Is the CPRC facing fallout from Summer Lane?
The Community Police Review Commission played to an audience of city residents several weeks ago, but a ghost of two Decembers past dominated the conversation without ever saying a word.
That ghost was Summer Lane, a woman shot and killed by Riverside Police Department officer Ryan Wilson in December 2004.
In December 2004, the police department had briefed the CPRC on the shooting and provided a preliminary narrative of the incident. That night, there was no way to anticipate the fire storm which would erupt the following year. In part that was due to inaccurate information provided at the preliminary briefing, which clashed with that provided in interdepartmental memos written by members of the Officer-Involved Shooting Team before the briefing took place.
In November 2005, the CPRC released a finding that it had found the shooting to be out of departmental policy, the first decision of this kind since the panel began investigating officer-involved deaths in 2001. After reaching that decision in closed session, the CPRC then forwarded it to City Manager Brad Hudson. Many community members believed that the decision would lie in his hands, because the police department had submitted a finding of its own, which was that the shooting was within policy.
Their belief in a process which put the two entities and their findings on equal footing, was misplaced. Hudson opted out of the decision making process altogether and handed it off to Police Chief Russ Leach for a final disposition. Leach backed his department's own finding. Through his decision not to make a decision, Hudson showed clearly just how much, or more accurately, how little importance the commission had inside City Hall.
It appeared that the commissioners who released that finding received that message clearly too.
CPRC Chair Les Davidson told members of the public that the commission's hands were tied
"We are bound by that Charter, " Davidson said, "Our feelings may be different but we have to stay within it."
The Charter, Davidson was referring to, was the city's own Constitution that was first established and ratified in 1907. In it, are the rules and regulations which govern the city's operation including its boards and commissions. Several of these bodies comprised of city residents are included in the city's Charter. In 2005, the CPRC joined this select group.
Ironically, the inclusion of the CPRC in the city's Charter was intended to liberate it. The Charter Review Committee drafted a proposed amendment which would place the CPRC safely away from any political interference by the city council. Many community members believed this step became necessary after the existence of the CPRC was challenged by city council members who opposed it and had received considerable campaign contributions from the Riverside Police Officers Association during their election campaigns. The voters echoed their concerns and passed ballot measure Measure II in every precinct in the city, during the November 2004 election. Even the city council members who had opposed the CPRC were impressed and several said that they would honor the wishes of the voters.
Once it became included in the Charter, only another ballot initiative passed by a majority of the city's voters could abolish or make substantial changes in the operation of the CPRC. Or so members of the public believed.
Now, one year later, the inclusion of the CPRC in the city's Charter was being looked at with new eyes, as just another obstacle in its path toward realizing its full potential. Although it had been once been viewed as a mechanism to preserve the once vulnerable CPRC, now it was seen as a means of restricting its powers even further.
Borrowing a line from the RPOA's infamous anti-Measure II campaign in 2004, Davidson told the other commissioners that their hands were tied. He implored members of the public to petition their elected officials including Mayor Ron Loveridge and the city council to take steps to strengthen the commission.
"It's not that we don't want to do the job," Davidson said, "We can't do the job."
As usual, Commissioner James Ward did not mince words.
"The more I sit on this Commission," Ward said, "The more I'm convinced the city has been sold a bag of goods."
Ward said that the city government was micro managing the CPRC and that through the Lane decision it had shown that the CPRC's role was intended to be solely advisory. He added that not much had changed inside City Hall since the shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998.
At the beginning of the meeting, Davidson said that he had placed the item on the meeting agenda after he and Vice-Chair Ward met with Leach, Hudson and City Attorney Gregory Priamos. They had discussed key issues but there was not total agreement among all involved parties.
About 20 people attended the CPRC meeting on April 27 and listened to commissioners expressing their frustrations at the apparent limitations of their powers, before walking up to the podium and adding a few of their own.
Rudy Morales, a former member of the Human Relations Commission, took the body to task.
"Get off the chair and do it yourself," he said.
