In the last several months across the nation, we have seen play out in Ferguson and Staten Island and elsewhere what played out in Davis back in 2006. A lot of people I talk to do not really remember what happened in 2006 in Davis, with the turmoil involving the community, the police and the Human Relations Commission.
This time, however, we have a chance to do things in a better way, that will unite rather than divide the community. The alternative conflict resolution is a way to facilitate dialogue and foster understanding between a citizen and an officer after something has gone wrong.
In the end, I think what was developed over the course of many dialogue sessions from October 2013 until January of this year could change the way police complaints are handled across the country.
For me this is a very personal story – a story that really changed the trajectory of my life and led to the formation of the Vanguard. When I was in college, one of my favorite shows was Quantum Leap, where a scientist developed technology that enabled him to travel in time within his own lifetime, and he went about setting right what once went wrong.
In real life, it is rare that you get a chance to go back and rectify past mistakes.
The Back Story
This story begins in early 2006, and I was a graduate student in political science at UC Davis. The summer before, a 16-year-old Muslim girl, a student at Davis High School, was involved in a bumper bender in the south Davis Safeway parking lot.
What happened was subject to some dispute, as there were witnesses who saw the van hit the car slightly, although the family disputes it and an accident report commissioned by the family calls into question the accident due to the incongruity of damage on both vehicles.
Be that as it may, a Davis Police Officer made the determination that the cars hit, that the 16-year-old was the driver, and that the family was being dishonest. He made the decision to arrest her for a misdemeanor at her home at 10 p.m. at night on a school night and take her to the police station in her pajamas.
The incident was compounded when the arresting officer attempted to interrogate her, despite her requests for an attorney, and further compounded when the girl attempted to file a complaint and the professional standards lieutenant attempted to use the complaint process to convince or coerce her into confessing.
There were actually many complaints at that time against the police, but this incident captured the attention of the community. It was quite controversial, and became the flashpoint for a rift between those in the community critical of the police and those who backed them.
The father of the teen was outraged and went to the Davis City Council, which referred the matter to the Davis Human Relations Commission. After a series of meetings, the HRC, chaired by my wife, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald, would recommend the formation of a Civilian Police Review Board.
This was an unacceptable proposal from the standpoint of former Davis Police Chief Jim Hyde. Ultimately, the council would back him and create an alternative – the Ombudsman.
To make a long and involved story short, things would get far worse over the next several months. There were multiple protests. There were heated exchanges in the Community Chambers. The story about the teen would be played out in the newspapers.
Later, I would learn through public records requests that the police chief himself was working to foment the controversy. I know a lot of people have one perception of what happened – I don’t want to belabor the point other than to say that, in retrospect, a lot of the controversy was escalated and contrived for self-serving reasons by the former chief who was struggling to keep support in his department and would eventually leave.
In the end, the police chief left in June of 2006 for Antioch, his email to the council attacked my wife and the Human Relations Commission, and as a result in July of 2006 at 2 a.m., the Davis City Council would disband the Human Relations Commission and reformulate it later that fall with new membership.
It was out of this situation that on July 30, 2006, I created the Vanguard.
In the meantime, things would improve. The city did hire an Ombudsman later in the year, Bob Aaronson. They hired a new Police Chief in Landy Black, who has worked very hard to improve both his department and community relations.
Mowing While Black
However, some of the problems did not go away. There has been a longstanding perception in the minority community that Davis Police racially profile. For years, when I met African-Americans in Sacramento or elsewhere who went to UC Davis, they had at least one story of being stopped without cause by the Davis Police.
However, it is a tricky subject to get to the bottom off. I have been on enough ride-alongs to know that it is almost impossible to see the race of the occupant in the car in front of you, particularly at night. On the other hand, I know that officers are often looking for pretexts to pull over vehicles that look out of place to them.
As a retired officer once told me, the longstanding perception is sufficient to warrant further scrutiny.
We got that chance in April 2013, when a man named Eli Davis was mowing his lawn. Meanwhile, police officers were in his area east of Lake and north of Village Homes with a vague description of a possible burglary suspect.
The officer saw Mr. Davis, an elderly black man, in his yard around 2:20 p.m. The officer made a U-turn, drove back and pulled up to his house. The police officer approached, asked the man if he lived there. The man replied yes, but the officer asked for ID.
At some point, the officer after some exchange determined that the guy really did live there and left.
To some this may not seem like a big deal – to people who knew Eli Davis, for this quiet and unassuming man to write a letter about this encounter, he must have felt a grave indignity.
It is not necessarily that the officer made a mistake or racially profiled him, but rather that he left this situation with the man feeling that he had been treated with disrespect, and Mr. Davis felt indignity.
At this point in time, I was a member of the Davis Human Relations Commission and we asked Assistant Chief Darren Pytel if he could get us data on traffic stops by race. He came back and we went over the numbers.
