happened, I got a chance to see some video myself and I asked the Chief if he was certain about the initial report.  He said, “We have clear video.”  He called the reported attack “violent, unwarranted and illegal.”

For a long time, based on that statement, I believed that the police had to have video we hadn’t seen before. Around the time of the preliminary hearing, I learned that was untrue.

As more and more information came out, especially the video, there was a clear discrepancy between a number of the statements in the press release and the video.

By June, activists like Will Kelly were calling on the city to retract the statement.  In a June 17 op-ed in the Vanguard, “The statement, entitled ‘Two Davis Police Officers Assaulted by Picnic Day Crowd,’ contains several false and misleading claims that have a direct bearing on the ongoing trial. The statement fails to provide any evidence or sources and since its release it has been directly contradicted by publicly available video evidence and multiple witness statements.”

It turns out the untrained and inexperienced activists were completely correct in many respects here.  The report that we were allowed to see by Interim Auditor Mike Gennaco bears that out, as he reaches a similar conclusion to Mr. Kelly.

Mr. Gennaco writes that “even after concerns about the veracity of statements in the press release had been raised within days by the public and media, there was never a retraction, clarification, or apology provided regarding the inaccurate and misleading statements. As of the writing of this report, there has yet to be a public acknowledgement regarding the inaccuracies contained in the initial release.”

He writes, “DPD should formally retract the initial press release relating to the Picnic Day incident and apologize to its public for the inaccuracies contained therein.”

Some are going to wonder why we should focus on this part of the report.  To me there are two things that happened – the first being the conduct of the officers, much of which is shielded by state law, but some of which is laid out in Mr. Gennaco’s report, namely that they mishandled the situation from the beginning.

But the second part is just as serious and it represents a fundamental institutional failure by the department.  The public gets limited information on such incidents, by design of both the legal system and the police oversight system.  What the public does get needs to be unequivocally accurate.

The problem here is that the press release acted in a way to attempt “to justify the actions of the officers.”

That was then backed up with the fact that Chief Pytel himself went around the community, often repeating these claims to various stakeholders as he appeared to attempt to do damage control.

As Mr. Gennaco writes, “a good deal of the information in the release was inaccurate or eventually not able to be proven.”  He adds, “The damage to the Department’s credibility had already been done regardless, and contributed to concerns about DPD’s ability to investigate the case objectively.”

One issue that the interim auditor does not get into here is the fact that the department first hired former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness to do the investigation.  But for the investigative work of the Vanguard, he might have stayed in place and yet, amazingly, his reaction in a Sacramento Bee article was he’d seen “nothing that seems improper” in how police handled the Picnic Day situation.

That is certainly not what McGregor Scott and Mike Gennaco found.

The report from the interim auditor, meanwhile, focuses heavily on the inaccuracies in the press release, and I am going to focus on the most important ones that frame this issue.

The press release states, “One officer was wearing police attire with visible badge and the other two were wearing plainclothes, although they had clearly displayed badges on their chests and visible police weapons.”

However, Mr. Gennaco writes that one and probably two officers did not have clearly displayed badges on their chests and none of them had visibly displayed police weapons, and, in fact, at least one officer left his weapon inside the van.

This is critical, because part of the question was whether the police officers were identifiable as police officers to the crowd.  The answer would appear to be no.

Next, “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.”

This is also critical, because the scene is very different.  While the police vehicle did draw close to the crowd, and a few individuals may have moved to the front of the van, it is inaccurate to describe the group as surrounding the van.”

To me this is one of the more egregious descriptions in the entire press release, because it creates a level of threat.

But perhaps just as important, we finally learn that the “threats” yelled from the crowd weren’t really threats at all.  Mr. Gennaco writes, “The press release fails to acknowledge that the ‘threats’ that certain members of the crowd yelled were ‘f*** you’ and ‘what’s up’ and occurred after the van drove close to the crowd. The press release also fails to note that the passenger officer replied to these remarks by ordering the crowd to ‘hey, get out of the road’ and ‘get out of the f***ing road.’”

