In January, when Assistant Police Chief Darren Pytel and many of the other members of the Community-Police Working Group presented their recommendation to the Human Relations Commission, it marked a huge amount of closure for me personally, but Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis was briefly overcome with emotion.
For him this was vindication for several years of effort to move our community forward on alternative conflict resolution and, most specifically, restorative justice.
It was December 2011, and the community was still stunned by the pepper spray incident that had taken place on the UC Davis campus. People were hurt and many were angered and outraged by what had occurred on the campus.
Into that December Human Relations Commission meeting walked Reverend Kristin Stoneking, David Breaux (known by many from his Compassion Campaign) and Robb Davis. I knew Robb Davis a little bit from his work with Davis Bicycles! as well from Joe Krovoza’s campaign a year earlier.
They presented an idea – a restorative justice process between the university and the pepper spray victims. They had drafted a letter to the chancellor and wanted to see if the city would sign onto it.
At first it seemed like an idea out of left field. I was angry and I wanted to remain angry. The community was outraged and I thought at the time that the community needed to remain outraged.
Eventually, however, Robb Davis won me over with his compassion and commitment to conflict resolution. I began to study and learn more about restorative justice and the potential it holds as a means of conflict resolution.
I would interview Linda Smith, whose daughter had been brutally raped and murdered by two teenagers, who worked in Texas through a victim-offender reconciliation program. Through Robb Davis, we would bring Sujatha Baliga to speak at the 2013 Martin Luther King Day celebration and I would meet Ron and Roxanne Claassen.
Finally, in late 2013, we would bring in Judge David Gottlieb to speak about Fresno County’s youth offender restorative justice program.
Robb Davis’ advocacy and compassion inspired me to learn about a very powerful alternative conflict resolution process that I think has the potential to change the way we do criminal justice in America, the way we do school discipline and the way we resolve disagreements in the community.
In the end, however, Robb Davis was not able to get the university to agree to a restorative justice process with the pepper spray victims. The victims sued the university, which forced the university to lawyer up. And the opportunity passed us by.
In a lot of ways this was a tragic outcome. I believe that the community remains damaged and traumatized by the incident. Talking to a lot of people when the MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle) came to town, the memory of the pepper spray played a large role in the reaction by large segments of the community against the police vehicle. This was overt – many of the public commenters cited the pepper spray incident as an example of why we should not have the vehicle.
The university’s reputation was hurt and Chancellor Linda Katehi to this day is badly damaged by the incident. Many in the community hold her responsible for the incident. And, in many ways, the university’s reaction to things like students’ complaints about Solano Park can trace directly back to the pepper spray incident and the desire to avoid more controversy.
While the city has taken huge steps on innovation, the relations between the university and city are strained and some of that can be traced to the pepper spray incident.
On the other hand, Robb Davis’ efforts made a huge impact. I got to know and respect him personally and that led me in the spring of 2012 to ask him, among several others, to join the Vanguard Editorial Board. Without his work on the editorial board and the respect he engendered with several thoughtful commentaries, it is unlikely he would have run for city council and end up finishing first in 2014.
Moreover, in the spring of 2013 when Eli Davis was approached by police while mowing his lawn, restorative justice was very fresh in my mind. I never would have even thought to have proposed a police-community restorative justice process had Robb Davis not pushed the idea a year and a half earlier with the pepper spray incident.
The Working Group wasn’t a purely restorative justice process, in that it was not a victim-offender dyad. However, there were elements of it.
The outcome was described as creating “a restorative-type” process. But the idea that two sides can sit down on the table and identify the harms they have suffered, be able to lay out their grievances and their perspective and have a facilitator that can make sure the needs of each side is addressed can be very powerful.
One of the big complaints about the current formal complaint process is that “there is no restorative component to the process.” There is no way for there to be “joint healing” and, even if it is discovered that the officer acted in violation of departmental rules or the law, there is no way to reconcile the officer with the community member.
Through this process a group of citizens and the police were able to work through and resolve long-standing community complaints and disagreements, but, just as importantly, set forth a policy that can help prevent future complaints and disagreements.
The university has made a lot of changes to their rules, procedures and personnel. They were able to change the culture of their police department. But the one thing they did not do is create a process to allow the community, the students, and themselves to heal – and that is what we hope we have done in our own community on a separate issue.
There are many lessons to be learned here.
First, we often define failure too narrowly as the failure to achieve immediate goals. Failure is seen as a negative and should be avoided at all costs.
But we learn from mistakes. Failure allows us to see a different picture. Failure may well open new doors.
In this case, the only failure would have been to not have put forth a bold initiative. You never know where the new path will lead you. I doubt very much that Robb Davis thought his path would lead him to the Davis City Council less than three years later.
Second, restorative justice and conflict resolution are the waves of the future and they can help heal rifts in the community that have festered for years.
Third, and finally, it is never too late to fix the past. As I described yesterday, what happened in 2006 transformed my life every bit as much as what happened in 2011 transformed Robb Davis’. The final chapter was not written on June 27, 2006 for me. When the opportunity arose to create a different outcome – seven years later – I jumped on it.
There is no guarantee this pilot project will work, but what I strongly believe is that we will win, regardless of the outcome, as long as we keep trying to find a better way.
—David M. Greenwald reporting