The issue of civilian police oversight (the ability of a community to hold its police accountable) did not start in 2006. In fact, it did not start in 2005, although the key events that set the stage for what we would see in 2006, did occur. Halema Buzayan’s arrest in June, set things in motion, but in fact, the issue was already boiling before Buzayan was ever arrested. The issue has been around for over 20 years as incidents of police misconduct and racial profiling were widely reported in the community. Old-timers on the Human Relations Commission, the first HRC in fact, talk about the issue coming up from day one and time and time again.
Things would again begin boiling over on September 22, 2005 at a joint meeting of the Davis City Council and Human Relations Commission. Dan Silva, Berkeley’s Police Review Commission Officer, had been invited to this meeting to address questions and concerns about the implementation of a police oversight commission in Davis. The meeting turned contentious, accusatory towards the council both by members of the public accusing the council of being slow to act and members of the commission. This meeting would be a prelude of things to come.
The Human Relations Commission created a subcommittee to study the issue and draft a report. The chair of that subcommittee was Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia, local pediatrician who was not a member of the commission. But before the subcommittee had a chance to report their findings to the council, the then Davis City Manager Jim Antonen would come forth on January 17, 2006 with a report that offered an alternative to the HRC’s proposal (before that proposal could even be presented to council).
In it, Antonen present a multi-level approach to oversight:
- Increased Training
- CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies)
- Citizen Advisory Board (CAB)—made up of 12 people appointed by the police chief to represent a cross-section of the community.
- Annual Report to City Council
- Police Advisory Committee (PAC)—three member that will review complaints and make recommendations to this City Manager, “they will not be part of the formal disciplinary process.”
In our police oversight series we have a full critique of this process. Our chief complaint is that the access to this review system is controlled administratively and the police chief himself and the city manager control precisely who gets to sit on the CAB and the PAC.
One of the most troubling aspects of the January-February city council meetings on this issue was a series of public comments made by the originators of the five-point plan—Davis City Manager Jim Antonen and Councilmembers Don Saylor and Ted Puntillo.
When speaking of the on-going complaints, the City Manager and these two councilmembers , Saylor and Puntillo, made statements to the effect that these complaints were empty and had no merit to them. And yet, for some reason they chose to implement a system that while in many ways imperfect, was still a large amount of change over the previous system.
City Manager Antonen who developed the alternative plan said:
“Most of these cases that have been addressed, and again you might sense a frustration because I have personally reviewed some of these complaints that have been reviewed to my office, and I investigated them myself, a quite frankly, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, in my former life I was a certified law enforcement officer, and for a while I worked for the office of criminal investigations and part of my duties were to look into cases of police misconduct. And so I have a background in that and it’s very frustrating when I look at these appeals, and I say they are unfounded, groundless, I would say bogus but I wouldn’t want offend anybody, but this gives us the opportunity to a police advisory committee to have another process that hopefully the community can buy off from, have a comfort level and believe me we will have stellular (sic) people on this committee and they will review these complaints per se after they have been through the process…”
(It should be noted that when the Buzayans filed their formal complaint against the police, it was Antonen who signed off on the internal investigation and upheld the findings. Keep that in mind as you read this statement based on what we know now know about the Buzayan case.)
Saylor: “I’ll just say that council has reviewed, carefully, in closed session those matters that are subject to litigation because that’s an appropriate action for us to take, it’s necessary for us to do that and we have carried out that responsibility… During the discussions that the council has had, and our investigations, and inquiries into litigation matters, I fail to see any of them that call into question the operations or behaviors of Davis Police Officers. And I’m very confident in the operation of the department as it reviews allegations of behavior of Davis police officers.”
Ted Puntillo was most brazen in his assessment and feelings about police oversight.
“Recently, Don [Saylor] alluded to it, that we studied and investigated the complaints that had reached the litigation arena recently, and I have to agree with Don, I was very unimpressed, and I think the results of those will be an eye-opener for the community when you see what we’re dealing with here…”
Then Ted Puntillo uttered the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard a public official say:
“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. I want them to do what they are trained to do and that’s protect us.”
When I heard this statement on the television broadcast that night, I was not involved in city politics. It was at that moment that I realized that not only did I disagree with these guys, but that these guys were dangerous. The idea that we did not need police officers to realize that they were accountable for their actions was ludicrous but also very much against the principles of government on which this nation was founded on.
