Commentary: The Community Needs to Know What Happened

Darren Pytel (far right), Harriet Steiner and Dirk Brazil

On Tuesday night, about 24 people came to public comment to speak about their concerns about what happened on Picnic Day.  Unfortunately, the release of the video – limited as it is and without audio – has not fully clarified some of the key questions about the decision by plainclothes officers to attempt what started out as crowd control.

As I said on Tuesday night, this is largely a process issue.  Coming out of the last time a major police incident occurred, the city council created the position of police ombudsman – now known as police auditor.

One of the recurring ideas expressed on Tuesday was the idea that the police cannot be asked to police the police.  Some called it a conflict of interest and many have used the hiring of John McGinness, who has stepped down, as a prime example of that.

The creation of the police auditor position was supposed to avoid these pitfalls.  The idea was to have an individual who was independent from the police department, but who has legal and other expertise regarding police practices.

The basic idea was to have someone that we can trust – that when they issue a report and make a determination, they have done it based on the facts that emerge rather than issues of liability, city politics or personal interest.

Given John McGinness’ political persuasion and demonstrated support in other use-of-force cases, he was a poor choice.  We need someone to head up this investigation whose findings we can support – even if we disagree with them.

Going forward, the question is how do we avoid the pitfalls of another poor choice to head up an investigation?

At the same time, I wonder how this choice was allowed to occur in the first place – it does not give me confidence in the police chief or the city manager and city attorney, who apparently had to sign off on this.

In 2013, Eli Davis was mowing his lawn when he was stopped by a police officer who heard reports of a possible burglar, and was asked to show his ID.  Mr. Davis complied with this and, eventually, the officer realized that he lived at the location and dropped the matter.  But Mr. Davis was deeply offended by the encounter.

As a result of that, I helped to initiate a citizens-police mediation process which ultimately resulted in the creation of an alternative conflict resolution model for Davis based on restorative justice principles.

Helping to spearhead that effort was then-Assistant Chief Darren Pytel.

I’ve always respected the fact that Darren Pytel has not shied away from working with groups in the community to forward understanding and improve police practices.

While Chief Pytel has been a solid public advocate for police oversight, I am left wondering what he was thinking here.  His words supporting police oversight have become lip service when you back that up by hiring John McGinness and believing that is going to fly.

And yes, he knew what he was doing – there can be no doubt.

For a guy who lives in Davis and has lived here all his life, he has made two huge and costly blunders.  It was his call, really, to bring in the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) without telling council beforehand.  That blew up in his face and now this.  I don’t understand what he could have been thinking.

In the aftermath of the MRAP decision, then-Assistant Chief Pytel helped to host a community discussion.  He explained at that time that Lt. Glenn Glasgow came to him a few years before and said that the military was giving away these vehicles, and at the time they were looking to replace the Peacekeeper that is owned by West Sacramento and shared by the mutual SWAT teams.

Darren Pytel told the audience that he didn’t think the MRAP would fly in Davis, but after talking with his team, he became convinced it was necessary.

Darren Pytel and then Chief Landy Black attempted to sell the public and the council on the need, but to no avail.  The mistake here was not going to the council before bringing the vehicle into Davis.

Again, in this current issue, a key question is why did Darren Pytel think that John McGinness – even granting he was probably unaware of Mr. McGinness’ inflammatory comments as a talk show host on the right wing KFBK – would fly in liberal Davis?

Many were quick to call for the chief to be fired here – but the chief did not make this call alone.

The next key question that has to be asked is why did the city manager and the city attorney sign off on this?

The reputation that City Manager Dirk Brazil has is that he is very politically astute – being a long time operative in the political realm.  But he is not a hands-on city manager, from what has been described.  Still, he had to understand that John McGinness was not a good choice, particularly in these times.

Various accounts indicate that he was somehow unaware of Mr. McGinness and his reputation.  How can that be?  As much as the Vanguard is credited for doing the research and finding the information on Mr. McGinness that led to his dismissal, a five-minute Google search would have been sufficient to send up red flags all over the place.

Is the city manager incapable of due diligence to simply Google a potentially volatile hire?  Was he advised to stay out of it?  That is a key question here – it does not become a case of what did he know and did he know it, but rather, why didn’t he know it?

Finally, the city attorney needs a lot of hard questions here. Harriet Steiner, the one person in the room back in 2006, fumbled the ball here.  The council has to rely on her legal advice and she let them down.  This is as much on her, who signed off on it, as anyone else.  She too failed the due diligence factor.

What was her role?  Why might she have advised the city manager not to play more of a role in the hiring of a independent investigator?  Did she play a role in sidelining the police auditor?

As I said on Tuesday night, the council needs to take a more proactive role here at the start.  They need to make sure that we get a fair and impartial investigation so that, again, the aftermath of the report isn’t spent questioning the qualifications of the investigator but rather figuring out how to do better.

The original incident was handled poorly, there can be no doubt, but that is compounded by the inexplicable decision to hire John McGinness.

We can fix the second part of that to hopefully prevent the first part from happening in the future.

—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

    I just want to express a bit of gratitude this morning. I am grateful to be living in a community in which incidents such as the police action on Picnic Day are taken seriously, discussed openly, & not accepted as the norm and/or hidden from public view. Kudos to the people who came out to express their concerns at City Council. Kudos to our council members who listen patiently, and often even with open minds about issues of public concern. Kudos to our police chief, the  city manager and the city’s attorney who manage to get through what must be uncomfortable public hearings with regard to decisions they have made while showing a grace and composure frequently lacking in public officials today when hearing views different from their own. Kudos to David for doggedly following up on developments in controversial issues on the local and regional level.

    I feel that I am living in a city in which the citizens and principles in major decisions in our city can work together to arrive at a mutually acceptable, if imperfect solution to identified city problems. So, my thanks to all involved.

    1. David Greenwald

      The biggest problem we have here is that we need to know what happened, and there are barriers to that.  I hope the council can stay on top of it.

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