What is really interesting here is that Attorney Mark Reichel maintained that the first thing the cops did was yell “get the (expletive) off the road,” and the report backs this up.

The question about the simulation of a gun is still a puzzle.  I’ve watched the video a number of times, there is some movement, but it’s not clear that it’s a simulation of a weapon and even the witnesses who come forward are giving conflicting statements.  There is ammunition found, but not a weapon.  Some believe that means the defendant discarded it, but one would think a gun would have been found if discarded near the scene.

Then there is the fact that they describe the “officer was struck with a bottle on the side of his head.”

Mr. Gennaco writes, “The above statement contained information that had not been proven at the time of the release and was never established.”  We learn that “while a person provided a bottle to one of the involved officers and told the officer that he had been hit by that bottle, that witness was never identified and the investigation was unable to prove that the officer had been struck by a bottle during the incident.”

Hence, that conduct was never charged by the district attorney.

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

Here again, the crowd never surrounded the officers and most of the crowd was not hostile or engaged with the officers, as “many can be described as onlookers.”  Moreover, “Two of the officers were not easily identifiable by their displayed badges and attire, at least not at the beginning of the encounter.”

Further, “One [officer] suffered injuries to his eye and face and the other was treated for a bleeding head wound caused by a bottle.”

Mr. Gennaco writes that “neither at the time of the press release or at any time during the investigation was it able to be proven that the officer was definitively struck with a bottle, let alone that it caused his bleeding head wound.”

To me this description of being hit with a bottle – proven now to be inaccurate – was critical in shaping the early public view of this incident.  But for the inadvertent dash cam video from a passerby, we might not know what really happened here and that is a scary prospect.

Still, I don’t think Chief Pytel, who writes a response to the report, goes far enough when he says that “some of the information released to the public following the picnic day incident was determined to be inaccurate, poorly worded and/or not objective, none of which are acceptable.

“The initial press release is retracted in its entirety,” he says. “The release has been removed from the police department website.”

He adds, “I apologize that inaccurate/misleading information was released in this incident and not timely corrected by the Office of the Police Chief. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Office of the Police Chief to determine that only accurate and pertinent information is released.”

To me, we need to understand why information was released to the public – even after the video was available to the police – that was inaccurate, and why it was allowed to remain in the public space uncorrected.

It would be one thing if this was merely the chief getting inaccurate information from his men in the field.  But in this case, even after video was available, he was putting out provably inaccurate information and using it to justify the actions of his police officers.

We need more than a retraction, we need an explanation and assurances that this will not happen again.

—David 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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26 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Chief Pytel Owes Us a Better Explanation”

  1. PhilColeman

    There is a well-practiced and always successful protocol when a law enforcement agency is besieged for details on an incident having high public interest. The press, naturally, wants every available tidbit, and also craves insights, opinions, and time-line predictions from the law enforcement spokesperson (These are called “traps,” and must be avoided). These probes are the sacred duty of the Fourth Estate in a free society, and most do it very well.

    The police spokesperson, hereafter called “PIO” (Public Information Officer) receives excellent training on what to say and not say in the early stages of an investigation. Training PIO’s is easily available to all police agencies and funded by the State. Construction of press releases is a specific training item.

    Veteran reporters are easily recruited to serve as instructors because they really enjoy telling stories when police did something wrong. Veteran PIO’s come in and have their war stories as well. Some of them are fall-down hilarious.  I might add that at the end of this ultra-candid exchange of viewpoints, almost everybody exits  in a climate of harmony and mutual respect. These natural adversaries head for the bar together. Everybody knows the rules of the game, and it is a game.

    The original (only?) DPD press release is now the touchstone for any/all criticisms directed towards the department. Note how the auditor gave that special emphasis. The published release made unqualified assertions and added some editorializing. Specific actions by particular parties were detailed without equivocation, only to be later revealed as embellishments.

