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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When past is prologue: The case of the missing officers continues

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

----George Santayana

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

An audit of the Riverside Police Department was conducted by consultant Joe Brann at last night's city council meeting and for the most part, the news was good. He said that the department had made significant gains in engaging in actions that were more about obtaining results than in reporting activity and the agency was keeping better records of what it was doing. He also said it had proven that it was on the "cutting edge" on engaging in problem solving measures through developing new training curricula. That's certainly been true, most notably through the department's development and implementation of the mental health crisis training program in response to the growing challenge for officers of interfacing with the mentally ill.

However, it wasn't all good news.

In fact, there was some pretty bad news but it didn't drop out of the sky or strike like a bolt of lightning on a clear day. If you've been reading here and talking to people, it shouldn't be surprising that some serious issues have arisen in the department over staffing cuts that were made to address this city's budget crisis. Even though the police department's budget had increased by 5% during a year where nearly every other department but the fire department (which increased its budget by about 3%) saw cuts, the department was losing staffing.

Do the math. If you've got staffing ratios that are close to the boundaries of where they should be such as in the case of field officers to supervisor ratios, then you're going to potentially face problems if vacancies open up in these positions and they aren't filled. And yes, vacancies have opened up, in fact two supervisory positions will become vacant in the next several weeks because of two retirements. There are more possible retirements on the horizon as well. So consequently, there is always the potential for problems with staffing ratios and that has caused a great deal of concern in the department and in the city if not exactly City Hall particularly its seventh floor. This report might have been news to the city government but to city residents and police officers, it's been an issue of contention for a while now.

So what has the department and City Hall done in response to these retirements? They've frozen positions. They have already frozen positions at the entry level (well, almost all of them) and that has extended to the supervisory and management level. There was no great announcement that they were doing so. In fact, there wasn't really any public discussion on this issue at all.

The city has frozen sergeant positions. It has frozen lieutenant positions. It froze a deputy chief position and officer positions. It has frozen "on call" detective services outside of the homicide unit. That means if there's rapes, child abuse or other crimes after hours, the victims may or may not have access to a detective in that speciality. May have, because the response by officers is that they will go out anyway without being paid because it's what they are there to do, but it's still an issue that needs to be addressed.

Also at issue is the experience level in the department's sworn division and how that relates with supervision and management and their relationships with rank and file officers. That was a critical deficiency during the 1990s leading up to the shots fired on Dec. 29, 1998 which were heard around the world. This problem played a major role in the circumstances which led to the $22 million invested in the stipulated judgment that the city entered into seven years ago. It said so all over the lawsuit filed by the state in Riverside County Superior Court but you don't have to take my word for that. You can read it yourself.

The statistics cited in the report are as follows.

Civilian vacancies: 21

Civilian vacancies that can't be filled due to FMLA, Workman's Compensation, etc. : 9

Sworn positions vacant due to above also including military leave: 21

Number of overall vacancies cited in a June 9, 2008 letter by the department: 24

Average age of police officer (oft-cited): 24 with 2 1/2 years experience

Percentage of officers on probation: 23.4% (high number of officers with 2-3 years experience)

Shifts with no lieutenant watch commanders: <7%

Shifts with sergeants working partial shifts: 9%

Total shifts impacted: 15.4%

These figures were disheartening in terms of those cited for the lieutenant watch commander situation. On the surface, the department had made a small degree of progress in terms of lowering the total shifts impacted percentage from around 17% several months ago to its current above figure, but as mentioned in the report it's probable that this statistic could raise during the summer months when there are more vacations being taken by the necessary staff members. So which will it be? Will the percentages of sergeant watch commandered shifts go up or down? Brann in his presentation said that this was one of the most critical areas to track and to address when problematic trends arise which has happened and it's been a notable trend in other law enforcement agencies currently under consent decrees as well. But does the city even understand what a trend is and what it can mean for the future? That might be debatable.

Also hit hard was the civilian side of the department where many of the vacancies exist, including positions which provide "supportive roles" to law enforcement officers and including those where employment turnover has been fairly high.

So how did the city respond?

Watching the behavior of the city staff present including Asst. City Manager Tom DeSantis and the city council, there's no way to be sure that they even get it or are following what has been going on even after all the city has been through. And one of the major problems from the start were the absences from the dais.

It was bad enough that several elected officials and city staff members failed to make appearances. Most of the police department command staff was there, as were the area lieutenants and the president of the Riverside Police Officers' Association. But certain key people in the process were missing.

City Manager Brad Hudson, the direct employer of Chief Russ Leach was missing in action. So were Mayor Ron Loveridge who was at a conference of mayors and/or on vacation and Mayor Pro Tem Frank Schiavone who's kind of been missing since his crushing election loss several weeks ago. The fact is that the city council should have believed and certainly understood that these audits were critical to receive not to mention that they should have had some inkling that there would be problems related to the budget cuts. They should have all been at the meeting and so should have Hudson.

One would think that this is clearly obvious but one might be wrong.