While the council agreed in principle with the recommendations that the city manager put forth, they did have a formal hearing on the HRC’s civilian police review board.
One crucial error that the HRC made in this process was including a recommendation to account for the diversity of the community in the make up of the review board.
The recommendation read:
“The CRB shall have eleven (11) members and one (1) alternate member and shall reflect the diversity of Davis by striving to represent members of many different communities”
The Davis Enterprise on February 3, 2006 would report:
“Under the commission’s proposal, the City Council would draw the police review board’s members from several categories: senior citizens, people with physical or developmental disabilities or mental illness, the homeless, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, European Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, gay or lesbian people and college students.”
This led to belief that the commission was recommending homeless people serve on the review board. That was neither the intent nor the wording of the recommendation. The council would make the appointments to this body. The recommendation was simply meant to suggest people who perhaps worked with the homeless or mentally disabled community be considered for appointment, as they would have particular interactions with the police that would give them insights that perhaps others would not have. The commission recommendation never required nor suggested actual homeless people or mentally disabled people serve on the board. This was easily exploited by the opposition to suggest that the HRC was out of control and making ridiculous recommendations.
Meanwhile, the council was extremely dismissive of the HRC’s report. Puntillo said that the report was “not worth the paper it was printed on.” While Puntillo had every right to disagree with their recommendations he forgot that this body had spent considerable time and energy researching and drafting this report in a good faith attempt to assist the city council with positive recommendations to solve a continuous problem facing the Davis community regarding its police department.
One of the issues that came up was the issue of the relatively low rate of police complaints in the city of Davis.
(The following was first reported in our August-September series examining police oversight in Davis).
At the February 21, 2006 City Council Meeting, then Davis Police Chief Jim Hyde, described what he called a fairly low number of police complaints and an extremely low number of sustained complaints.
• 2003 — 23 citizen complaints filed; 2 sustained
• 2004 — 17 citizen complaints filed; 0 sustained
• 2005 — 34 citizen complaints filed; 3 sustained
These numbers were purported by the chief to reflect a very low level of need for police oversight (basically low complaints—lack of sustained complaints). The utter lack of sustained complaints has been cited again and again by the police and the council as evidence that this problem is being blown up beyond all proportions. On May 2, 2006, Don Saylor said, “Every specific case that has been raised has been shown to be without merit.”
A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Justice warns against such a conclusion.
“[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.”
The problem with the data presentation by the chief is that it lacked any sort of means to evaluate the wrong numbers. Are these numbers low as the chief suggested? Or are they actually high. Saylor on February 21 actually asked Chief Hyde the right question, asking him how this compares to other communities. Hyde dodged this question by stating that communities vary and therefore are difficult to compare. And Saylor never pushed him on the issue.
If he had, we might have gotten a very different story. A good example appears in John Burris’ book, “Blue versus Black.”
Los Angeles in 1995 was the poster-child for police corruption that eventually led to the FBI and the Department of Justice mandating changes. In 1995, there were 561 citizen complaints against the LAPD. Of these, ZERO were sustained. Zero. Now you can argue, well that is because the citizens are making faulty complaints that have no merit. Yet if we look at another figure, Los Angeles ended up paying out $34 million in settlements to lawsuits filed against the Police Department during that year.
Los Angeles can represent a baseline for a measure of police corruption. Los Angeles in 1995 had roughly 3.5 million people or 55 times the population of Davis. If we project the rate of complaints in the city of Los Angeles to a city the size of Davis, we would expect 10.098 complaints in Davis in a given year, with none of these being sustained. What we see over the last three year period is 74 complaints or nearly 25 per year, 2.5 times the expected rate of complaints. Instead of zero sustained complaints, there were actually five.
The lesson here is that for a city the size of Davis, what looks like a small number of complaints, is actually a much higher rate than for 1995 Los Angeles with a thoroughly corrupt police department.
The next question is why there are so few sustained complaints by Internal Affairs Departments. And the problem is universal, in 2002, there were around 26,000 complaints nationwide. About a third of all complaints in 2002 were not sustained (34%). Twenty-five percent were unfounded, 23% resulted in officers being exonerated, and 8% were sustained.
