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, December 21, 2006

Lee Deante Brown: The CPRC

"Never mind!" Alice said in a soothing tone, and, stooping down to the daisies, who were just beginning again, she whispered, "If you don't hold your tongues, I'll pick you."

---Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

Carroll of course must have been a regular visitor to RiverCity during its earliest years, and when the noted differences between the attitudes of its abolitionist founders and those who lived there during the early 1900s, began to unfold. During the early 20th century, Riverside was a city were the Ku Klux Klan regularly held rallies and the racist film that celebrated the Klan, Birth of a Nation premiered at the Loring theater. Inspired(or rather depressed) by what he saw, he wrote a third book in his "Alice" series that has never been released. It could even be waiting for a local historian to come along and unearth it.

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, it is appropriate to give thanks to what you have and that includes municipal entities such as civilian review boards.

Riverside first created its version of civilian oversight in 2000 through city ordinance. That ordinance was passed 5-2 and put into place the nine-member body that exists today. The only city council member of that group still sitting on the dais today is Ed Adkison and he was one of the two who voted in opposition.

In 2004, about 60% of the city's voters placed the commission in the Riverside City Charter in an attempt to provide some protection for it from the whims of the city's elected government. At the time, the majority of the city council opposed the CPRC. Most of them had recently won their seats on the dais, and all of those underplayed their opposition to it. In fact, at least two candidates made comments in the Press Enterprise that they didn't care either way about it shortly before election day. However, when they took office, that quickly changed. Different city council members, most notably Art Gage, who once called the commission a "piece of junk" tried to take action against it, particularly during the budget hearings on how the city should spend its general fund.

Providence of some sort was clearly at work because at the same time city officials were turning against the CPRC, another committee consisting of city residents was at work trying to create a list of amendments to add to the city charter through public vote. One of the members, Art Garcia, decided that since other city boards and commissions were included in the charter, perhaps the time was right to add the CPRC to that list. And the rest as they say, is history.

According to the charter, the Community Police Review Commission performs a variety of functions. One of the most important ones is the following:

(d) Review and investigate the death of any individual arising out of or in connection with actions of a police officer, regardless of whether a complaint regarding such death has been filed.

The first officer-involved death to be investigated by the CPRC was the shooting of Laotian-American Vanpaseuth Phaisouphanh in June 2001.The first briefing by the Riverside Police Department was done in front of a packed city council chambers, including many distraught and upset members of the Laotian-American community in Riverside. Their anger increased when Chief Russ Leach made the controversial decision to have an RPD officer stand next to him while he addressed the commission with his back turned away from the audience.

"What do you think we're going to do? Throw knives at you," people in the audience shouted.

The official explanation of why Leach needed to have a police officer stand next to him differed depending on whom you spoke with. A representative from Leach's office said that the decision had been made by former captain, Richard Dana. Dana said that yes, it had been his decision but the officer had misunderstood his instructions which were to stand in the back of the chambers and not next to Leach.

Asian American Riverside: Wat Lao


(1) On June 10, 2001 , a young Lao man named Vanpaseuth Phaisouphanh was shot and killed in his front yard by a Riverside Police Department officer. In the days, weeks, and months following his death, members of the Lao community met with city officials and connected with other community members working on police accountability issues. Click here to read the official minutes from an emergency meeting of the Riverside Community Police Review Commission held four days later, on June 14, 2001, in which Lao and non-Lao community members addressed the Commission and RPD Chief Russ Leach.

At the time of this writing (2005), the case is officially closed, having been found in policy by the CPRC and RPD's Internal Affairs. The officer involved in this shooting, Edgar John Porche, has since left the RPD.

Other investigations and dispositions of findings followed, and nearly all of them were that the involved officers were in policy when they shot and killed different individuals. Reports released on most of these investigations can be found at the below link.

Officer-involved death reports

One shooting death that was investigated by the CPRC did not produce a public report. Instead, the commissioners voted to submit a memorandum of understanding because they believed that there was not enough information provided to them by the police department to produce a public report on the shooting of Volne Lamont Stokes. That MOU was the culmination of months of frustration by the CPRC including efforts to address the absence of a statement by one of the involved officers, Tina Banfill Gould, in the department's own criminal investigation. The commissioners voted 8-1 to issue a subpoena for her to appear before the body to answer questions. Banfill Gould appeared twice with her appointed attorney, Michael Lackie and declined at her first appearance to be sworn in.

That led to Leach threatening to discipline her(again) if she didn't appear before the commission and in a rare sign of support, the full city council decided in closed session to take legal action to uphold not just the CPRC's right to subpoena police officers but its own right to issue subpoena power to boards and commissions. Banfill Gould appeared before the CPRC again in December 2004 but exercised her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination for each and every question asked.

The commission did not face further controversy until the 2004 shooting of Summer Lane by Officer Ryan Wilson. The only thing familiar in this case was Wilson because the CPRC had already investigated a fatal shooting involving him in 2003. Three months after his hiring, Wilson and his field training officer, Jose Loera had shot and killed Robert McComb after he allegedly aimed a handgun at them after a pursuit.

The first bone of contention for the CPRC involved the briefing on the preliminary chain of events by the police department, which erred on one very important detail in its presentation. At the briefing that took place on Dec. 22, 2004, the department representative said that Wilson had shot at Lane while he was on the ground behind her vehicle and she was in the process of backing into him. This misinformation had been provided despite the fact that it contradicted the correct information which had already been included in two intradepartmental memos circulated by the Officer-Involved Death Team. These memos clearly stated that Wilson had walked behind Lane's stationary vehicle up to her window before firing three shots at her from several feet away. News of the actual chain of events first became public at a CPRC briefing held regarding its own investigation in September 2005 and shocked many people, only because they had believed the initial version of events related by the department.

The CPRC concluded after conducting its own investigation and also reviewing the police department's own investigation and review that the shooting had violated the department's use of force policy.

Civil litigation was filed in connection with the Lane shooting by her family members. It would be the first law suit filed against the city which involved an officer-involved death in quite a while but it would not be the last one. The city government including the city attorney's office became aware that the CPRC's decisions could put it at risk of civil liability. The CPRC's finding on the Lane shooting was forwarded to city manager, Brad Hudson but instead of making his own decision, he simply allowed Leach to make the decision. Not surprisingly, Leach backed his own department.

Then along came the Lee Deante Brown shooting.

On April 3, Brown was shot to death by Officer Terry Ellefson after allegedly grabbing Ellefson's department issue taser and lunging at him with it. The shooting happened in broad daylight on University Avenue in the Eastside, and attracted a crowd of over 100 people who loudly protested it after it happened.

Initial information was that the accounts provided by the witnesses contradicted those provided by both Ellefson(who as it turned out was another familiar name as this was his second fatal shooting in five months) and Officer Michael Paul Stucker. When the investigations by the CPRC and the RPD were conducted, that would continue to be the case. Only it would also be clear that even the officers' statements contradicted each other.

The department would err again, when it presenting a similar briefing on the Brown shooting. For one thing, the briefing stated that Stucker had pulled out his baton to hit Brown before he had seen Brown with Ellefson's taser. However, Stucker told the department's investigators that he had seen the taser first and then pulled out his baton in response, according to transcripts of that interview. Stucker also told investigators that he had seen that a light on Ellefson's taser was on but did not say whether it was the laser sight or the power indicator light. In the briefing, the department representative said that it had been the power indicator light, which would not have been visible to either officer if Brown had been pointing the taser at them as Stucker had claimed. It was never stated by the shooting's investigators why they stated that the power indicator light was what Stucker had seen.

During the briefing and in some of the intradepartmental memos that were included in the case book, those who provided narratives of the Brown shooting often put statements of fact in their versions which could not be traced to a single eye witness or police officer in the entire file.

And there was more, including confusion surrounding the circumstances of how Stucker was shocked by a taser probe apparently coming out of no where. Though at least in this case, similar confusion was reflected in Stucker's own interview as to where this errant taser probe had come from that clearly was the source of the electric shock that coursed through his body for a period of time. The source of the electric shock or the probe was never clearly stated in the investigative report but appeared most likely to have been from Ellefson's own taser. Ellefson had fired and cycled his taser at least twice, noting in his own statement to investigators that it appeared to have little effect on Brown's behavior.

The CPRC was first briefed on its own investigation into the Brown shooting this past November, but it was not the usual briefing that had been provided by one of its investigators from the Baker Street group because it was only preliminary in nature. A second briefing including a form of reinactment and recreation of the circumstances of the shooting was scheduled to be conducted in January, barring any unforseen developments.

Judging by the expression on city manager, Brad Hudson's face when I addressed the issue of the CPRC at a city council meeting, it appears indeed possible that something is coming up on the horizon. If that is so, after reading the three case books on the shooting, I would not find that at all surprising. A shooting which only produces questions and a department that has to provide answers will eventually collide, with the CPRC perhaps caught in the middle.

The Brown shooting could also be the first opportunity the city and department could take the lessons both had learned from the Lane case and put them to use.

What makes all this reminscent of Carroll's book about Alice's journey through the looking glass is that like the story in that book, the actions of the CPRC and those who seek to determine its direction and its fate are all about a game of chess.

In other news, Al Sharpton and Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association continue to spar over what will be the final result of the criminal investigation into the Nov. 25 shooting of Sean Bell, 23, by five New York City Police Department officers, according to the New York Daily News.

Palladino predicted there would be no indictments by the criminal grand jury. Sharpton thanked him for pointing out the obvious and explained that Palladino's confidence in the outcome of an investigation which has yet to be completed is why so many people distrust the investigations of officer-involved shootings. To them, as he said, the relations between police departments and the county prosecutors who are supposed to be investigating them are what, too cozy? Comments like those made on a radio show by Palladino often contribute to that perception.

Then inexplicably, Palladino went on to complain about a jury pool being tainted by the media coverage of the incident. So does he think that perhaps there might be a trial after all? There will, or there won't be, "when the dust finally clears".

Union president predicts no indictment in Bell shooting case

The Los Angeles Police Department has finally released a statement on its investigation into the allegations raised against former Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, albeit a very brief one here.


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