But what was truly bad were some of the responses to the report, especially comments made by DeSantis who maybe wasn't prepared to respond properly to the audit or maybe this whole situation is just beyond his scope. Problems are bad, but it's the response to them that's really important. That's what experienced, professional city management employees do in situations like this one. However, instead of responding by saying, yes we have some issues and we're going to examine how to best examine them and address them, DeSantis naturally took the opposite route.

It's called covering one's butt.

DeSantis didn't appear to see any problem with the situation at all and in fact, tried to argue that the opposite was happening. The police department's position with its positions was actually flush. Speaking of flush, hopefully if he plays poker he keeps his wallet in his pocket because everyone could see he wasn't holding a good hand. On the one hand, he is accurate in saying that the city council did vote to pass the budget submitted by his office (and since the finance department was consolidated with his office, that's been the case) but he was wrong when he said they voted for a budget that put the department in a good position.

Whether ignorance or arrogance was the primary sentiment behind his words, is not clear at this point but he was wrong. And none of the city council members called him on it because few of them have shown the capacity to do so with Hudson or DeSantis even on other issues. Several of them were too busy defending themselves and clearly dismayed that they weren't being praised at the podium. A couple did put that all aside for a couple of minutes to ask important questions. But what was said was too little and not very encouraging.

DeSantis from the city manager's big chair cited some statistics which didn't make any sense certainly not to anyone who's been paying attention the past several years. First he started citing the ratio of officers to supervisors for the entire department which has nothing to do with what was cited in the stipulated agreement and on page 22 of the Strategic Plan. Perhaps he should go reread both of these documents. Perhaps he should just go and read the documents if they are unfamiliar to him. I'm sure his office has at least a copy or two lying around somewhere.

Then DeSantis cited a figure for the officer to supervising sergeant ratio of about 4.5 to 1. The Brann report cited a figure of between 6-7 to 1. The latter sounds much closer to the statistics the department has shown in this area going back to at least 2003 according to department records. Statistics which are available to the public upon written request through the California Public Records Act. Actually, the department has done fairly well in this area and consistently well, deviating outside of this ratio a relatively small percentage of the time. And on occasions, they have enjoyed smaller ratios. However, it makes no sense that if they've consistently been at about 6-7 to 1 ratios that with position cuts and freezes which were part of their department's budget that this ratio would drop so significantly. Well, except to DeSantis of course who appeared caught off guard.

The only clear solution in this case is for DeSantis or his boss to produce hard copies of the statistics which illuminate his assertion about the department's budgeted ratio. If it is everyone else who is confused besides them, then this office needs to enlighten us. But no one on the city council asked for this information which isn't exactly surprising. Hopefully, they will ask for it during the discussion about Hudson's next pay hike, the one which may come about to keep him from departing the city for the county.

But then the city council wasn't exactly embracing let alone exercising leadership in this situation either. As one person said, it's easy to stick to the guidelines of the police department's ongoing development during times of plenty, but during more difficult fiscal times, this leadership has been lacking. It was lacking in the 1990s when the police department faced similar budget cuts and unfortunately even after all the city has gone through in this century, it is still lacking today.

And it's not just this current city council because if you've been paying attention, this has been an issue in connection with the department's implementation of the strategic plan and the stipulated judgment itself since early 2005 when the city council either scheduled poorly or gave lip service to the semi-annual progress reports by the police chief and what was then, the attorney general task force. Not a good sign back then and it's not really progressed much since.

Maybe part of it is that there's little remaining collective memory on the dais of what was going on nearly 10 years ago. Maybe the patterns that existed still remain to be addressed. But if they aren't, then the very real possibility exists that the department could go backwards. Brann said that it would be very difficult for the department to maintain its progress and keep improving without addressing its staffing challenges. That's so because it was nearly impossible for the department to do so when addressing the issues of community oriented problem solving policing in the 1990s. Inadequate staffing for implementation, the consent decree stated. Inadequate staffing for pretty much anything.

The one sentence I hear over and over outside of City Hall, is we don't want to go back. "Back" is in reference to the 1990s when the department went into its free fall because of the same issues that are faced by the city leadership today. What is past is prologue.

There was absolutely no reason to feel any confidence at all in the city manager's office or its direct employer, the city council while standing at the podium and speaking on this issue. There was absolutely no reason to feel any confidence in these entities while sitting in the audience at the meeting and listening to what was going on. I had emailed the city council and mayor as I had posted here and received not one written response. I did speak with two city council members who did express some concern about the situation and I did see some nodding on the dais when I mentioned my email. But even when the department is center stage, it still doesn't seem as much a priority when it comes to addressing infrastructure issues. And if you don't put the foundation on your house, it won't stand up for very long.

So it's a bit alarming to say the least that the city council right now doesn't seem much more proactive on situations such as this one than the city council of decades past. But then if you have council members who are more concerned about pushing people away from public participation (and then bragging about it to the wrong people) or talking about city residents having "no ethics" or having "little to no class" or engaging in juvenile toilet humor (with people being surprised that Councilman Steve Adams went there and then shrugging their shoulders and saying he's kind of crude in his commentary anyway), you just aren't going to see that kind of commitment from city leadership until the voters hold them accountable for their decisions or lack of them. Not until the other co-producers, the community and the department step to the plate. History has shown time and time again that this is the only action that works with most issues and the police department in particular.

One thing you will note about the statistics cited above is the composition of the police department. The average age has hovered around 24 for several years and the experience level is between two and three years on the job. That shouldn't be surprising in a department that has had to rebuild itself from the ground up and that will only change through the passage of time.

So you have a very young police force, including nearly a quarter of the department's patrol division being on probation. In most but not all cases, this involves one out of every four patrol officer having less than 18 months on the job and even less time spent working on a solo assignment. So special considerations have to be taken in terms of supervising and training these younger, less experienced officers. That's just common sense.

And as Brann said in his report, the department hasn't neared the point where it is defined through a well-seasoned and experienced work force. That day is still a fair distance off and consequently, it's more important than it might otherwise be for these officers to be closely supervised by sergeants and lieutenants who are not distracted by overseeing too many officers at one time and can give each one the time and attention that he or she needs to develop into confident, professional and well-trained officers.

The rather young age of the sworn division is one that's been present in the department beginning at least back to the huge turnover which resulted after the 1998 Tyisha Miller shooting and the 2001 stipulated judgment with then State Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office. According to the Riverside County Grand Jury report on the police department in 2000, entire divisions including the field training division submitted resignations en mass which were rejected. Still, some say up to 80% of the department's officers left and most of them were replaced by newer officers, which created a generation of officers who weren't here when the Tyisha Miller shooting and its aftermath took place. On some level, that's been viewed as a positive aspect of a changing department culture that is more likely to embrace the many changes taking place.

Yet, the flip side of that is that as the report stated, it's important that these officers have closer supervision and that management monitors their training. If the force were more "seasoned", then it could get by on a higher than 7 to 1 (which is commonly used in law enforcement agencies). But it's not seasoned and the day when it will be, is as said, not even on the radar yet. That's reality and it's that which needs to be addressed lest we be doomed to repeat our past mistakes like a residual haunting where actions are repeated in sequence over and over with the pattern never being broken.

But what also became clear is that the city government and some of its direct city employees need closer supervision. And given that there's another election year on the horizon, this is one issue that bears watching in terms of evaluating the performance levels of those on the dais who are running for more terms in office. Election 2009 is almost here and it's time to do some serious thinking about what kind of leadership is needed in this city once again.

To be continued...

U.S. senator and presidential candidate, John McCain buzzed into Riverside for a noontime fundraiser at the Riverside Convention Center. His motorcade traveled down Orange Street and entered through the front of the complex while about three dozen activists protested with signs and chants at the front.

If you have about $1000, then you could afford lunch and listen to McCain talk about the housing foreclosure rates among other things. If you had $50,000, you get a lot of perks. And at least one city council member and numerous city employees gathered at the center to the event which was sponsored by Mission Inn owner Duane Roberts and his wife, Kelly.

Over 30 demonstrators from various groups showed up to protest McCain's presence in Riverside.

Lt. Gary Leach of the Special Operations Division didn't have any business cards but was still able to provide his contact information to leaders of the demonstration including the National Alliance for Human Rights. The Community Police Review Commission has come up with a policy recommendation regarding the issuance, distribution and presentation of business cards by police officers and to have business cards be included in equipment inspections. But for the most part, if officers at the lower end of the hierarchy want to have business cards, they have to purchase them.

However, just as employment positions inside the department have been frozen, so apparently have the business cards. And if lieutenants who are issued business cards run out or don't carry them, then it's not likely that officers will have them.

Besides, the problem isn't that officers won't issue business cards, it's that often they won't identify themselves especially if they think it might be for a complaint. Two officers responded to a call for service in the city several months ago and when a person told them he was going to complain about him to the area commander, one officer allegedly told him that he would never be able to contact or find the supervisor especially on a Sunday. Unbeknownest to the officers, the man had the area commander's phone number on speed dial and so, the dialing sped along and the officers did hear a few words from their not-so-unable-to-be-tracked-down-supervisor.

Marine Sgt. Jermaine Nelson is back in jail on contempt charges for refusing to testify in a federal grand jury proceeding which is focusing on former Marine sergeant and Riverside Police Department officer, Jose Nazario.

The Human Relations Commission gave its annual report before the city council and included a list of all the activities it has been involved in for the past year. The written report can be found here. The HRC saw two of its full-time support staff get reassigned not long after a letter was written by HRC expressing concern about the departures of several Black and Latino management employees. Untimely, or very timely depending on how you look at it.

After being transferred to Mayor Ron Loveridge's office, it continued to struggle particularly with high turnover among its commissioners, losing quite a few last year.

Shaquille O'Neill loses his speciality badge from Maricopa County! How did he get one in the first place?

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