    Any announcement in the form of a press release that lauds one own’s accomplishments is automatically suspect, and invites detailed probe and rebuttal. When the police do it, it’s a certainty.

    Here’s what should have been done: NEVER, EVER, make conclusions, or judgments on an event that is still in the early stages of investigation. Never give editorial comment, that’s someone else’s job. These tasks are gleefully accepted by every variant of the media, and a host of social networks.

    Only say what you know for an absolute fact, then follow with the assurance that the full resources of the agency are pursing every lead, persons with information please call, yada, yada. Promise (and then self-obey) a second press conference/release, soon.

    Whomever wrote that dreadful press release unleashed a fury of discontent and suspicion that will linger for a long time.

     

      1. Ken A

        I’m wondering if David really thinks that Chief Pytel himself sat down at a computer and “wrote” the press release.  I have a fair amount of friends in law enforcement and while the leadership looks at and often ask for changes in press releases they rarely “write” them…

  2. Keith O

    I think most people in Davis like Chief Pytel and think overall he’s doing a good job.

    I don’t think it serves our city to try and roast him over the coals.

      1. Mark West

        “So how do you respond to the findings of this report?”

        Rationally.

        Life is a learning experience, and we should not be defined by our mistakes, but how we respond to them. The Auditor made a determination and it is up to the Chief to respond appropriately to the recommendations. Hyperventilating over the mistakes does not really benefit the situation or the community.

        I think Chief Pytel is a credit to the community and we are very fortunate to have him.

         

        1. Craig Ross

          Concern that the police chief lied to the public over a sustained period of time is now hyperventilating?  That’s not what I’m looking for in leadership on the council.  Thanks for informing me who I will not be voting for this June.

        2. Keith O

          Good post Mark.  I would like it if for a change the silent majority in our city stood up for once and backed Chief Pytel.  We should show up in numbers and drown out the same old group of naysayers that always show up and voice their opinions at council meetings which I don’t believe represents the true voice of this city.

        3. Keith O

          Mark, your comment I’m sure will be met with much acceptance from a majority of Davis voters.  Now if I could just get you to come around on Measure R.

        4. Alan Miller

          > for a change the silent majority in our city stood up for once . . . we should . . .

          You are obviously not part of the “silent”, so it should also be questioned if you are part of the “majority”.

          The problem with your plan is if the silent majority actually does show up for once, they will fill the room and not say anything.  It’s in the definition.

           

        5. Jeff M

          Mark, your comment I’m sure will be met with much acceptance from a majority of Davis voters.  Now if I could just get you to come around on Measure R.

          Well someone needs to come around alright  One of you is all right and the other is half right!

  3. Tia Will

    Keith

    I would like it if for a change the silent majority in our city stood up for once and backed Chief Pytel”

    I am wondering on what basis you have decided that “the silent majority” in our city back Chief Pytel. Could it not also be possible that the “silent majority” do not back him and are reticent to say so for fear of police retaliation ?  Is it not even more likely that the majority whether silent or not could not pick Chief Pytel out of a line up ( to use a police analogy) if in plain clothes and know equally little about his personal positions and career decisions.

  4. Tia Will

    John

    “What has he done that you think is “great”?”

    I have, for the most part, been a supporter of Darren Pytel. This extends back to the pepper spray incident on campus. While the UC sergeant was busy pepper spraying peacefully seated students, Pytel is also on tape on campus moving through the crowd peacefully and pleasantly speaking with students and relocating them. The juxtaposition of the two approaches could not have been more distinct and telling.

    To me this illustrated now Chief Pytel’s tendency to attempt to work with rather than bully civilian members of the community. For the most part, I feel he has tried to maintain that stance.