Burris’ experience as a litigator against police misconduct leads him to the following conclusion about Internal Affairs investigations: They “offer little opportunity for the complainant to be heard. Invariably, when it’s his or her word against a police officer’s, the complaint is judged “unfounded”—even when the officer in question has a history of misconduct or abuse complaints. And, even when Internal Affairs “sustains” a complaint, the sanctions often fall painfully short of being reasonable—or punitive (see page 84 of Burris’ book).”
This is not to suggest that every complaint against a police officer has merit or is accurate.
“People lie to get off the hook; they lie to get back at an officer who may have arrested them, or a friend, or a family member; they overreact; they resist a legitimate arrest and cause the actions that take place. But it’s ludicrous to believe that 84 percent of citizen complaints are unwarranted—as Philadelphia’s records suggests. (85, emphasis added).”
As our report on police oversight suggests, the system that the Davis City Council implemented is a weak system, that gives most of the power to the internal police only review process, however, it seems that Davis did get one break in this process—they hired Bob Aaronson as Ombudsman. As I have said on numerous occasions, Aaronson is in a weak position. His position is called an Ombudsman, which is defined as an investigator, but in actuality it is more like an auditor—someone who reviews the process after the investigation has been completed. However, Aaronson’s background suggests that he will call things as he sees them.
For example, in one highly publicized case, the Santa Cruz police department was accused on spying on war protestors. The police internal investigation exonerated the police. Aaronson issued a scathing report on the investigation. He said the investigation “is incomplete and flawed for a very predictable reason. It violates one of the most basic investigative precepts by having been compiled and written by the very individual whose decisions are and should be under investigative scrutiny.” He went on to say, “I am surprised and disappointed that he was assigned to that task.”
In the conclusion of our examination of the police oversight issue, we came up with seven recommendations in September:
- Strengthen the Ombudsman position by making it a full-time position. As we’ve seen, the City Manager has had difficulty finding a qualified person to take a part-time position and it seems clear at this point that the city needs a full-time position. In the future, we might be able to cut back on that as department practices adjust to avoid continued complaints and adverse findings.
- Give the Ombudsman a stronger role in the initial investigation. Both the
San Joseand models would accomplish that. The Boise model would be a less drastic change but it would have a great impact simply allowing the ombudsman to monitor and participate in the entire investigation. The San Jose model would change who conducts the primary investigation. Boise
- Strengthen the PAC by using it to replace the Internal Affairs Department. This is drastic, but it seems very clear that the IAD cannot police or even properly investigate complaints against the police. The PAC is made up of legal professionals, a retired police chief and two attorneys. These are not amateurs. The current model puts them as mere observers; this change would put them into the forefront of the investigation.
- Strengthen the CAB by giving it specific advisory authority. Right now the CAB is not being used as a Community Advisory group. It needs to be given specific charges to advise the police on specific department policy.
- Improve Community Outreach. There needs to be forums for the public to participate to express concerns. Some of this happens already. However, in order for this to work properly, the department needs to go into the minority communities and actually interact with segments of the public who feel aggrieved in the current climate—that includes students, the African-American, Muslim-American, and Mexican-American communities.
- Improve Representation on the Boards. Find a way to get diverse opinions on these boards. Find students not heavily involved in student government. Find minority students. Find people who represent youth. Find representatives from the minority communities who may not support current polices. Give the public a true forum by which to express their views. And make the CAB meetings, public meeting.
- Re-instate the Human Relations Commission. When the City Council shut down the HRC, it shutdown the most effective body to register dissatisfaction with current system. By removing its membership, the Council chilled the possibility of a future Commission that would heavily voice its dissent of Council goals. That creates a very dangerous precedent for future interactions.
It is unfortunate that the council has actually gone in the opposite direction by removing or attempting to the remove authority to the HRC granted by the Davis Non-Discrimination it ordinance. Souza stressed this in September in making the point that the council is the ultimate body for oversight of the police–and that the public need not get involved. The HRC has been further weakened rather than strengthened and the result is that in recent events such as the anti-gay harassment of a junior high school student, the HRC has not been a participant in helping solve these serious community problems.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out. Aaronson seems to be in a tough position, but at least we have someone in that position who will not be an apologist for the police. Let me be very clear, that is exactly what I was expecting and I was very pleased that we ended up with someone like Aaronson. But this is far from over. However, the police oversight issue and the hiring of the ombudsman was the top story in Davis for 2006.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting