Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Thursday, August 31, 2006

When vinegar is disguised to taste like sugar

This is not a blog about the CPRC but the panel plays a supporting role in it because it is considered to be an important mechanism to try to promote accountability in the police department, at least by many of the city's residents. As to how the police department and its various factions view it, that's another story and a rather lengthy one.

CPRC: the history

Created by popular demand in 2000, the idea of civilian oversight was initially a brain child of a grass roots organization that had formed after the shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998. That organization, the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability began gathering signatures in 1999 within the city limits to place an initiative on the ballot for the elections later that year. It hoped to have a civilian review board in place by 2000.

At about the same time, a panel of citizens appointed by Mayor Ron Loveridge met to discuss recommendations for reforms to be implemented by the Riverside Police Department. One of the suggestions that they presented to a packed city council chambers in April 1999, was the creation of a civilian form of oversight. Out of that recommendation came a research committee known as the Police Policy Review Committee.

This committee consisted of three city council members, three Human Relations Commission members, three members of Loveridge's task force and single representatives from both the RCPA and the Riverside Police Officers Association. However, in the midst of the process then RPOA vice-president Bill Rhetts was asked to step down after it came to light that he had been under investigation by the department's Internal Affairs Division for comments he had made in relation to the Miller shooting while he was allegedly "educating" younger officers in the roll call room. He was replaced by then Sgt. Gary Leach for the duration of the process.

The committee researched the various mechanisms of police oversight in the country and narrowed down their choices to three different models. The first, was Model A, which was based on that used in Berkeley. It was the most independent and powerful of the three models. The second, was model B, which mirrored the auditor system used by the city of San Jose. The third, Model C, was a much weaker version of Model A, and based on commissions in the cities of Long Beach and San Diego. The committee had spent weeks listening to representatives from Long Beach, San Diego city and county, San Jose and Berkeley. They had even listened to a police lieutenant whose expertise was in the area of research. He spent most of his allotted time blasting the Berkeley model and cursing its existence.

The debate and discussion on which model to forward to the city council for further discussion and hopefully, approval was contentious with opinions sharply split between Model A and Model C except for the RPOA which did not want any model approved at all. In the final vote, Model A prevailed by only one vote, with the final tally being 8 to 7. Two out of three of the city council members on the committee had voted against Model A, a piece of information that would become relevant later.

It was agreed that Model A would be presented to the city council by committee Chair(and city council member) Maureen Kane.

What actually happened, again in a packed city council chambers, was that Model A was sidelined and a council member who had not been a member of the PPRC presented a model very similar to Model C, which had not even been included in the report presented to the city council. Many people talked afterwards about what had transpired and wondered how Council Member Joy Defanbaugh had accessed information on Model C in the first place when it was not included in the report and she had not been on the committee. The Brown Act crossed the lips of more than a few people.

Model C passed the city council's approval and an ordinance was quickly drafted to create the Community Police Review Commission. Everyone scratched their heads for a little while but quickly embraced the new commission.

In 2004 after attempts were made by several city council members to defund the CPRC, several members of the Charter Review Committee decided to draft a proposed amendment to place it in the city's charter. That gave birth to another initiative which was put to a vote along with other proposed charter amendments that autumn. Despite an expensive and horribly misguided campaign by the RPOA in opposition, the ballot measure passed handily in every precinct in the city. The city's voters had spoken and the CPRC was included in the city's charter.

Kane said during a 2004 workshop held by the CPRC that the creation of a model of civilian oversight was one of the few points the city had in its favor when it was negotiating with the State Attorney General's office over what reforms would be imposed on the police department. During the past five years, her attitude had obviously softened towards the idea of civilian oversight.

