Commentary: Greater Police Transparency Needed

Police Blue

Across the causeway in Sacramento a contentious city council meeting last night on police reform is eerily a reminder of the contentious nature of things a decade ago that led to the formation of the Vanguard.

This is in the wake of the police shooting of Joseph Mann, who was shot and killed by police who claim he was armed with a knife and acting erratically – even though lawyers for Mr. Mann’s family told the Vanguard that they have analyzed the tape and not found any evidence that he was carrying a knife.

Mr. Mann was shot by two officers, John Tennis and Randy Lozoya, both of whom had extensive and questionable records that might have precluded them from being officers.  Dashcam video show that the officers attempted to hit him with their patrol car prior to opening fire 14 times and killing him.

Sacramento Mayor Pro Tem Larry Carr presented a 12-point policy which would authorize lethal force “only when there is an imminent threat to life and such force is strictly unavoidable to protect life.”

It also calls for the police publicly releasing video in fatal police shootings if it “does not hamper” the investigation and after relatives of the person killed have an opportunity to view it.

According to coverage in the Bee, Mr. Carr “said the use-of-force policy was one part of a more comprehensive set of reforms that he hopes to bring to the Council by Nov. 22.”  No voted was planned or occurred on Thursday.

The package of reform would include a stronger plan for civilian oversight, “likely revamping or replacing the Sacramento Community Police Commission.”  Earlier this week, the head of the current commission resigned, saying that the commission was “not relevant” without greater oversight powers.

The plan is a good first step.  It is particularly good to see the council address the use of force.  The police profession, in response to two years of sustained media and public scrutiny, have recognized the need to change.  In a report from PERF (Police Executive Research Forum), Chuck Wexler argues that “we need to challenge conventional thinking on how the police approach some potential use-of-force situations, in particular those that involve people with mental illness who do not have a firearm.”

Defenders of police tactics have often argued that the speed by which situations can escalate justifies the use of force, even in situations where individuals turn out not to have weapons.

Mr. Wexler in the preface to his report writes, “It is important to note that in nearly all of the use-of-force incidents that have proved controversial, the officers should not be faulted, because their actions reflected the training they received.”

However, “What PERF and leading police chiefs call for in this report are changes in policies, training, tactics, and equipment that provide officers with better tools for handling difficult situations. And we recommend discontinuing outdated concepts, such as use-of-force continuums, the so-called ’21-foot rule,’ and the idea that police must ‘draw a line in the sand’ and resolve all situations as quickly as possible.”

The legal standard for use of deadly force is that law enforcement officers who perceive themselves to be under deadly threat, or a citizen to be under threat, in order to stop that threat can use upwards to lethal force.

The controlling case on the use of force is the 1989 US Supreme Court Case, Graham v. Connor, in which the court ruled, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

Ken Williams, at a seminar in San Francisco this past spring, noted the lack of de-escalation in use-of-force training.  In analyzing the Mario Woods shooting in San Francisco, he noted the lack of use of defensive barriers, in this case from a knife.  He noted that they don’t have riot shields to create a barrier.  They also don’t have de-escalation use-of-force training.  He said one of the most powerful tools he had early in his career was his ability to speak to someone.

Mr. Williams said, “We have to change our mindset, we have to change the way we deal with people who are mentally ill, whether it’s temporary or permanent.”

Use of force is only one critical issue.  Another that the guidelines address is release of police video.  We saw in Charlotte the police were originally reluctant to release the video and eventually succumbed to public pressure.  Similarly, in Sacramento, the police released the incendiary dashcam video.

With the proliferation of cell phones, dashcams and now police body-worn cameras, the pressure to release video in critical incidents is going to be tremendous.

In Davis, they have attempted to tie the release of video to the Public Records Act.  The problem is that this policy would preclude release of video by the police.  If a critical incident were to occur, current events show us that this stance is probably untenable.

Eventually, we need the legislature to set a uniform policy across the state, because the current patchwork is untenable and confusing.  Moreover, the courts are likely to weigh in and rule in favor of more disclosure.

There are legitimate reasons to withhold video, especially in more routine cases, but the blanket policy is not likely to stand up to further legislation and scrutiny.

Finally, we need statewide guidelines on investigation.  Civilian review of police was undermined in 2006 under Copley Press Inc. v. Superior Court of San Diego County, which protected the confidentiality of internal affairs records, and the pressure is only mounting now.

We believe there needs to be independent review of all police shootings, and probably in most cases of use of excessive force.  Again, a uniform statewide policy would be preferable.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. Tia Will

    There are legitimate reasons to withhold video, especially in more routine cases, but the blanket policy is not likely to stand up to further legislation and scrutiny.”

    What do you see these legitimate reasons to be other than the temporary withholding in order for family members to view in the case of death or serious injury ? And another question. What is this possibility of “hampering the investigation ” of which we hear so much ?


  2. Davis Progressive

    the hardest thing will be use of force changes.  right now you have a mentally ill person who is not responding to commands (because he doesn’t understand him), if he reaches into his car or for his pockets (again not understanding instructions) they can lawfully kill him.  that’s gotta change.

    1. talexander555

      If he reaches into his car or for his pockets (again not understanding instructions) they can lawfully kill him.  

      You are correct, Sir.   It is interesting that this can be said for the mentally ill as well as anyone who isn’t white.  This is an issue of  built in prejudice.   Police have in their mind who is dangerous:

      1)   African American

      2) Mentally ill

      Police tend come into these situations with a built in, automatic prejudice.   Any movement essentially, becomes a threat to their safety when they are dealing with such groups.


  3. Frankly

    It is my opinion that those defending public employee unions as justified and righteous lack credibility to participate in demanding significant improvements in policing.

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