Monday Morning Thoughts: Changing Police Oversight on the Fly is the Problem with Picnic Day

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Davis Police Car

Every system of government has strengths and weaknesses.  But one of the key things is that you want systems in place before a crisis hits, so that the process is already set up well in advance.  In the case of Picnic Day, part of what has gone wrong for the city is that they have a police oversight system already in place – but for reasons that have not been explained, they are trying to change it on the fly rather than adhere to the current system and then make changes after the investigation.

In a recent column by Bob Dunning, he quotes from Mayor Robb Davis’ expectations statement which begins with the statement: “A full, independent and impartial investigation of the events by an investigator who is beholden to no one, who understands police tactics and procedures, and who can use that knowledge and good investigative techniques to critically analyze what happened on that day.”

Mr. Dunning responds, “Those are words I can heartily endorse without qualification.  However, as I’ve said several times before, good luck finding someone everyone can agree on. And even better luck having everyone agree with this future investigator’s findings.”

The irony is we have such a person under contract now.  We have had such a person under contract since 2006.  His name is Bob Aaronson.  How many times has Mr. Dunning complained about Mr. Aaronson’s findings in nearly 11 years?  Zero.  How many times have I complained about Mr. Aaronson’s findings in nearly 11 years?  Zero.

How is that possible?

Part of it is because the individual was in place in advance of the instant situation.  The problems occurred when the city decided – again for reasons not adequately explained publicly – to use a different process.

Mr. Dunning continues to downplay the severity of the problems that a John McGinness investigation represented.  Even as he acknowledges that the comments regarding the civil rights movement were problematic, the problems of Mr. McGinness go much further than that.

The former sheriff’s comments regarding racial profiling data in Sacramento were alarming.  His position of defending the police in use-of-force incidents belies the notion that he could have been fair and impartial.

The troubling factor is that, but for his position as a radio talk show host on the conservative station KFBK, we might not have known the extent to which he was a problem.

As I have pointed out before, the problem with Bob Dunning’s comments regarding “finding someone everyone can agree on” and “better luck having everyone agree with this future investigator’s findings” is that, while it underscores the polarized nature of this issue – at least potentially – it also ignores the reality that there were far better choices than Mr. McGinness to head up the investigation.

As yesterday’s column demonstrates, it is not that we have had a lack of controversial cases in Davis in the last 11 years.

There was the case of Eli Davis.  Mr. Davis was minding his own business, an African American man in his 60s, a long-time community resident.  He was mowing his lawn when he was confronted, in his front yard, by a police officer.  Unbeknownst to the man, there was a 911 call that described in vague details a potential burglar.  As it later turned out, there was no burglar and the caller had mistaken a door-to-door salesperson for a suspicious person.

But the officer confronted the man – again, in his mid-60s and in his own yard – and asked for his ID.  Quickly the officer realizing that this man clearly lived there, and let him go.  But what he failed to do was chat him up, make him feel okay about the encounter.  Instead, the man was left to feel violated enough that this quiet and private man wrote a letter to the editor – something that his family told us was extremely unlike him.

The year prior to this incident, two college-age students were having a heated discussion in front of their apartment at Glacier Point.  The police were called.  The officer arriving on the scene, instead of calming the situation down, came in with an aggressive approach.  Sound familiar?

The result was an already heated situation which became more heated, and it led to one of the individuals being Tasered while the female was physically slammed into the police car.

Police Chief Landy Black, in a letter dated February 5, 2013, wrote, “Based on the evidence, it became clear the conduct of the first arriving officer with whom you interacted did not meet the highest standards of conduct and service we expect from our members.

“In particular, I determined your complaint of improper conduct had merit; the officer used an aggressive tone throughout and did not meet our highest standards for interacting with the public,” Chief Black wrote.  “Therefore, that portion of the investigation was sustained, meaning that there is clear and convincing evidence that the officer engaged in conduct prohibited under our Department’s Rules and Regulations.”

The chief did not sustain allegations of bias against the first officer, identified by one of the individuals as Lee Benson, but, as a result of this incident, Mr. Benson was terminated from Davis PD.

These are but two examples.  We didn’t hire a new police investigator to handle these cases.  They were handled internally.  Neither officer remained with the police department long after these incidents.

The problem with Picnic Day is that we didn’t adhere to the existing system.  We tried to change it on the fly.

It is not that the existing system is perfect.  There are two fundamental problems with it.  We have adequate accountability in the system – we have a professional police auditor, who, as the mayor put it, “is beholden to no one, who understands police tactics and procedures, and who can use that knowledge and good investigative techniques to critically analyze what happened.”

But we don’t have any kind of public process or accounting.

The police auditor checked in to council back in 2007, a year after he was hired, but needed to have periodic check-ins to inform the council and the community of his work and the state of the department.

Second, and this is a function of the laws regarding police oversight, it will be interesting to see what kind of public report comes out on the Picnic Day incident, because, in general, if you file a complaint, you get a vaguely-worded letter that lets you know if the complaint is sustained but little else.

Third, there really isn’t a public body for complainants to go to.  Some complaints will go to city council.  Some will go to the Human Relations Commission.  Neither are set up to do much other than refer people to make formal complaints and talk to the auditor.

We don’t have a public body set up here, and I’ve long advocated for some civilian component to this – where people can go and make a comment at public comment during a city council meeting to complain about an incident, and there can be follow-up work.

All of those would be good changes to make for the next incident.  But changing the rules on the fly is a problem here.  By not using the auditor, we have run into the exact problem we have tried for the last 11 years to avoid – having to agree on someone and a process that can have the appearance of being fair and impartial.

We’ll see where we end up with this process.  The start of it, with the initial hire of John McGinness, is not promising.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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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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6 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Changing Police Oversight on the Fly is the Problem with Picnic Day”

    1. David Greenwald

      Jim: No. This piece only used the Dunning column to illustrate the problem with the city moving away from the auditor and towards another investigator.

  1. Keith O

    Mayor Davis begins by noting that he wants “A full, independent and impartial investigation of the events by an investigator who is beholden to no one, who understands police tactics and procedures, and who can use that knowledge and good investigative techniques to critically analyze what happened on that day.”
    Those are words I can heartily endorse without qualification.

    However, as I’ve said several times before, good luck finding someone everyone can agree on. And even better luck having everyone agree with this future investigator’s findings.

    Does anyone have Sam Ervin’s phone number?
    Adds the mayor, “That the investigation will yield specific key learning points, specific recommendations for change and correction, and options for further training.”
    Hold on while I read that again. It seems as if the mayor has suddenly strayed from his excellent opening statement and is now implying police wrongdoing, unless he’s aiming those words as well at the folks blocking the street and the three suspects arrested so far.
    The mayor, of course, is free to feel however he wishes about what happened on Picnic Day, as we all are, but if he is one of those charged with hiring a truly independent, no-holds-barred investigator “beholden to no one,” best not to prejudge and, in fact, dictate what he desires the outcome to be.
    “That Chief Pytel will provide a list of specific and actionable responses to the investigative report.”
    Again, this prejudges that the final investigative report is expected to recommend changes in police policies and behavior. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but it shouldn’t be a requirement before the investigation has even begun.

    I thought I’d add what Dunning further wrote.  I find what he stated hard not to agree with.

    http://www.davisenterprise.com/local-news/dunning/bob-dunning-lets-have-a-truly-independent-investigation/

    1. David Greenwald

      What he said next wasn’t the point of this piece though. My point is that by changing the rules mid-stream, we have created unnecessary legitimacy problems that did not exist in prior incidents.

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