CPRC: the present

That is the story of its origins in a nutshell. What has happened since is at least as interesting, especially after it became clear that this was what the public wanted. Suddenly, the CPRC was not only a more permanent fixture of the city's fabric, it was also everyone's newest darling. Members of the department's management said that they would work with the commission more closely, a development welcomed by many in the community. The RPOA leadership had also made some overtures, in marked contrast to its petulant showing at a March 2004 workshop. That was seen as a positive sign as well.

The overall mood changed when the commission released its finding on the Summer Lane shooting last year. One meeting between the heads of the CPRC, the police department, the city attorney's office and the city manager's office left a lasting impression on everyone. The mood became more pessimistic and somber at several CPRC meetings earlier this year after that meeting took place. A workshop was held to invite community input on what the role of the CPRC should be, five years after its creation. Most of the community residents who appeared told the CPRC residents to do the task assigned to them because its members were in a position to act in ways the majority of the city's residents were not.

In the midst of this turmoil, a curious development took place involving one itty-bitty word, exonerated.

The public first heard about it when Commissioner Jim Ward said at one meeting that he had been asked to sign a document at City Hall in order to acknowledge that the language used to define one of the four possible complaint findings had been changed. He was upset by the experience, because he felt he had been ambushed. He shared his concerns with the rest of the commission.

The finding that had its definition and essentially its history rewritten, was the "exonerated" finding. For years, the text of that particular finding had consisted of, "the alleged act occurred but was justified, legal and proper." For years, the CPRC, like the police department had used this definition including its legal terminology when evaluating whether or not to assign a complaint an "exonerated" finding. For years it did so without any problems and without receiving any complaints from City Hall. All that was about to change, because of Summer Lane.

That particular case's finding by the CPRC had just become a thorn in the side of those overseeing the commission and more importantly, had placed the city and its police department at risk of being found civilly liable in any law suit that might be filed in connection with it. However, disregarding or ignoring the CPRC's finding was not enough to make it go away. So they decided instead to condemn it based on a technicality and then to go back and rewrite the history which had paved the way for the CPRC to make that kind of decision.

First, to explain why it had rejected the finding submitted by the CPRC, the city management and police department instead referred to the commission's public report(which is independent of the finding) and it's final sentence.

Therefore, the legal justification for Officer Ryan Wilson's action in shooting Ms Lane appears to be absent.

The city and police department argued that the commission had overstepped its bounds by using legal language in its explanation of why Wilson's actions did not comply with the department's use of force policy. That was the sole domain of the Riverside County District Attorney's office, they said. When it comes to determining the criteria for deciding whether criminal charges will be filed, their assertion is absolutely correct in almost all cases outside of indictments handed out by a grand jury. However, the city and the police department themselves had laid the precedent for the CPRC to use legal language when analyzing either a citizen complaint's allegations or an officer-involved death to determine whether they were within policy through the language written into the "exonerated" finding and implied in its polar opposite, the "sustained" finding. The city and police department themselves had already set up the foundation which if allowed to stand, defeated its own argument. That foundation had been established by the use of the "exonerated" finding to decide citizen complaints which the CPRC had done for five years during what was an administrative, not a criminal, investigative and review process.

CPRC: the rewrite

In response to this dilemma, the city decided to change the text of that finding to where it would instead read that the alleged act occurred but had complied with departmental policy. With the stroke of a pen, they had removed the word "legal" from the definition of the "exonerated" finding and life could go on as if it had never existed and the commission had never had to make decisions based in part on satisfying legal criteria. With the new definition in place, the city could firm up its argument for refusing to consider the CPRC's finding on the Lane shooting. The strange thing in all this revisionist behavior, is that this legal terminology which was the source of condemnation against the CPRC's finding was never actually expressed in the actual finding. Not that this technicality mattered.

I believe George Orwell who wrote 1984 had a term for all of what happened above, which fits it quite nicely. He just got his dates wrong.

Riverside City Charter(2005)

Charter: Community Police Review Commission

Charter: Subpoena power

CPRC Policies, Procedures and By Laws

Municipal Code: CPRC(2000)


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