Analysis: How the Picnic Day Incident Completely Changed the City of Davis

Interim Police Auditor Mike Gennaco delivers his report in April

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of the resolution of the Picnic Day criminal matter.  At times, it is easy to overstate the impact of one event – especially one that one is in the middle of.  But looking back, we can see just how thoroughly the Picnic Day incident, which happened April 22, 2017, changed city governance.

The biggest impact was felt by those higher ups rather than the officers on the ground.  In one sense that would serve as a surprise.  In another, as the legislature prepares to vote this week on SB 1421, it reflects the utter lack of transparency under which police officers operate.

Here is our scorecard from the Picnic Day incident…

City Manager Dirk Brazil – retired.

In late September Dirk Brazil, the Davis City Manager, announced his retirement as of January.  He ended up leaving at the end of November.  While on the surface this would not seem to have a lot to do with the Picnic Day incident, consider this.

He announced his retirement and wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren, but six months later he announced he would be hired as interim city manager in South Lake Tahoe starting in June 2018.

While he was strongly supported by council, there were cracks starting to appear – the biggest was his failure to do any sort of due diligence on the hiring of John McGinness as the outside investigator.  That hire, announced by the city manager, ended up blowing up in the face of the city when the Vanguard uncovered statements by the former Sacramento sheriff on his right wing talk show on KFBK that questioned whether African Americans were better off before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This is just scratching the surface of some of the problems that came to the fold during the Picnic Day incident, which may have played a huge role in decisions by the former city manager to leave last year.

City Attorney Harriet Steiner – to retire.

The Vanguard reported last week that Harriet Steiner will be retiring and the city has put out an RFP (Request for Proposals)  for a potential new law firm to represent the city.

As we have been told – and this has been reported to the Vanguard in confidential conversation by multiple sources, the city council became unhappy with the lack of due diligence by either the city manager or city attorney in the vetting of John McGinness.  The city attorney was going to have a performance review, but told the council, in some language, that she would be retiring, so they did not need to bother.

That has now dragged on for more than a year.  In the meantime, everyone was caught off guard last December when the report from US Attorney McGregor Scott was to be completed.  The council was led to believe all along that they would have the opportunity to review it.  The new city manager, Mike Webb, was caught off guard here as well.

At the 11th hour, the council was informed that state law prohibits their viewing a personnel document, which the McGregor Scott report was considered.  Had they been informed of this from the start, they may have requested concurrent reports – one which could have been a public report.

The city council was saved, however, by hiring Mike Gennaco to audit McGregor Scott’s report and release the audit to the city – allowing both the council and the public to have a public review.

Sources have told the Vanguard that the Picnic Day incident is at the center of the dissatisfaction with the current city attorney, but is far from the only source of frustration.

DA Jeff Reisig – nearly defeated in reelection bid.

At first glance, you might ask why we would put Jeff Reisig on this list.  Most of the grievances that came up during the election had nothing to do with Picnic Day.  It is true that failure to hold police accountable was raised during the campaign, but it was not the biggest piece of the puzzle.

However, the chain of events is important to understand.  The Picnic Day incident brought a large number of people into the public realm for the first time.  They saw the decision by Jeff Reisig – to prosecute the five individuals involved on Picnic Day but not the officers, whom they saw as instigators – as a miscarriage of justice.

That group of citizens – very far ranging, from formal groups like People Power to informal activists – became the backbone and the energy behind the insurgent campaign of Dean Johansson.

It is therefore fair to say that without the 2017 Picnic Day incident as a motivator and mobilizer, the grassroots energy pushing Dean Johansson may not have existed.

Chief Darren Pytel – admonished but remains in place.

From Chief Darren Pytel on down, the impacts of 2017 Picnic Day are far less clear.  Mike Gennaco in his audit hammered police for their approach, for their use of profanity and for putting out an inaccurate press release.  But the ramifications for those actions are at best unclear, under the cloud that is the Police Officers Bill of Rights and protections against the disclosure of disciplinary actions.

This is a huge reason for the need of SB 1421, to allow the public to know what happened in terms of discipline.

The interim auditor faults Chief Darren Pytel first and foremost.

Mr. Gennaco notes that two days after the incident, the DPD issued a press release “that attempted to justify the actions of the officers.”  He writes, “Almost immediately, though, questions were raised about the accuracy of information contained in the media release. As described below, these challenges were justified: a good deal of the information in the release was inaccurate or eventually not able to be proven.”

He faults the department for failing to correct the inaccuracies in the initial account and failing to include in public communication “any concern about officer performance or move to correct the inaccurate information put out in the initial press release.”

The interim auditor went so far as to criticize the failure of the city leadership to inform the public of the extent to which the investigative report would be made available to public.  He writes, “As a result, when there was a change in City leadership and it was finally clarified that the outside investigative report would not and could not be released, this news added to public frustration about the case.”

We believe that Chief Pytel was able to keep his job due to the strength of his overall record, but that he was strongly admonished and rebuked.  His retaining his position as chief is a clear sore spot for many of those activists.

(See this article for a full account of Mike Gennaco’s report).

Sgt. Steve Ramos  – retained.
Officer Ryan Bellamy – transferred.
Officer Sean Bellamy – retained.

