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

Monday, September 15, 2008

If it's "no confidence", depends upon who you ask

The Los Angeles Times has been covering the disastrous crash involving a Metrolink and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth on Sept. 12.

The headon collision between the two trains on a curved section of track that exited the tunnel connecting the San Fernando and Simi Valleys resulted in the deaths of at least 25 commuters including the Metrolink Engineer Robert Martin Sanchez, 46 and injuries to a majority of the remaining passengers.

Sanchez' name was just released by Metrolink this morning but it had been mentioned numerous times during the past several days as some teenagers came forward, claiming that the engineer had sent them a text message from his cell phone just before the collision.

This link shows an alleged photograph of the text message sent by a Robert Sanchez from Metrolink that reads the following.


Inbox (10/44)

Date: Sept. 12 , 04:22 pm

yea...usually north @

From: Rob Sanchez Mer.

The National Transportation and Safety Board which handles investigations of significant accidents involving various forms of transportation and/or hazardous materials has interviewed the teenagers and is going to subpoena the phone records from their cell phones as well as that of Sanchez' which has not been recovered. After Metrolink spokeswoman, Denise Tyrrell had said publicly that the engineer had missed a red signal before the crash, the NTSB urged against a rush to judgment against the deceased engineer.

Within 24 hours and one closed session involving the Board of Directors of Metrolink, Tyrrell had resigned. In an interview, she criticized the board's comments it had made to the Wall St. Journal that she had rushed to judgment when she had been authorized by that board to say what she had said.

More on what Tyrrell said here about her abrupt departure which she attributed to irreconcilable differences of opinion between her and the board and not a forced ouster by her employer.

The drama will continue as will the investigations including possibly one led by the U.S. Congress, but what happened will most likely be viewed as a tragedy which could and should have been avoided, much like the 2002 collision between a Metrolink train from Riverside with a BNSF freight train which had run a red signal before colliding with a stationary Metrolink train. Three died in that accident and over 100 people were injured. This time, it might be the Metrolink which missed the signal but unlike last time, will there be any lasting improvements made to prevent future accidents?

When Metrolink crashes, it can be devastating to those riding it because there are really no safety features on their trains. People go flying out of their seats, get hit by seats, tables and other people's possessions in the blink of an eye. If they are sitting at one of the four tables on each train car, their internal organs often get severed by the table edge. The odds of serious injuries impacting the majority if not all the passengers is very high even though the death toll in most crashes is most often lower than it could have been.

In 2005, a man parked his car on the tracks and the resultant collision of three trains killed 11 people and injured many more. The loss of life was magnified by the fact that the engine was pushing the train out towards Los Angeles Union Station rather than pulling the train out of it. After all, Metrolinks hit cars who try to outrun them at crossings and there's few if any injuries to train passengers including in one such incident near Corona that happened on the same day as the latest Metrolink tragedy. No one really heard or read much about it because it was overshadowed by what happened on a different track in a different county just hours before.

But if two trains including a freight train over a mile long collide at medium or high speeds on the same strip of track, obviously whatever went terribly wrong is going to exact its toll on the passengers. In the latest crash, fatalities occurred in the first two cars including one that was severely damaged by the train's own locomotive. Massive injuries occurred in all three cars including crushing injuries, open fractures and severed limbs which was forced back into the first passenger car by the laws of physics.

Even with these devastating collisions, Metrolink is still much safer to use than an automobile in Southern California and more individuals have relied on using Metrolink and other forms of public transportation due to increased gas prices and growing gridlock on the region's freeways. Several investigations remain to be done and there's already talk up in Sacramento about possibly banning cell phones for employees driving trains. Metrolink had a prohibition in affect on its own service. The railways are very crowded and there are many orange and red signals on the tracks so those driving trains need to have their attention focused there.

In future weeks, many more questions will be asked and hopefully answered.

Inland Empire commuters still intend to ride the train.

The Riverside City Council will be meeting again to address this agenda. Alas, still no coffee or snack bar outside and the restaurant next door in City Hall has already been closed before the meeting has even started. Not even a hot dog stand to feed the populace during the intermissions of what is surely the greatest free entertainment in town. What would be even better is if vendors sold popcorn and drinks up and down the aisles of the city council chambers during the meeting.

One of the events being kicked off at this meeting will be the city's annual Racial Equality Week. Usually, this event takes place not long after another Black or Latino employee has been fired or otherwise left the city or the city's paid out some major settlement or verdict in connection with the discrimination, harassment and retaliation lawsuits filed by Black city employees whether it be public works, streets and maintenance or the police department.

On the heels of Racial Equality Week will be Deaf Awareness Week. It's just a bit bizarre to have events like this when every week should be racial equality week and every week should be Deaf Awareness Week. If there's one racial equality week, what does that say about the rest of the year in Riverside? Not that events like these aren't important but often they are seen as standins for what should be happening year around.

Getting a sendoff at the city council meeting will be Asst. City Manager Michael Beck who is leaving for his job as city manager in Pasadena fairly soon. At the beginning of the year, City Manager Brad Hudson had three city managers and now he's down to one. Not only is Beck leaving but Asst. City Manager Paul Sundeen is retiring. Sitting in for Beck will most likely be Belinda Graham as an interim assistant city manager while a search is conducted for Sundeen's replacement. Is this a natural course of progression or is everyone jumping ship?

Not much on the discussion calendar that will elicit much discussion, just several reports so the meeting should be short enough to hit those happy hour spots afterward.

Press Enterprise Columnist Dan Bernstein is back in town.

Coming to you in the not too distant future are four straight years of fare increases courtesy of the Riverside Transit Authority which offers bus service throughout Riverside County.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

No decision on the rate increase is expected until January, and the rates won't take effect until 2010 if approved, but the bus system directors on Thursday will consider approving public meetings to discuss the rate increase.

The plan preferred by bus system staff is to raise fares five cents each year for five years for regular bus routes, making a bus trip $1.50 by 2014, from the $1.25 a rider pays today.

Service on commuter lines, like the route 202 and 206 buses that ferry commuters to Metrolink stations, will increase by ten cents each year, from $2.25 to $2.75 in 2014.

Waiting at a downtown Riverside bus stop Monday afternoon, Wood Franklin, 62, of Riverside, said a rate increase wouldn't keep him away.

"What choice do I have?" Franklin shrugged. "I gotta ride the bus."

Officials anticipate some riders will choose other ways to travel, based on the study, but they do not expect a drastic plunge.

After the last fare increase in 2005, the RTA's ridership decreased and ultimately some routes were reduced or even eliminated. What will the future hold for the RTA?

Why was the discussion between the San Bernardino Police Officers' Association and the city government held behind closed doors? And how long does Chief Mike Billdt have left holding that job? Billdt issued a statement that he plans to stay at the helm but then they all do five minutes before they resign or retire. And complicating Billdt's situation is that 90% of the members of the union that represents the civilian employees in the department also issued a no-confidence vote.

(excerpt, Press Enterprise)

The tally against Billdt was 114 to 6, said Mike Yandell, president of the General Unit union.

Facing a budget crunch, the City Council last month approved an 8 percent reduction in their workforce, including 23 layoffs and 73 frozen positions. Yandell said General Unit members perception that they suffered disproportionately may have driven the poll results.

"(Billdt) was the one who recommended the cuts," Yandell said. "There was no balance. Our whole goal during the recent budget negotiations was to find a balance. It shouldn't have come down to cutting 22 General Unit employees."

So the perspective of at least the department's civilian employees was what drove their votes were budget cuts and employee freezes, situations faced by their counterparts in cities across the Inland Empire including Riverside which has frozen both civilian and sworn positions in its police department with no relief in sight.

One more view on the situation with Billdt, which shows that San Bernardino shares Riverside's history of kicking out police chiefs.

(excerpt, Cassie MacDuff, Press Enterprise)

The San Bernardino Peace Officers Association may well have valid grievances against Billdt. If a majority of members think he's coming down hard on those who've crossed him and letting his favorites off easy, that should be investigated.

The allegation I find most troubling is that an officer who was accused by a sergeant of unconstitutionally detaining people was not immediately placed on administrative leave.

Billdt wouldn't discuss the matter specifically, citing the officer's confidentiality.

But he told me administrative leave is generally prompted by misconduct allegations that are serious enough to warrant removing the officer during an investigation. That seems to match this incident.

The POA has drawn a line in the sand, saying it's finished with Billdt.

The mayor says ultimatums aren't helpful. He believes the crisis can be resolved short of Billdt's departure. Whether that will happen, I can't predict.

It had happened earlier in Colton and Rialto.

Usually, after police unions issue no confidence votes to a police chief, he or she doesn't have a long time left in that position as happened in Riverside's own police department many a time in the latter decade of the 20th Century. Some of that history is detailed in this report.

(excerpt, National Cops Evaluation)

“I interviewed a number of the officers, including some of the [Riverside Police Officers’ Association] members,” Holmes remembers, “and they all told me that they felt we needed to be more professional and bring in an outsider.” Indeed, many Riverside political figures felt that the Association had broadcast its opinion about inside candidates in its recent no-confidence vote against the Richardson administration; as one city official puts it: “They had a no-confidence vote both in Sonny Richardson and [Deputy Chief] Mike Figueroa. Very strange to give [him a vote too]. I understand a no confidence vote for the chief, but Mike Figueroa was the heir apparent. In effect they said, ‘Don’t go for him either.’” In the event, Figueroa did apply for the job, but he had to compete against other highly-qualified outsiders.

It's also happened here, here, here and here. Even here as well as many different places.

Some tips to avoid the career-ending "no confidence" votes for police chiefs is right here.

This includes how a chief should react to such an action.

(excert, NEIA)

Too many chiefs are at a loss--simply do not know what to do--when they receive a vote of no confidence. It is important for the leader to understand, however, that his or her reaction upon hearing the news is not only crucial to survival, but it can actually be much more important than the vote itself.

Occasionally, as bizarre as it seems, a chief could look at a no-confidence vote against him or her as a "vote of confidence." The leader who has been hired to reinstate discipline and restore department accountability may receive a no-confidence vote by the union that is actually perceived by the city administration as a step in the right direction. If the union is seen as "whining" or complaining for unjustified reasons--and the chief is portrayed as doing the right thing--the no-confidence vote can backfire on the union and essentially provide support for the chief and the community.

In general, however, when a chief is threatened with or actually receives a vote of no confidence, there are a number of questions that he or she needs to ask: Was the vote valid? What is the cause of the vote? What is its purpose? What does the union want to achieve by it? What did I as chief do or fail to do to deserve the vote? What do I do now that I have received this vote? Should I ignore it? Should I fight it? What is the impact of the vote on my job? What can I learn from this experience to avoid any further such votes? What can I do to restore my employees' and the union's confidence in me?

The same article states that most "no confidence" votes are due to complaints about lack of leadership and communication and may happen in the face of strong leadership in management out to make major changes and a strong labor union which butt heads. In some other cases, it might involve a stronger union and a weaker police chief who bends to the will of the city's administration and not the police officers. Whether or not the chief keeps his job appears to depend on his or her backing by city government.

Useful tool or dirty pool? This article analyzes the no confidence vote's impact on police management as well as a section on the how and why of these votes.


Research Results The Contract: Only 18 percent of association leaders believe the vote was related to contract negotiations. One association president explained, "Negotiations don't work that way. Contracts are negotiated between the union and the city, not between the union and the chief." He went on to explain that chiefs are a non-entity in contract negotiations.

Leadership: One hundred percent of responders attributed a "vote of no confidence" in part to poor leadership. The complaints about inadequate leadership included complaints about inflexibility, autocratic self-absorbed demeanor, condescension, deception, manipulation and politically driven behavior. While there may be understandable disagreements between officers and the administration, respondents said that everyone wants to believe the chief is "their kind of guy" and that to take a vote of no confidence is mostly done when other options are exhausted. Integrity: Eighty-two percent of responders attributed a vote in part to integrity failures by the chief. Accusations ranged from not going to work, to sexual harassment, fraternization with felons and theft.

Policies: Seventy-six percent of responders attributed a "vote of no confidence" in part to poor policies and procedures. Union leaders explained that many new policies are not well thought out, resulting in unintended consequences including compromised officer safety. Many believed their department was too top heavy at the expense of fundamentals such as keeping cruisers on the road. There were only two people who reported that discipline policies prompted them to take a "no confidence vote."

Use-of-Force: Fifty-eight percent of respondents attributed a vote in part to the chief's failure to support officers after a critical use of force incident. One union strongly believed that was the key reason for the vote. They believed the vote caused the chief to be more circumspect in his public statements after a critical incident.

Considerations Votes of no confidence are not causally associated with contract negotiations, although there does appear to be some linkage. They seem to go together like hair and eye color, but there is no causal relationship. The real causes lie in rank-and-file's perceptions of poor executive leadership, non-caring, lack of integrity and poor policies.Votes of no confidence are essentially votes of censure that indicate pervasive feelings of disapproval and condemnation.

The ability of a police union to issue a vote of no confidence is entirely dependent on the support of the union's members in terms of any impact that they might have. If the leadership doesn't have the backing of its members, then the no confidence vote will fall flat particularly if the union leadership is seen as acting unilaterally. Unilateral leadership through action may actually alienate the union even in the face of a no confidence vote.

Weak labor unions of course aren't able to engage in these actions either and traditionally are not involved in issuing no confidence votes. It's all they can do to keep their own members from running them out which might turn the issue of no confidence on its head.

Experts in other countries including Great Britain take a look at that uneasy relationship between law enforcement labor unions and police management teams.

Two married Los Angeles Police Department officers who sued their department for retaliation had their case rejected by a jury.

A study discovered that Houston Police Department officers tased African-Americans more often than members of other races. According to teh study, African-Americans made up about 67% of all people tased even though they made up about 25% of Houston's population.

(excerpt, Associated Press)

Minister Robert Muhammad, with the southwest regional headquarters for The Nation of Islam, said the study shows that police are more apt to use the weapons on black suspects than suspects of other races.

"Can we say it's racism? Yes, and some people would argue no," said Muhammad. "The greater argument is abuse of authority. We give them authority to protect us. But instead of using that authority to protect us, they abuse us with it."

Houston police said their use of Tasers was not tied to race, but to a person's behavior.

"It's not a racial issue. A Taser device is no different from a radar gun. It's race neutral," Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland said after the Houston City Council meeting during which the report was released.

The study found that black officers were less likely than white or Hispanic officers to use Tasers on a black suspect.

"We have to spend more time in determining why these racial and ethnic differences exist," said City Controller Annise Parker, whose office oversaw the audit. "Simply ignoring them or saying they are not significant is not going to make them go away."

An officer in Erie, Colorado was arrested for fondling a woman that he had arrested.

Another Chicago Police Department officer is in trouble. Not exactly news really.

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