Commentary: Council Presents a Vastly Different Approach on Police Oversight than in 2006


The process of police oversight is marked not by quick decisions but by a slow and deliberative process, much to the frustration of probably everyone involved.  At times on Tuesday night you saw that frustration come out in the comments of citizens who wanted swifter action, a more aggressive stance by the council.

At times that criticism went further than some would have liked and there was some mild pushback and probably some hurt feelings.  I am not going to focus on that here because I think there is another and far more powerful and more important development that has occurred – unlike the last time this process occurred back in 2006, the council is listening and engaged.

Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee, I think, made two crucial points in his comments.  One was to point out that people with complaints about the police found their experience both to be “deeply personal” and “at some level humiliating.”

I have been concerned that the level of complaints received by the police do not reflect the extent of the problems in the community because every single person I have spoken to about a complaint has told me they did not file them because they fear retaliation.

The second point, though, is even more critical in that he really – for the first time I can ever remember – acknowledged that the strong voices in the community have a point when they demand more from the council.

Brett Lee said, “I think the community members have it right at some level in that we’re kind of being sticklers to what is our zone of control, or where we have some sort of jurisdiction.”  He noted, “We don’t have jurisdiction over a variety of things, but that hasn’t stopped us in the past.”

He noted the issues of Standing Rock and Trans-Pacific Partnership.  He said that “under no stretch of the imagination do we have any sort of authority over whether the United States enters into this trade agreement, yet we took time during a council meeting to discuss the matter.”

Mayor Pro Tem Lee said, “Why can’t the council weigh in and give their thoughts on Picnic Day?”  He said he would be happy to have an agenda item on Picnic Day and weigh in on it.

I have mixed feelings about the council doing this because I don’t believe I have all of the facts, but I think the point he made was very solid.

But I think the biggest development on this night is that Mayor Robb Davis laid out a way forward for discussing police oversight that brings the community into the process, through a potential series of facilitated outreach meetings with professional guidance.  That gained a much deserved 5-0 vote.

Councilmember Will Arnold pushed to acknowledge the oversight of staff not including the Human Relations Commission’s recommendations in the staff report.  He went through each of the points and uttered his strong support for them, as did Councilmember Lucas Frerichs, and for Mayor Davis’ motion including the review of the HRC’s recommendation.

This stands in marked contrast to what the council did in 2006.  At that time, the HRC, in February 2006, turned in their document, “Civilian Oversight To Strengthen and Improve the Davis Police Department.”  It was co-written by a commission subcommittee (Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald, Bill Calhoun, Hamza El-Nakhal, Chithra Lakshmanan, and Diane Carlson) with Jann Murray-Garcia.

For whatever you think of this document, members of the public read from it finding much of it still relevant today and Mayor Davis also acknowledged it in his comments.

But what happened at the time is almost unimaginable.  The council disparaged the report, with Councilmember Ted Puntillo saying it was “not worth the paper it was written” on as he dismissively waved it in the air.

I have talked to some current councilmembers about the treatment of a volunteer commission that had turned in a 60-page document, and they have found it mindboggling.

But it gets worse – before the proposal could be considered by council at the time, the city put forward a surprise recommendation for a different model (the ombudsman) and, when the HRC protested, they disbanded the commission.

The contrast between Tuesday and 2006 is rather stark.  Even when the public got contentious and pointed in their criticism, council pushed for more community involvement rather than less.  There was no suggestion in 2006 of a public process, as the council at the time rammed through their proposal, completely blindsiding the commission the day they were asked to present their recommendations – and when the commission protested, the council eventually disbanded it.

The 2006 report opens by stating, “There is simply no better way to begin this document than with an affirmation of the excellent job that most Davis Police Department officers do. It has been stated again and again how much it is appreciated that they literally put their lives on the line with each shift worked.”

However, they pointed out “it is also the perspective of this work that there are numerous Davis citizens who have experienced unjust targeting, humiliation, loss of physical freedom, and even physical harm at the hands of a relatively few Davis Police officers. The data herein show that this is not a new phenomenon, nor simply the perspectives of a few Davis activists. Many Davis residents have lost faith in the complaint process as it stands now, and some even believe that they will suffer retaliation by using it.”

I believe a lot of this could still be written today.  As I pointed out on Tuesday night, I believe that a segment of our population is treated differently by the police than the rest of the population.  It was heartening to hear Councilmember Lucas Frerichs and Mayor Robb Davis acknowledge this.

Moreover, I believe our current system is imperfect.  Too many people are unwilling to file complaints with the police because they are fearful or they have been humiliated (to use Brett Lee’s word), or they are otherwise skeptical that complaining to the same body that they believe wronged them could prove effective.

We can do more, as Lucas Frerichs stated.

That said, I believe that the police auditor is an improvement over what we have.  I respected the work of Bob Aaronson, but I have always believed we also need civilian review and now I believe we have a council prepared to include that.

We have come a long way in just ten years, but, as Picnic Day events show, we have more ground to cover.

—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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2 thoughts on “Commentary: Council Presents a Vastly Different Approach on Police Oversight than in 2006”

  1. Todd Edelman

    In cities of similar size etc. to Davis, are there examples of civilian oversight that have produced the results the loudest voices are aiming for here?

    1. David Greenwald

      There are a number of models that would work.  Aaron Zisser did a good job of laying out some of the options at our event two weeks ago.  Santa Cruz might be the place to look at in terms of similar sized cities.

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