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.
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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Canary in the mine: The community forum

Barbaro (April 29, 2003-Jan. 29, 2007)

Over 50 community members appeared last night at a public forum centered on the Community Police Review Commission, to listen to four panelists address issues that have clouded the future of the panel in recent weeks.

Panelists included CPRC Chair Les Davidson, Riverside County District Attorney's office representative, Sara Danville, Riverside Police Department Chief Russ Leach and Councilman Andrew Melendrez.

Pulling a no-show, was City Manager Brad Hudson who instead sent Asst. City Manager Tom DeSantis in his stead. Instead of addressing his office's role in determining how the CPRC operates especially now, DeSantis sat in the audience, with the interim executive manager, Mario Lara glued to his side. Even though the police department had initially said that no deputy chiefs would be attending, one of them, John DeLaRosa, did make an appearance while the other, Dave Dominguez, who is more familiar to the communities in the city, did not.

Two city council members Dom Betro and Nancy Hart who had run on campaigns supporting the CPRC finally made an appearance at a discussion on its future.

Questions abounded and as is often the case, they outshone the material provided by the speakers. Not that they didn't have plenty to say, and so little time to say it as each was only given 10 minutes to answer their questions but not all that much was said in terms of answering the questions.

Davidson spoke first and told the audience he was not an expert but a city resident like them, who had chosen to volunteer his services on the CPRC.

"I'm not sure I knew what I was getting myself into," Davidson said.

Of the police department, Davidson had this to say.

"There are good cops. There are bad cops," Davidson said, adding that he believed the majority of officers were good. He said that because of them, he had the freedom to drive to this forum without getting shot or beaten up.

When he made that statement, two Black women in the audience looked at each other. Their brother, Joseph Darnell Hill had been shot and killed by a police officer after a traffic stop. He was their second brother to be killed by law enforcement officers. The group of community members from Casa Blanca also looked at each other, as just a few weeks ago, the mentally challenged son of one of them had been struck by police officers after they spotted him walking through a park with his hands in his pocket and decided he looked "suspicious" and as if he were under the influence of a controlled substance. That showed there were different ways to look at that one statement sitting inside one room.

Davidson did deliver this message.

"You need to speak up. You need to get together. You need to do something," Davidson said, "The power of the police commission is only as powerful as you want to make it."

However, the CPRC saw more activity surrounding its operations during the usually slow holiday period when most boards and commissions go dark for the month. The CPRC didn't exactly shut down operations for December, it just apparently had its business conducted behind closed doors without any community members or commissioners present as it did so. By the time most of these people found out, it was too late and an executive director had resigned.

Danville spoke next and pretty much put the idea that's been circulated lately about the investigation that her office conducts on officer-involved deaths to rest. What the District Attorney's office does conduct is more akin to a review of another law enforcement agency's criminal investigation.

Yes, a representative of that office does show up at the scene after an officer kills a civilian and yes, they do appear at the interviews of the involved officers, but then again so does a representative of the city attorney's office, purportedly on behalf of the risk management division to monitor an incident in terms of how it might impact civil liability for the city. Representatives from the Internal Affairs Division also appear to monitor both situations, but the process conducted by its investigators appears in many ways to be more similar to the review conducted by the District Attorney's office rather than the investigation conducted by the department's Officer-Involved Death Team.

Departmental policy #4.8 states that the Internal Affairs Division is supposed to conduct its own independent investigation but whether that is what it actually does has been a subject of debate between the CPRC, which has issued policy recommendations to this effect and the department which has rejected these policy recommendations.

Danville told the audience that it wasn't her office's job to determine whether or not an officer violated departmental policies, only if they had committed a crime. Not only that, her office had to decide whether or not they could prove that an officer did so beyond a reasonable doubt.

At one point, after observing the process of the law enforcement agency's investigation, the District Attorney's office conducts a review meeting which includes members of its homicide unit, assistant district attorneys and sometimes the district attorney as well. They grill the police detectives who handle the investigation of an officer-involved death for a while, kick them out and then decide then and there whether or not charges will be filed against the involved officers.

Every time this review has been conducted involving onduty fatalities, the end result has always been the same, that no charges will be filed. And it's interesting to note that in Danville's presentation, she never mentioned anything about how such a case would be prosecuted after the review committee had decided to file criminal charges, probably because the District Attorney's office has no actual experience in this area at all, not that any is needed at this point in time.