It became clear that we would have to do a lot of work to translate the raw data into an analysis that was meaningful and, even if we did that, it wasn’t clear that we would be any better off than when we started.
Suddenly, I had an idea. We had been learning about restorative justice as a way to reconcile victims and offenders ‒ maybe such a process could work on the issue of racial profiling.
I recognized that we had an opportunity to do things differently than what happened in 2006 and, instead of becoming adversaries, we could work together and perhaps create a better solution.
Darren Pytel was amenable to exploring the possibility and, over the next few weeks, the HRC put together a proposal – five police officers and five community members with a facilitator.
I remember sitting in the room planning this with Darren Pytel, Lt. Tom Waltz and Lt. Paul Doroshov. The five people the HRC proposed included Carlos Matos, a past chair of the HRC, Board Member of the Concilio and member of the CAB (citizen’s advisory board) – a longtime resident who I had to really convince to participate. Diane Evans had been participating as a citizen with the HRC ever since the noose incident the year before, Malik Bennett was a younger African-American, and Yvonne Clinton was the only current HRC member and the mother of biracial children. The final person was past Chair Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald.
It was a fine line, as we wanted a group of people that could be tough and acceptable to the broader communities that they were representing but also willing to work with others. The choice of Cecilia was probably most controversial, but I really felt that her participation was crucial to making this work, from the standpoint that she was right in the middle of the last controversy.
The participating Davis Police Department members were Assistant Chief Darren Pytel, Lieutenant Tom Waltz, Lieutenant Paul Doroshov, Sergeant Rod Rifredi, and Officer Jesse Dacanay.
Rod Rifredi was a good person to have on this body. In a way, he was the counter-balance to Cecilia. He was the DPOA (Davis Police Officers Association) President in 2006 and in a lot of ways a key adversary to the HRC. Rod and I have long since come to a pretty good understanding of what happened in 2006, but it was nice to have his involvement as another way to close the 2006 circle.
The hardest thing for me is that I knew I could not participate in these meetings. My presence would have made frank discussions difficult because of my role on the Vanguard. We created the body knowing that the meetings would be absolutely confidential. So for 15 months we really had no idea what was going on in these meetings other than the vague reports the HRC would get that things were going well.
The Final Outcome
As Darren Pytel explained it and my experience agrees, the current system is very bad. Part of that is due to the fact that you have the Peace Officer’s Bills of Rights and personnel laws that govern confidentiality in terms of discipline for police officers.
The other problem is that, with the potential for litigation, governing bodies are loathe to do what is right and admit fault.
So, if you file a complaint against an officer, even if the complaint ends up coming back sustained, the complainant receives a pro forma letter identifying the findings and that’s it. If the complaint is not sustained or unfounded, the letter is even less forthcoming.
Assistant Chief Pytel acknowledged it is a lousy system and the people involved have no resolution. Many times, he said, what people really want is a chance to tell how they felt and get an apology. Often they want that over a lawsuit.
The father of the Muslim girl would always say if he had just received an apology for what happened to his daughter that night, he would have been satisfied. Instead, what happened would impact their lives and the community.
The ACR process set up here allows for a more informal resolution when it is a relatively low level complaint. The department is required by law to investigate serious complaints against officers when it involves a use of force, but in many other situations the mediation process may be far better.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this is that, when the group agreed to creating the ACR, they knew that because this was a big change, they would need union approval for it. Darren Pytel was worried but, in the end, the rank and file of the DPOA approved this with only two or three dissenting votes.
In contrast to 2006, this time we were able to create a process that would allow for the complainants to have their opportunity to air their grievances and be heard by the officer involved. The officer would also be able to explain to them their thinking when the encounter occurred. And we were able to get this through with full support from the police officer’s union.
When I lamented to Darren Pytel that I wish we could have done something like this back in 2006, he remarked that it wasn’t the right time.
The hard work was done by those ten people. When they came to the HRC back in January, they said that the first few meetings things were tense but eventually they came to some understanding that allowed them to move forward.
In 2014, the Davis Human Relations Commission honored Landy Black with a Thong Hy Hyunh award – without his leadership there is no way that this would have been possible. Darren Pytel, in a lot of ways, took some huge risks in pushing this forward. He was able not only to get an agreement with the community members but he got buy-in from the police officer’s union, perhaps a far more difficult task.
This is the kind of leadership that this community has in its police department and that is a huge reason why things have drastically improved since 2006, even before this new program.
I will close with this thought. I have been highly critical of certain police actions just as I am highly critical other government’s mistakes and malfeasance. The Vanguard was created as a watchdog over such activities whether, it is in the police department or elsewhere.
The great thing about this pilot program is that, if it works as we hope, it can become a new model around the country for improving community-police relations.
—David M. Greenwald reporting