Commentary: Independent Review is about Transparency, not Blame

The family is seeking answers and wants an independent investigation

I want to start by thanking Supervisor Matt Rexroad for being willing to engage in a public discussion over an important issue.  While there are issues where Mr. Rexroad and I do not agree, I always appreciate his open-minded approach and willingness to be transparent in his discussions.

While I have often found myself in agreement with Mr. Rexroad, probably more often than I thought I would when he was first elected in 2006, the issue of police oversight is one where we do not see eye to eye.

Part of the problem here is that I think the supervisor misunderstands where I am coming from on this issue.  He writes that “the tragedy is compounded when there is a rush to judgment to condemn the police before all of the facts are known.”

We are talking about the death of Michael Barrera on February 8, after being Tasered by Woodland Police Officers.

As I wrote in my commentary calling for an independent review, this is not about trust or distrust of the police, nor is it about placing blame.  This is about the need for independent review of the incident to make sure bias – intentional or unconscious – does not seep into the investigation.

As I concluded last week: While every police agency has its strengths and weaknesses, this is not about distrusting either the Woodland Police Department or the county sheriff’s department, it is about setting up a transparent system where a disinterested and independent party investigates all angles and makes the tough call – either way – based on the facts that come up during the investigation.

Mr. Rexroad cites my article from February 14, which was based on both an in-office interview with the family as well as coverage of the vigil in front of the Woodland Police Department on Monday night.  Here we do cover what the family told the Vanguard as well as comments at the rally itself.

Bear in mind, this was actually the second article we ran.  The first was based exclusively on the police press release from Lt. Anthony Cucchi.  The Vanguard actually reached back out to Lt. Cucchi, but he had no additional information, and we left a message for Sgt. Matt Davis from the sheriff’s office, who had not gotten back to us at the time of publication.

The family is clearly angry and frustrated.  Under the best of circumstances, information comes out slowly and unevenly.  The family believes it has been lied to and that the stories have changed.

I think we have to allow a grieving family a little latitude here.

Matt Rexroad writes: “Greenwald wrote a commentary in which he said he has no confidence that the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office will properly investigate the incident. He based this on the accusation that ‘over and over again … law enforcement and prosecutors do not do a good job – for the most part – of policing their own.’”

What I actually wrote was that, “We have no such confidence that the current system will suffice, and we believe that an independent investigator is needed to give the family answers and the community confidence in the efficacy of the investigation.”  I also specifically stated, “This is not to point the finger at either agency, this is a problem endemic to law enforcement – there is no mechanism set up for independent review in most jurisdictions.”

In fact, I quoted from Assemblymember Kevin McCarty who has introduced AB 284 which would have the attorney general’s office investigate officer-involved shootings resulting in death.  I spoke to the Assemblymember last week, and will publish the interview tomorrow, but he is supportive of extending that independent oversight to all officer-involved incidents resulting in death.

Mr. Rexroad makes an interesting point that I do not show “even one instance of law enforcement and prosecutors doing a bad job of investigating police-involved deaths. You would think that if this happens over and over again it would be easy to cite just once instance.”

While an inquiry may generate some examples, part of the problem here is that we do not know what we do not know.  First, we would have to have a publicly known example where the police inquiry came to one finding, and an independent inquiry came to an opposite finding.  The problem is, that is not normally how investigations work.  For instance, in Davis, you would have the internal review process first, and then a police auditor would evaluate the investigation.  But if the two sides disagreed, we might never know because the entire process is internal.

When Luis Gutierrez was shot and killed in Woodland in 2009, the DA’s office investigated and then turned it over to the AG’s office.  But the AG’s office did not conduct their own review, they simply evaluated the existing review to see if the DA’s office abused its discretion – that’s a high burden and not the same as offering an independent review.  Without a video, a jury in a 2012 federal civil trial did not find enough evidence to hold the officers liable for Mr. Gutierrez’s death.

Second, we could point to numerous examples where an individual was cleared internally, but the department had to pay a sizable settlement in a civil suit.  Does that represent an example or not?

Third, we could point to numerous cases where internal investigations cleared the police, a conclusion that I simply disagreed with.  But again, does that show a bad job of investigating police-involved deaths?

I will return to this issue at another time because I think Mr. Rexroad raises an important point that should be explored more fully.

A few other important points to address:

Matt Rexroad cites that “Barrera had a violent criminal past in Woodland.”  While true, that seems misleading at best.  He had a single conviction of an assault charge ten years ago, but no notable criminal history since 2006.  How pertinent is that?

Second, not mentioned by Matt Rexroad is that the sheriff stated: “they came into custody of Michael’s body on Wednesday, Feb. 8; performed an autopsy on Thursday, Feb. 9; and released the body to family members on Friday, Feb. 10.”

However, when I met with the family on Monday, February 13, the family told me they had just come from seeing the body for the first time.

Third, the sheriff claims that none of his officers were involved.  That is the same thing that Sgt. Matt Davis told the Vanguard last week.  We did not know that at the time we wrote the column on Wednesday.  This information was not released until Friday, according to the Daily Democrat column.

Fourth, Woodland Police Chief Dan Bellini told the Vanguard that Woodland does not have body worn cameras at this time.  A key question is going to be whether and how much of this incident was caught on video.

Fifth, a key question is going to be why did a healthy 30-year-old who seemed to be in very good physical shape die from being Tasered?

Finally, Matt Rexroad is ignoring the fact that the city of Woodland has decided to do as we and others have requested.

In a statement late on Wednesday, the city of Woodland said, “We are committed to serving the City of Woodland with the highest degree of integrity. This necessitates taking every step to ensure that such incidents are evaluated through a process that is thorough and objective, and that the results are vetted in a transparent manner, with concurrence from other law enforcement agencies.”

They write, “To this end, and consistent with best practices, we are prepared to request a review of the investigation by additional law enforcement agencies, as necessary, to ensure that the facts surrounding this incident are independently validated.”

City Manager Paul Navazio told the Vanguard that he had sign offs from the Woodland Police Chief, the Police Officer’s Association, and the Woodland City Council on this statement.

The city of Woodland has done the right thing here.  Assemblymember Kevin McCarty believes he has the support to pass his legislation this year, which could make such independent investigations state law – just as they are in several other states.

The bottom line, I think, is to once again argue that the call for an independent review is not an outcome-based request, it is a process-based request.  This is not about distrusting either agency, it about creating a system of transparency that rebuilds community trust that the judgments made will be based on the facts of the investigation.

—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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One thought on “Commentary: Independent Review is about Transparency, not Blame”

  1. Tia Will

    External as well as internal review is currently the standard within our medical group for cases in which there are bad outcomes. I am having difficulty seeing why this is such an issue with regard to law enforcement. The advantages include a broader perspective on a number of issues including :

    1. Are current processes and protocols optimal ?

    2. Were these standards adhered to ?

    3. If not, what were the barriers to appropriate implementation ?

    4. If not, were there extenuating or contributory circumstances that should be considered in future policy development and training ?

    I agree with David that this is not about blame, but rather about optimal evaluation in order to prevent similar undesired consequences. No one benefits from such a poor outcome. Like the family, the officers involved will carry this event with them the rest of their lives. I know this to be true as a doctor who has had some poor outcomes. An external as well as internal investigation can help the officers, and future officers in preventing these occurrences just as it can help family members and the community to appreciate that their particular case has been handled fairly and transparently.

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