Leach came on deck next, talking first about his relationship with the CPRC.

"We have had a great relationship," Leach said, "We have had a not so great relationship."

Leach lauded the year the commission had spent being chaired by former commissioner and retired police chief, Bill Howe, adding that seven policy recommendations had been forwarded to the police department under Howe's watch. After that there was a "breakdown in communications" between both sides.

Certainly, things must have been improved in recent months as Leach did attend the public safety committee meeting that Melendrez had convened a week ago. Leach did add that from now, he would be personally giving the briefings on the officer-involved deaths instead of a "junior" officer and that he would take questions but not answer them. The process of taking questions from commissioners was suspended after a briefing by the department on the Summer Lane shooting in 2004 had provided erroneous information, an action that was repeated in the April 2006 briefing on the Lee Deante Brown shooting.

Leach stressed the "credibility" and "integrity" which is important with officer-involved death investigations which made a statement he gave in response to a question during the forum that much more puzzling.

After both he and Danville had painstakedly laid out the course of their respective agencies' parallel investigations of these incidents, they received a question from a community member as to why there had been an increased rate of shootings and other incustody deaths by the Riverside Police Department especially involving people of color during the past 12 months.

Leach had few words to say in response to the question.

"That's a society question, "Leach said, "Not a police question."

His response was not all that surprising. You would probably receive the same response from any police chief of any law enforcement agency in this country, in that it is the "suspects" who cause the police officers to shoot them, not the actions of the police officer. From that perspective, it would be looked at as a "society question".

What was disconcerting is that a statement like that would be made by a police chief whose department was still in the process of investigating three fatal officer-involved shootings involving unarmed men, two of them being African-American.

To anyone in the audience, what this response implies is that the elimination of the possibility in Leach's mind that the shootings are a "police question" means that there also remains no possibility that the officers may have violated departmental policies when they committed those three shootings as far as he's concerned. This is during a time period when only one case has even reached the CPRC for discussion, albeit before its temporary suspension and two others have yet to reach that point. And this is despite the fact that the department's administrative review is specifically assigned the task of addressing "police questions" and not "society questions" and this is the process which by its end winds up at Leach's door.

It goes back to the comments that Hudson made at the November public safety committee meeting when he said that Leach did not wait until the CPRC reached its finding before deciding whether or not to discipline an officer for an incustody death.

Danville then piped up after one of Hill's sisters pressed Leach for a more detailed answer and said that she wanted to see the statistics backing up the assertion of that question that the rate of people of color dying in police custody is disproportionate.

Here's a starting point. Between Oct. 2005 and November 2006, five individuals died in police custody. Four were shot to death and one died of a heart attack not long after two officers attempted a carotid restraint on him. Three of the individuals, Terry Rabb, Brown and Hill were African-Americans and were members of a group which make up about 7% of the city's population according to the 2000 census. In this group of five people, the only one who was armed when police officers encountered him was Todd Argow, who was White.

Melendrez spoke to the audience about how important communication was in the process. He had convened the public safety committee on the issue of the CPRC because community members had voiced concern about the recent actions taken against it by the city. The main question he received from people was, are they weakening the CPRC?

One former commissioner who attended the forum was Gloria Huerta and she had brought a speech she had made to the city council the previous day that provided some answer to that question. In her speech, she criticized the recent actions against the CPRC including the resignation of Pedro Payne.

"City politics hav once again worked to undermine the will of the people and have been successful in driving Dr. Payne from city government and the important work that he was tasked with completing,"Huerta had said, "It appears that you are not done with your machinations and that you want to continue to try to gut the CPRC."

Melendrez did not pick up on the entire theme of Huerta's message but he understood part of it.

"The views voiced very strongly that a voice was needed in the community to oversee police," Melendrez said.

Melendrez added that many of the city council members did not even seem aware of what the CPRC was supposed to be doing. Melendrez also addressed people's concerns that the city manager's office was "censoring" the CPRC's agendas.

"Dialogue is extremely important," Melendrez said, "It is important to be as open as possible."

And dialogue between the three partners in former Attorney General Bill Lockyer's vision of continued reform has been very solid between the police department and the city, but both of these entities have pretty much left their third partner, the community sitting on the sidelines.

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