    On the downside, Chief Pytel has shared with me in private communication, his belief that under extradorinaiy circumstances ( such as imminent threat to life) , it is justifiable for the police to lie to suspects/civilians. He stated that this should be done under only the most extreme circumstances. This current episode indicates to me that it is possible that he has broadened his perspective on what may be a justification for lying to the public.

    My hope would be that we have the ability to shift Chief Pytel’s position back to one of transparency and honest communication with the community and that a truly collaborative and trusting relationship can be rebuilt between the community and those who have accepted the role of protecting us. Demonization of either side will not get us there. Perhaps being open to considering all perspectives could.

    1. John Hobbs

      “The juxtaposition of the two approaches could not have been more distinct and telling.

      To me this illustrated now Chief Pytel’s tendency to attempt to work with rather than bully civilian members of the community. For the most part, I feel he has tried to maintain that stance.”

      Style is not substance. Pytel has taken the path of least resistance, giving lip service to your concerns while maintaining business as usual inside the DPD.

      “My hope would be that we have the ability to shift Chief Pytel’s position back to one of transparency and honest communication with the community and that a truly collaborative and trusting relationship can be rebuilt between the community and those who have accepted the role of protecting us.”

      Hope in one hand and spit in the other. Guess which one fills first? There is no trust in you on the part of Pytel and his police force. They come out of the car suspicious.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Here are a few things I am supportive of of Darren:

        1. He has not been in opposition to police oversight including civilian review. That’s a big deal because we had to fight a past chief on this issue as have other jurisdictions.
        2. I am supportive of his overall approach to the homeless situation (although I did not support the ordinance)
        3. I am supportive of his department policy against dynamic entries
        4. I am supportive of his department’s policy on ICE
        5. I think he does a good job of community outreach
        6. The policy that he put out on surveillance was top notch
        7. He has been very supportive of unconscious bias training

        On the other hand:
        1. I think he deserves criticism for his handling of Picnic Day incident between the hire of McGinness, the misinformation that he put out in the press release, and his misinformation that he put out to the public in various other settings
        2. I thought his body worn camera policy was too weak and he was taken to task by Gennaco on it
        3. His support for, defense of and ultimate use of the MRAP was unfortunate

  5. Tia Will

    Keith

    Why is this allowed?”

    Reasonable question.

    I am no longer going to be part of the moderation team for personal reasons. I did not want to ignore you, but would suggest that you pose this question to Don directly.

  6. Howard P

    {Edited by moderator}

    Pytel is neither a saint nor a demon.  Nor should he be expected to be either.  He should be expected to do his best, and if he errs, no matter how ‘politically badly’, he should be allowed to “own” his errors (acknowleging them), and seek support to correct them as he may, and not repeat them in the future.

    Hope everyone is allowed one “re-do”, except in extreme cases… the perps in Comlubine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Aurora, 911, the DC sniper thing, etc. … no… no do-over.  The Picnic Day debacle, is to those, as a speck of dandruff is to malignant skin cancer, in my view.  But the test will be how he and the department (particularly the officers directly involved… not yet sure if they deserve a re-do…) move forward.

    [Sidebar… should a cop, encountering the DC sniper, be excoriated for gunning him down before the sniper (young Black male, it turns out) shot the second victim?]

     

  7. David Greenwald Post author

    I tend to agree but it happened perhaps prior to Don being on here, I was busy getting my kids out and not one person has hit the report comment button on it.

  8. Moderator

    Hi folks.

    Reporting a comment, especially in the morning, is much more effective than commenting about it. I have also offered my personal email for contact if there is an immediate concern, and will do so again. That is donshor@gmail.com. I see that immediately, though there may be constraints on my ability to respond (like, I’m driving or something).

    It would also be very helpful if certain of you would just stop sniping at each other. Seriously. Elevate the conversation here. Stick to the topics.

    Thanks.

  9. Jeff M

    edited

    The Chief grew up in Davis.  He is a long-term resident that cares much more about his community than do people from outside playing their activism games.

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