This week in South Carolina, Michael Slager, who shot and killed Walter Scott in 2015, was sentenced by a federal judge to 20 years of prison for violating the victim’s civil rights. While on the surface this would seem like a cause of somber celebration, the reality, as was pointed out over and over again this week, is this is the exception. Accountability for police is in most place elusive, if not altogether nonexistent.
In fact, even with the video evidence showing Officer Slager shooting Mr. Scott in the back as he ran away, even with clear evidence that he lied to his superiors and tried to cover it up, a jury could not convict him. And it was only because the feds stepped in and he took a plea agreement that he was sentenced.
More often what we see is what happened with Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile – no charges or acquittal. In Sacramento, the officer who punched Nandi Cain 18 times in the face was allowed to return to work even though his superiors acknowledged that the officer acted wrongly. Yes, Mr. Cain provoked the officer, but the officer should have been the professional and was not.
Still, as I covered the police oversight meeting in Davis on Thursday night, I came away with a feeling of hope. The Vanguard, as many long-time readers are aware, was founded out of a series of police incidents in 2006 that led to the resignation of the police chief and the disbanding of the Davis Human Relations Commission, led at that time by my wife, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald.
It is a different Davis than it was a decade ago. Gone were the contentious debates over the need for oversight or the knee-jerk calls to support the police. Instead, the experience by the people in the room was on a variety of levels an understanding of what people of color experience in the form of racial profiling, traffic stops, and outright cases of misconduct.
While some suggested this was simply the “usual suspects,” in fact, I would argue this was anything but the usual suspects. By my count there were only about five people in that room who were there in 2006 and, of those, only Cecilia and Jann Murray-Garcia spoke – and for the most part only as reminders of institutional memory for what happened ten years ago.
There was a core of people present who have been active since the Picnic Day incident. But the amazing thing to me is how many people were there that I have never seen before at any of these events, have never spoken out, and have never been involved.
This was a diverse group.
Someone posted yesterday, “Why all the hearsay and second hand stories? Where’s the meat?”
That is a reasonable question and there are several answers to it. As Cindy Pickett pointed out in a comment, “There was another ‘protected’ police oversight forum that was held on Wednesday because, frankly, it is hard to tell one’s personal story in a wider public forum where people will accuse you of making up stories or being overly sensitive. People really do fear retaliation and the negative repercussions of ‘going public.’”
That is a big factor. In fact, with what we see in the articles that come out on these incidents, commenters have the tendency to micro-analyze the situation based on a limited set of facts that can be presented in an article.
A second response to this is that there were some people in the audience personally impacted by the police, but they did not speak. One told me that that they came to check it out, but knew immediately they would not have been able to share their story.
They told me: “I did not feel comfortable telling my story and would have been quite angry about the treatment I received from the DPD but unable to express that rationally.”
Unfortunately, a lot of people do not realize just how personal and personally affected people are by these incidents. And so, what you are left with at a public meeting are people who are concerned about what has happened in the community, and more globally with policing, but have not directly experienced misconduct.
There is a third response, however, that I think is important. The purpose of this meeting was to address essentially two key questions: First, what are the police issues in Davis that oversight should address? Second, what factors are important to a successful oversight program in Davis?
Neither of these require that the consultants take in first-hand accounts of incidents.
The Davis City Council wants to create an effective police oversight system. At this point, they don’t need to be sold on the need. What they need is direction from the community about what their concerns are.
When an actual complaint comes forward, that is the time for there to be first-hand accounts and a thorough investigation. This stage is just gathering information on people’s perceptions and so this was, in my view, completely appropriate.
Another poster put forward this idea: “The police chief reports to the city manager who works at the pleasure of the city council. Thus the police as a function and service have oversight and the public has plenty of existing influence over that function and service through the existing political process.”
The problem here is that the current system does not have an effective mechanism for independent investigation in order for the hierarchy to evaluate cases and make determinations.
The challenge is that police investigations are quite complex.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Chief Pytel about the status of the McGregor Scott report on Picnic Day. That was put into place back in May. It’s now December.
The chief finally has the report on his desk, but it is very long and detailed and he is figuring out exactly how to proceed. He expects it to be out before the end of the year, and my guess would be next week.
The point here: Police complaints are complex and you need structures in place to investigate them. Ultimately the city manager has to make the personnel call, but the purpose of an independent review system is to have a report that people will trust.
To me the comments from Juliette rang true when she said that, personally, she has had positive interactions with the police, but when she talks to her African American friends “they have a totally different experience.”
The comments from Dillan Horton, a UC Davis student, were also important because, as he pointed out, people are talking outside of Davis about the treatment of students of color and many students of color are not coming to UC Davis because of that.
This was a very different experience that what occurred a decade ago in Davis. I have been a bit leery of how this process would work, but I came out of there on Thursday feeling good about the process that has been set up.
—David M. Greenwald reporting