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

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

City Hall Smackdown: The CPRC vs Gregory Priamos

"I don't mean[you] to view that information as a threat."

---City and CPRC attorney, Gregory Priamos after telling the CPRC's commissioners they could face a fine and jail time if they investigate the death of Martin Gaspar Pablo at this point and time for violating the charter. In many cases where city laws and ordinances are broken in different jurisdictions, the city attorney's office usually exercises prosecutory discretion.

"How do we find out if it's worth investigating without investigating?"

---CPRC commissioner, John Brandriff during the discussion on the Pablo case that the CPRC can't investigate before receiving the coroner's report or its members could face criminal sanctions.

"Sentence first, verdict afterwards."

---Lewis Carroll, who could have been sitting in the back row of the CPRC meeting.

The Community Police Review Commission meeting on July 23 began as fierce and quickly turned into farce as the debate rang out through the chambers regarding whether or not the CPRC would be allowed to investigate the unexplained death of Martin Gaspar Pablo. Pablo died at Riverside Community Hospital one hour after being transported there within 40 minutes of being handcuffed by police officers up to the time that the paramedics arrived to render medical assistance.

At this point and time, the answer is no, the CPRC is not allowed to investigate. The city has ordered the commission through its "legal counsel" to not do so lest its members violate provisions of the city charter, which would mean that its members could be charged with a misdemeanor and potentially face a $1,000 fine and six months in county jail. It's not allowed to investigate until it hears back from the coroner's office and the police deparment and/or city give permission to investigate. Most of the commissioners were quiet and quickly caved at the thought of that. Several did not, which meant that this discussion item would last more than five minutes even without Commissioner Jim Ward's attendance. Obviously none of them are good poker players but then neither is the city.

John Brandriff shot some pretty probing questions at City Attorney Gregory Priamos, questions which clearly annoyed the city attorney who kept saying over and over he was representing the CPRC as its legal counsel. Brandriff's exchange with Priamos provided drama but at least he attempted to get some answers, but for the most part was stone walled by Priamos who said a bit condescendingly at one point, "if you like, I can read you the charter provision".

Priamos, his face flushed at times said these words about violating the charter and its potential consequences then modified them by saying it was not his intent for them to be a threat even though it's within his purview as city attorney to file these charges against commissioners. All the questions that were asked him seem to agitate him further. It was a rare sight to see the city attorney on the witness stand under cross examination by the several commissioners brave enough to speak up to what was unfolding in their midst. It was interesting to also see the latest interpretation of the charter's Sec. 810(d) was reshaped by its author and although its text might have been written with the community in mind in 1999, it was being interpreted nearly 10 years through the prism of the seventh floor of City Hall which is clearly pulling a couple of strings involving the commission that can't.

On the day that the representatives of the police department should have been briefing the CPRC on the incident involving Pablo's death, Chair Brian Pearcy was expressing his dismay and disappointment that his invite to the police department to brief the commission had received nary a response from anyone at the agency. Instead, they were being briefed by the city attorney, who is also the legal counsel for the police department. The same city attorney who said that he was the CPRC's legal counsel and the city was his "client", adding that he had to do what his city council told him to do. Was this Priamos way of telling them something about who was holding his strings?

Chief Russ Leach has said in several public venues that he understood how the community would want information from the department when someone died and police officers might be responsible. He promised people that he personally would be giving the briefings in these cases because he believed it was important to do so. People took him at his word and trusted that. They believed that was a good thing.

Instead neither he nor the department apparently bothered to say thanks, but we can't, or thanks but no thanks. They apparently chose not to respond at all to Pearcy's query that shows that any regard or respect it has towards the commission (as opposed to the executive manager which isn't the same thing) is still a long ways off. And the leadership of the police department has often complained about breakdown in communications between the leadership of the CPRC at various meetings and itself yet it participates in that same behavior. The next time it complains about actions by the CPRC leadership in the relationship between the two entities, it should think back about its own actions with this case.

At the end of the day, it's the actions not the words which speak the loudest and make the biggest impression certainly on community members. Because at the end you're left with the question, who's running the police department because this whole episode doesn't exactly point to strong leadership in that agency especially if its idea of communication is ignoring the CPRC's inquiries. Is it Orange Street or the seventh floor of the City Hall that's at the helm? At least it's usually much more clear who is running the CPRC. Sometimes there are so many strings attached to that commission that it's amazing they don't all get tangled up.

Executive Manager Kevin Rogan mentioned that he had received information from an emailed link to the Press Enterprise article and then the very next email was from the police department informing him of the death of Pablo when he was asked if the news article was the only information he had received. Priamos said that he was privy to some of course confidential information that the death of Pablo wasn't within their purview but he couldn't spill because of some agreement he had made with an unidentified party or parties which is interesting because every interaction between civilian and police that involves a detention has an incident report and any confidential administrative investigation that follows is still arising from a public report. Still, clearly Priamos knew who he had to answer to.

He didn't elaborate on the consequences of what would happen if he did say something to them about what he had been told, but his face got redder, his posture in his inquisition chair more rigid as the questions came from the commissioners who apparently were supposed to sit, listen to the briefing and then be quiet or in harsher words, shut up.

Some commissioners did just that or shrugged at the news that they could potentially be jailbirds if they tried to fulfill their charter responsibilities. Other commissioners seemed troubled. They should be.

Members of the public who spoke were accused of saying things they never said and if you want to attend CPRC meetings, it's best to bring some rain gear and an umbrella once the strawmen start flying again. It was kind of like attending a city council meeting and that's not a coincidence when you really think about it and the city's dynamics. Somebody commented afterwards, is the executive manager always this sensitive. Maybe it's nerves, a bad day or the strings because if there were ever a position that came with strings attached, it's clearly this one. The sense that there were attempts to do that with the last executive manager was so strongly felt that even applicants in line to be interviewed by various panels for that position last year asked if the city manager's office would be pulling their strings and that of the commission if they got the job. The only way to respond to that is to ask them if they want the short version or the long one.

Brandriff invoked the question that got former commissioner, Steve Simpson in such hot water last summer and that he dared asked the city attorney if the commission could hire an independent counsel. Priamos bristled, drew himself back and said that to do so would be a violation of the city's charter too. Which means if they did so, yes, six months in county jail and/or a $1,000 fine per violation. Bring out the smelling salts! Raise the bail money!

Say what?

Isn't it amazing that the first time the commission is told that hiring an independent counsel is a violation of the charter eight years after the creation of the ordinance that brought it to being?

Isn't it amazing that the commissioners hear this for the first time four years after they hire an independent counsel to represent them on the Volne Lamont Stokes case after they subpoenaed one of the officers involved in that shooting? Even last year, when Simpson asked to place an agenda item discussing the hiring of independent counsel on the agenda, Priamos never mentioned that doing so would violate the city's charter, he just said it wasn't germane to the commission which isn't the same thing. He never mentioned "violation", "misdemeanor", "fines" and "six months in jail" ever before even when the CPRC was engaging in the same actions it tried to take after the Pablo case with an earlier death case.

Isn't it amazing that when consultant Joe Brann evaluated this issue of independent legal counsel in his analysis of the commission, there was no mention in that report that doing so would violate the city's charter even though he did support retaining Priamos for other reasons. One would assume that the city attorney would have offered input in that process and there would be some mention of the legality of hiring independent counsel and under what circumstances if any.

But then again, the city attorney waited eight years to tell commissioners that investigating the death of a citizen possibly in connection or arising from the direct or indirect actions taken by police officers was a violation of the city charter and could give you jail time. Even the investigation of the case of Terry Rabb in 2005, didn't result in similar warnings by Priamos that the commissioners were violating the charter and could be going to jail.

Instead, a mere eight days after there was an article in the Press Enterprise about the Rabb case, the CPRC was briefed on the Rabb case by the police department. In the Oct. 4 article (which is available online for $2.95), the department representative said that they believed that Rabb had died of diabetes rather than from actions by the officers even though it had yet to hear from the coroner's office. In fact, according to this article, the autopsy on Rabb hadn't even been performed at that point. So it doesn't appear to the department that the coroner's report is even all that crucial to exonerating its officers. But as it turned out, according to the CPRC's own investigation, there was nothing earlier on that either exonerated or substained any misconduct against the officers. Such is the case with Pablo, especially since the city's claiming pretty much that the CPRC has no purview to investigate without a coroner's report unless its members want to go to jail.

Still, the CPRC was allowed to dispatch Investigator Butch Warnberg to begin an investigation in the Rabb case without threat of charter violations and any resulting prosecution by Priamos or anyone else. If the CPRC was allowed to investigate the Rabb case based on information in a press release and despite the fact that the department at the time didn't think the involved officers contributed to his death, then there is something really wrong about the actions taken by Priamos etal in this case. Of course, the Rabb case led to two lawsuits which are still in the courts and were in fact, recently discussed by city council members in closed session, presumably with Priamos representing the city council in these discussions. And it led to a majority report exonerating the officers (which happens most of the time even with the shootings) and a minority report by Ward which was never to be included with the majority report because at the time, Priamos told commissioners advice which led to the majority of them rejecting the inclusion of the minority report because they didn't agree with its content.

Of course, ultimately Ward was able to include another minority report with the public report released on the Lee Deante Brown case. The city would allow him that.

No one was actually jailed for investigating an officer-involved death such as Rabb although there was some murmuring at a public safety meeting by Councilman and former Riverside Police Department SWAT officer, Steve Adams that there would be arrests of obstruction of any investigator used by the CPRC to investigate an officer-involved death. Which causes the question to be asked whether or not this latest directive to remold the city's practice of interpreting the city's charter is coming from that corner.

But it comes down to this, if an action by the CPRC such as investigating the death of Pablo is truly charter busting then they would have known that before this meeting took place and wouldn't have needed this "Meet the Press" session with Priamos because they would have already been informed of the limits of their powers. The fact that this was never done and the fact that Priamos didn't issue similar warnings in the Rabb case (in which an investigation was initiated two days after the CPRC was informed about his death), makes it abundantly clear that the city is making this all up as it goes along based on political climate and political pressure coming from some corner. And that it's likely that in the future, there will be a two-tier system splitting officer-involved shooting deaths from other deaths. The argument is that there needs to be more information on whether or not the actions of an officer could have contributed to the death of an individual for non-shooting cases yet even in shooting cases, the actions of an officer may or may not be justified.

The analogy of traffic accident victims dying at the scenes while officers were present was very weak, because most of the time those individuals aren't handcuffed and detained by officers nor is their any level of force used against him and there's not enough information in the Pablo case to know if force was used by the officers to place him and keep him in handcuffs until medical personnel arrived onscene. The use of this comparison is reaching at best and it smacks of desperation. Not that there appeared to be any shortage of that in the chambers last night.

This latest precedent set by the city (and yes, that's exactly what it is) would potentially disqualify other officer involved deaths including those that might be related to the use of some less lethal options such as pepper spray and the taser. For example, if officers tased someone and that person died, then the department would wait until hearing from the coroner's office to determine whether the taser contributed to the individual's demise. But increasingly due to legal pressure from Taser International Inc., coroners and medical examiners are more reluctant to make even references to tasers in their autopsy reports. In fact in Ohio, a judge forced the coroner there to remove references to tasers from three autopsy reports after the company which makes the device filed a legal action in court. It could potentially also disqualify deaths where carotid restraints or "sleeper holds" were used on ill people in the future.

During a five-year period in the 1990s, Riverside's insurance carrier paid out nearly $2 million on lawsuits filed by the families of individuals, Derek Hayward, Hector Islas and Adam Williamson who died while or after choke holds had been used by officers. In all three of the cases, the individuals were under the influence of an illegal drug, which was blamed by the coroners for their deaths because in that era that's what happened in many cases. Later, the use of the "chokehold" (which is not the same thing as the carotid restraint and is more lethal) was itself examined in many agencies including the Riverside Police Department during outside probes including one done by the U.S. Department of Justice. In one Riverside case, the cause of death was attributed to drug intoxication yet the autopsy photos taken were apparently so bad that the city filed a motion in a lawsuit filed in relation to that case to suppress them during any jury trial. In that case, an independent autopsy showed that the man had broken facial bones, jaw bones and dislocated and fractured bones in his neck.

If there had been a CPRC and it had the power to investigate that it did under Rabb (which itself involved an attempted carotid restraint on a severely ill diabetic) rather than the new standard under Pablo, perhaps the commission could have made valuable recommendations which may have some positive difference.

And with due respect to Rogan, he was still an officer at the Pomona Police Department when the Rabb investigation still begun and his facts on this case aren't quite accurate, anymore than his accusation (apparently on behalf of a county agency through his mention of taking exception to) that I said that the police department and the coroner's office are colluding with each other is. But then again, it's very difficult to be graceful under pressure and the pressure on the body is no doubt quite intense if you have its "legal counsel" throwing out words like "misdemeanor", "fines" and "six months in jail" at you.

Why wait so long to explain this latest round of rules? That question's not difficult to answer once you remember that Priamos is a direct employee of the city council which changes its composition every two years or so. He's the sole holdover from an era of serious mismanagement of the police department by City Hall which sent it into a virtual freefall until reform was imposed on it by the state in 2001. Priamos was assistant city attorney and handled many of the police cases at that time for the city so he had his hands on the department during the most difficult period of its history, leading up to state mandated reforms.

And then you remember who directs the city attorney. You remember who once fielded a job offer from the renowned police firm in Upland. And you remember who's fond of micromanagement at City Hall. And you remember how the story goes, it's an old one that last took place in the 1990s with the police department, the City Hall and an itty bitty body called LEPAC. It's about communities who didn't trust their police department. It's about a lot of missed opportunities. It's about making promises to be better and then breaking them. It's about an era that the city had thought it had closed the door on and that the community hoped it had done so. The faces might have changed and maybe there's a new director, but the playbook remains the same.

Commissioner Peter Hubbard called any discussion about investigating the Pablo case akin to a "witchhunt" but what he's shown is that he doesn't understand the charter either which isn't surprising considering how many meetings he's missed. Because the charter language isn't just about investigating deaths of citizens arising directly or indirectly from the actions of officers, it's about bringing that process into a public forum in an attempt to improve the trust between communities and those who police them. And commissioner, Chani Beeman was right when she said actions like those taken on July 23 stemming no doubt from actions taking place behind closed doors only serve to erode that trust. Not that the city seems to care about that and no one at its helm has the history to appreciate the importance of that. In fact, none of the newcomers have even bothered to flip through the pages of the book written that led to the creation of the CPRC.

What was past is after all, prologue. On this issue, Riverside's heading into the direction, its course true, to coming full circle. Maybe next time, we'll get it right. Then again, maybe we won't.

Maybe our predecessors all said the same thing.

There's more coverage of the June 22 city council meeting and what happened with the Governmental Affairs Committee's ballot initiative proposal here and here. It was interesting to follow the turnaround from those regular commenters who want to deny all other city residents the principles that soldiers are fighting and dying in Iraq for, to those people who have commented on the proposal and simply and collectively given it a thumbs down.

Councilman Steve Adams' comments about people who regularly speak before the city council were as derogatory as usual, but several people spoke up during public comment periods and chided him for it. Adams did say that he favored the creation of the ad hoc committee if only to educate the public on why the proposal the Governmental Affairs Committee had pushed was really so important for them. But considering how many "hundreds of complaints" (which was later described at the city council meeting as "I've heard from over 100 people..." ) that Adams had received, it was amazing how quickly he was converted by the opinions of 17 city residents.

There's a discussion about the city council's vote here where people discuss the different comments and the ultimate vote by the city council to abruptly change its path on trying to change the structure of the city's elections. Quite a bit of speculation about why several city council members who had originally enthusiastically sponsored the proposal changed tracks.

Councilman Chris MacArthur's comments about cooler heads prevailing were a hit as was his reference to the proposal by the committee as the "Incumbent Protection Act of 2008".

Speaking of the Governmental Affairs Committee, it's taking August off but will return on Sept. 3 at 3 p.m to do its annual discussion of the city's ethics code and complaint process. I am well aware that there's some sort of ethics code but is there a complaint process? Not really. In writing perhaps, but in practice? No.

It will forward its report to the city council which will probably hear it later that month.

Two Riverside Police Department officers who were trying to assist in a traffic stop of another officer by blocking traffic instead collided their vehicles. The accident happened in Market Street in the downtown area during the afternoon of June 22.

More outrage in Inglewood over the latest officer-involved shooting there including two by the same police officer over a five-month period.

A retired law enforcement officer was shot and killed by a New York City Police Department officer.

In Miami-Dade County, a group of correctional deputies were charged with smuggling drugs. If that is not bad enough, other deputies were busted for operating a drug and gambling ring.

The family of a woman killed in Boston after being hit by a police car wants the police department to improve its practices.

(excerpt, Boston Herald)

"We want to make sure this doesn't happen again to another family," said Michael McNally, whose younger sister, Ann-Marie, was killed Nov. 10, 2007, in a two-car crash in South Boston. "That's important to us."

The parents of the 36-year-old woman remain devastated, said McNally, who at 39 is the oldest of what were once four siblings.

He said the only balm for their pain is the hope that Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis changes current practice as Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley suggested that police do on Wednesday.

"They've been heartbroken and the circumstances surrounding her passing make it more difficult," he said.

Injustice in Seattle writes about the lawsuits involving law enforcement in that area. It looks like Riverside's not the only place that's been settling litigation. The Terry Rabb lawsuits were recently discussed by the city council but there were no announcements made with those cases.

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