Commentary: City Comes Full Circle as Council Once Again Considers Stronger Police Oversight Policies

In August of 2005, a bumper bender in the South Davis Safeway parking lot changed the course of Davis city history.  The case of Halema Buzayan, a 16-year-old Muslim honors student at Davis High School, exploded when the girl was arrested at 10 pm on a school night from her family home in her pajamas for a misdemeanor hit and run for which her family had already paid the repairs.

Allegations of racial and religious bias as well as a violation of Miranda rights and police oversight protocols led what should have been a minor case to become the most explosive issue in the spring of 2006.   Controversy that poured into both the Yolo County DA’s race and the Davis City Council race.

By June 2006, it appeared to be over.  Jeff Reisig would be narrowly elected to become DA.  The criminal case against Ms. Buzayan was dismissed.  The council elections saw Ruth Asmundson and Lamar Heystek elected.  The council had rejected the Human Relations Commission’s call for civilian oversight and instead created an ombudsman position.

It had been a contentious and tumultuous six months, but it was over.  Except that it wasn’t.  Following the June 2006 city council elections, Chief Jim Hyde abruptly resigned and put a large amount of the blame for his departure on the Human Relations Commission – as well as its chair, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald.

In his letter he wrote, “The destructive and divisive behaviors of the Human Relations Commission and in particular, their chairperson, have limited my effectiveness to work with this fine community. Despite the great work of the members of this police department, the HRC has divided the community along race and religious lines to fulfill a self serving political agenda. In my 27 years of government service, 10 years of clinical psychology, and 16 years of working with non-profit organizations, the HRC is the most dysfunctional and incestuous group I have ever witnessed. I hope that City Council will correct this community problem.”

Two weeks later, June 18, 2006, on a 4-1 vote with Councilmember Sue Greenwald dissenting, the council voted to disband the Human Relations Commission.

In response, I would form the Vanguard six weeks later on July 30, 2006.

Without this statement in January 2006 from then Councilmember Ted Puntillo, there would be no Vanguard: “What I want are police officers out there that are using their training and their instincts, I don’t want them thinking about oh somebody’s going to be reviewing what I’m doing.”

Things would then calm down.  The city of Davis would hire Bob Aaronson as the ombudsman and later change the name to police auditor.  They hired Landy Black as police chief, who helped professionalize the police department and greatly reduce the number of citizen complaints.  Things improved.

While the current system marks a vast improvement over what existed in 2005 and 2006, there were flaws in the system.  There were people who were reluctant to come forward with complaints.  The lack of a citizen’s review board has meant that there is a lack of transparency in the system.  What’s more is that, after 11 years, the police auditor, hired in the fall of 2006, has decided to leave.

At the same time, an incident occurred in late April that has once again galvanized the community.  The Picnic Day incident has captured the community’s focus, in part because the police issued a press release in the time following the incident that appears not to match either the video that has been released to the public or the accounts of eyewitnesses.

The city reported on April 22  that “three Davis Police Officers working on Picnic Day were traveling on Russell Blvd in an unmarked police vehicle when the officers encountered a large group of people in the roadway who were blocking traffic…  Before the officers could act, the unmarked police vehicle was surrounded by a large hostile group and several subjects began to yell threats at the police officers in the car. One subject quickly moved to simulate he was pulling a gun on the officers. As the officers exited the car and began to identify themselves as the police, two officers were immediately physically attacked by multiple suspects and beaten on the ground.”

In addition, the world has changed a lot since 2006.  We have had the ongoing narrative since Ferguson of police shooting and otherwise using excessive force against people of color.

There has also been a sea change in the political landscape in Davis with a large and mobilized group of people who have organized in response to the election of Donald Trump.

Furthermore, the media landscape has changed greatly in 11 years.  Back in 2006, the Davis Enterprise was really the sole source of information that people had.  In 2017, in addition to alternative publications like the Vanguard, there is social media and many tools by which people can disseminate information in a quick and efficient manner that did not exist in 2006.

Finally the council itself is much more progressive on this issue.  In 2006, you had Ted Puntillo on the council who made the statement that single-handedly led to my involvement in politics and ultimately my founding of the Vanguard: “What I want are police officers out there that are using their training and their instincts, I don’t want them thinking about oh somebody’s going to be reviewing what I’m doing.”

Also Don Saylor stated that they had “thoroughly reviewed the complaints against the city and found them totally without merit.”

Compare that to 2017, where you had Will Arnold speaking out against the outrageous comments of John McGinness who had been hired as police investigator.  You have Mayor Robb Davis who called for, “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.”

The Vanguard had a well-attended police oversight discussion that drew both Mayor Davis and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs.

You have two members of council – Rochelle Swanson and Will Arnold – with African American kids, and Councilmember Swanson has in the past publicly spoken about her sons being racially profiled.

This is a different council from 2006 and it is a different world.

It is against this backdrop that the council will tonight take up a discussion of police oversight.  They will not make a final decision this evening.

Tonight, the council will be asked whether they have an interest in changes to the existing system of police oversight and what types of oversight they might be interested in.

The HRC has made some recommendation:

  • To hire a professional auditor with full investigative powers with a minimum of the same number of hours as the current position.
  • To include a civilian component with public meetings that adhere to public law.
  • To appoint a council subcommittee with full power to review complaints and the auditor reporting directly to subcommittee.
  • The auditor will provide bi-annual reports to council.

And while the police have rightfully taken heat for the statement coming out of Picnic Day, as well as the handling of the incident and the hiring of John McGinness, they are a much more progressive organization than they were a decade ago.

The Davis Police Department adopted a strategic plan on April 1, 2017, that is “focused on oversight, transparency, accountability, diversity and reducing conflict.”

Additionally, the department published a new vision statement: “Davis Police Department will model and pursue excellence by partnering with our community; investing in our employees to maintain the highest level of professionalism; being a leader in procedural justice, enacting restorative practices, and embracing our role as guardians of the community.”

A big question that remains is whether council will take the step that they refused to take back in 2006 and create some form of civilian review board.

As staff notes, “Civilian oversight of police is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many communities create hybrid systems (Davis currently has a hybrid model). If hybrid models are used, all of the systems should be complementary rather than redundant. Importantly, every system has its strengths and weaknesses which should be thoroughly vetted before implementation.”

It has been interesting to watch how the interactions have differed from 2006 – there are real concerns here but, given the changes that have occurred, we are hopeful that this council will avoid the traps and pitfalls of a decade ago.

—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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