The most explosive issue of 2017 had broad consequences down the line in 2018. Picnic Day. Police officers in an unmarked car approached a crowd of people overflowing onto the street. They did a u-turn driving close to the crowd which set some of the members of the crowd off – a melee ensued, officers were assaulted and ultimately five individuals were arrested and charged in the incident.
However when video evidence was at odds with official accounts, the incident turned into a fiasco. Last month, Alexander Craver, Antwoine Perry, Iszir Price, Angelica Reyes and Elijah Williams, who had taken a plea deal in September 2017 pleading to misdemeanor battery charges and a deferred entry of judgment on a felony charge of resisting a peace officer with threats, force or violence, had their charges formally dismissed as they completed their year – obeying all laws and participating in a restorative-justice program with members of the Davis Police Department.
Darren Pytel told the local paper that two of the three involved officers were disciplined after an internal probe cited them for violations of department policies. The third officer has since transferred to another department.
Back in April, Interim Auditor Michael Gennaco in reviewing the report by McGregor Scott, pulled few punches in his criticism of the handling of the Picnic Day incident.
The report found that there was a violation of plainclothes policy relating to officer identification, sustained by two officers; a violation of policy prohibiting use of rude language, also sustained for two officers; and a violation of policy on press releases, sustained against DPD.
However, they did not sustain a violation on the use of force or biased-based profiling.
Chief Darren Pytel in particular was faulted for putting out a press release that was inaccurate at best. In his report, Mr. Gennaco notes that two days after the incident 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.
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 officers themselves were faulted for an aggressive stance, writing “the ‘plan’ the involved officers had initially devised to clear the crowd was inherently problematic, and it largely set the stage for what happened next.”
He argues that “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 “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.”
Around the same time as the Picnic Day incident was occurring, long time Independent Police Auditor Bob Aaronson announced that he would not renew his contract that expired 6-30-2017. In June, the city council on a 4-0 vote with Brett Lee abstaining, approved in concept a dual oversight process that will pave the way for the recruitment of a new Independent Police Auditor (IPA) along with the Davis Police Accountability Commission (DPAC).
The DPAC establishes an independent review board with among other functions: provide input to the audit police department policies, recommend changes to those policies, review IPA reports on misconduct complaints and develop a community outreach plan.
In September, Governor Brown may have widened the scope of such a commission by signing two laws that give the public access to both internal police investigations and video footage of shooting by police officers as well as other serious incidents.
SB 1421 will allow the public to view investigations of officer shootings and other major uses of force, along with confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty. One of the key issues that is being litigated is whether that ability will be retroactive.
Prior to the signing of that law, California was the only state “in which even prosecutors cannot directly obtain officer personnel files.” An LA Times investigative report, “found that past misconduct by police witnesses, whether alleged or proven, routinely is kept hidden in court as a result of California’s confidentiality laws.”
The new law will thus open up interview transcripts, evidence and full investigatory reports to the public, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.
Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said “the measure could expose officer misconduct that was long withheld from defendants and could lead to numerous convictions being dismissed.”
How that will impact the DPAC is to be determined as this month, the council formally appointed members to serve on the commission: Mary Bliss, Sean Brooks, Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald, Dillan Horton, Abram Jones, Elaine Kahan, William Kelly, Judith MacBrine, and Keisha Liggett-Nichols as the alternate.
—David M. Greenwald reporting