Morales added that when he had served on the HRC's Law Enforcement Policy Advisory Committee years ago, there had been similar problems. But commissioners were in a much better position to push for changes than members of the public.
"Listening to what I heard today, it doesn't sound like we've made much strides, " Morales said.
Morales' words were echoed by other concerned city residents who attended the meeting including other people who had sat on LEPAC before the committee was disbanded in 2000 to make way for the CPRC. Even its prior members had publicly defined LEPAC as a toothless tiger. Was the CPRC ultimately going to follow down its predecessor's path?
The crux of this latest concern centers around the issue of the CPRC's right to investigate officer-involved deaths. According to its own bylaws, the CPRC has the power and right to do the following:
Review and investigate the death of any individual arising out of or in connection with actions of a sworn police officer, regardless of whether a complaint regarding such death has been filed.
This power grew out of a ground swelling of concern that arose from the shooting of Tyisha Miller in 1998. It is no accident that the bylaws, the ordinance which created the CPRC and the charter that gave it a future all state that the CPRC is to investigate in custody deaths. One of the legacies of the Miller incident was how little faith and trust many community members particularly African-Americans had in the ability of a law enforcement agency to investigate its own officers' alleged misconduct. Both the creation of the CPRC and the inclusion of this power were a response to this concern.
"Asti Spamanti", who claimed to be a RPD officer, said the following before storming off.
"Oh, I've got an answer for you. How about this---"Mr. Asti, I do not know when officers should use deadly force because I have not the training or experience to answer that question or make those types of decisions and therefore, I probably should not be condemning these officers for making a decision that people like me, Sandalou, and others who so freuqently speak out against the police, are either afraid to do or incapabale of doing."
His or her words serve as a reminder to why people do not have faith in a police agency's ability to self-investigate. What is really being said here is that no member of the public even has the right to question the actions of any officer, let alone one who has shot and killed a person. These words have been used to refute the need for everything from state-sanctioned oversight of the police department to the creation of the CPRC. These words are still being said today, seven years after the shooting of Miller.
One problem is, that these words also extend to other employees in the police department including its management. To be reminded of this, one needs only to look at what happened during the only known RPD shooting to be determined to be out of policy in its recent history. After the police department decided that the four officers who shot and killed Miller had violated departmental policies, the decision was made by then Chief Jerry Carroll to fire them and their supervisor.
So what happened to Carroll soon after that fateful decision? His fate and his future was essentially decided on the date he made the decision to fire them. Most likely, he even knew it at the time.
The vote to oust him was not one cast by paper ballots, but by razor. Hundreds of razors taken to hundreds of heads, removing every vestige of human hair, as if by doing so, they could exorcise the chief who had betrayed the rank and file with his decision to fire five of its members. Carroll had fired five of their group's members so they were going to fire him in response. That was his first strike against him.
Carroll's "retirement" did not become official until early 2000 amidst a firestorm that erupted after his decision to promote two men of color and a White woman to the position of lieutenant. This action elicited howls of reverse discrimination against White male police officers. He had just committed his second strike.
The city soothed the howls of reverse discrimination by trying to reverse Carroll's promotions with as much vigor as they would later fight against a claim of racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation filed by a Black male officer. Carroll soon accepted a retirement and left the department.
If the tenure of a police chief in the RPD could not survive a decision to fire four officers involved in a shooting determined to be in violation of departmental policy, then it should surprise no one that if a panel of civilians come out with a similar decision on another shooting, its decision would also elicit an angry and passionate response by the same parties.
Given the predicable outcomes of the situation involving the split findings on the Lane shooting, was such a response by those parties even necessary?
The fallout from the Lane shooting is apparent, as the recent pleas by the CPRC's commissioners for the public to appeal to its elected government to strengthen the body's powers have shown. Unfortunately, given the current political climate at City Hall, this is not likely to happen any time soon.
With the already controversial shooting of Lee Deante Brown on the horizon, these questions will again be asked and answered and these concerns will once again be raised by commissioners and members of the public alike.