As it turns out, only one of the three officers – Ryan Bellamy, who had other notable incidents – has left the department.

The actions by the officers triggered an investigation where it was found that the officers were in violation of plainclothes policy relating to officer identification and in violation of policy prohibiting the use of rude language, but a violation was not sustained on the use of force or biased-based profiling.

Mr. Gennaco concludes, “While it is fair to say that the aggressive response of some members of the crowd towards the van occupants was also problematic – and formed the basis for subsequent criminal charges – a more thoughtful approach by the involved officers in addressing the blockage of the roadway would likely have limited (or) averted the resulting clash.”

He notes a number of alternatives, arguing that “the poorly devised strategy only served to antagonize. It caused a hostile initial reaction by some crowd members that was both unfortunate and unsurprising: instead of officers, the van’s occupants were as, or more likely to be perceived as, obnoxious civilians interrupting a festive event without justification. The use of profanity by one of the involved officers would only have escalated this impression and response.”

He adds, “When one of the involved officers observed what he asserted to be an aggressive move by one of the crowd members, their earlier decisions had precipitated a conflict situation with no good options.”

Mr. Gennaco continues: “The regrettable result was a melee in which plain clothes officers found themselves at a significant disadvantage, especially given that two of them did not have clearly displayed identification nor chose to don tactical vests.”

Were the officers disciplined?  We will probably never know.  What we do know is that two remain as active police officers in the city of Davis.

Aftermath – change in policies.

The city of Davis immediately changed their Plainclothes Policy as the result of this incident.  The big change is new guidelines have been issued that “restrict circumstances when undercover officers may directly take enforcement action or use force.”

Under those provisions:  “Such circumstances are limited to situations when an officer acts to protect themselves or another person from imminent injury or harm.”

For me, the two bigger changes are:

  • New body worn camera (BWC) policy
  • Police Oversight system

In 2006, some will recall that many pushed for a civilian review board.  But the police pushed back, the city council pushed back and, after about a six-month struggle that ended in the resignation of the police chief and the disbanding of the Human Relations Commission, the city council implemented a Police Ombudsman model where a professional investigator was in charge of police oversight.

As the result of Picnic Day, the city has created a dual system with an Independent Police Auditor (IPA) and the Davis Police Accountability Commission (DPAC).  Interestingly enough, the structure is nearly identical to the one proposed and rejected in 2006.

At the same time, in 2015 the city implemented a body worn camera policy.  At the time, the Vanguard was concerned about two things: (A) officers could view the video prior to the report, and (B) a lack of ability to release the camera footage without a court order.

The Picnic Day incident, along with developments in other locales, has completely changed the thinking, and the Interim Police Auditor recommended changes to those policies.

Among the key changes, “Once the BWC recorder is activated, officers are expected to continue recording until the incident has concluded, recording is no longer relevant, or there is no apparent value to continued recording.”

Officers will provide a “pure statement” prior “to reviewing body-worn camera following a critical incident.”

Finally, following Sacramento and Los Angeles police departments, the city has drafted a policy for releasing video evidence.

“It is the policy of the Davis Police Department that video evidence of critical incidents involving Davis police officers that is within the Department’s possession be released to the public within 45 days of the incident. Video may be released earlier if the Police Chief determines that earlier release is in the public interest,” Chief Pytel laid out.

The lack of clear video release policy in the Picnic Day incident definitely did not help the department.  The Vanguard filed a public records request at the time and the police department, while denying that request, decided to release the video from a civilian dash cam, which at least gave the public a picture of what happened.

While there is concern – and probably rightly so – about what is considered a critical incident, more important is the acknowledgement that the video is simply going to have to be released and, if it not automatic, they now have the ability to use public outcry to trigger it.

The city has not finalized this policy as of yet, but it is coming and it is directly as the result of Picnic Day 2017.

—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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  1. Ken A

    I bet if we sent someone out today to ask people in Davis “How the Picnic Day Incident Completely Changed the City of Davis” the most common answer would be “What Picnic Day Incident” (and not even one person would say “Thanks for asking let me tell you how that incident COMPLETELY changed the City of Davis”)…

    P.S. Bonus points for David is working in the DA was “nearly defeated in reelection bid” (hoping that we forget that in almost every contested election the winner is “nearly defeated”)…

    1. David Greenwald

      Ken: Apparently people around the community were unaware of VCE. But be that as it may, the point I make is “City of Davis” by that meaning the city government. You have the City Manager and City Attorney in part leaving as a result of their poor handling of the incident.

      “hoping that we forget that in almost every contested election the winner is “nearly defeated”

      The average DA incumbent wins by over 40 points, Reisig won by less than 5.

    2. Alan Miller

      P.S. Bonus points for David is working in . . .

      My personal favorite:

      As we have been told – and this has been reported to the Vanguard in confidential conversation by multiple sources . . .

  2. Alan Miller

    We are coming up on the one year anniversary of the resolution of the Picnic Day criminal matter.

    Oh, THAT’s why the flags are at half staff!  Thanks.

  3. Tia Will

    Some commenters here seem to be missing one of the missions of the Vanguard which has been to bring to people’s attention those issues affecting the city which many citizens may not be aware of, but which may have an impact on their lives.

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