It’s time for a civilian police oversight board
My first thought when I watched the horrific video of George Floyd was revulsion, followed by anger. At the same time, as a resident of Fullerton, the video and reaction she created also includes an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. While there are clear differences between what happened to Floyd and what happened to Kelly Thomas nearly nine years ago, it’s hard to get rid of the feeling that nine years have passed and nothing significant change in the way public officials are investigated or disciplined. misconduct.
For me, the most important information in this case was the fact that Derek Chauvin, the man who managed to choke another human, on camera, in full view of hundreds of eyewitnesses, without the slightest trace of remorse , had had eighteen prior complaints. filed against him as a Minneapolis Police Department officer, or basically one for every year on the force.
How is it possible that such an obvious problem employee can remain an employee in good standing despite such a long track record? The answer is that, unlike most of us who work in the private sector, he enjoys protections and safeguards that make even investigation, let alone discipline, extremely costly.
Most states have a version of a police officer‘s bill of rights. The California version is found in government code §3300-3311, and it extends many of the rights afforded to all of us in criminal prosecutions to officers in administrative actions. For example, an officer also has the right to have counsel present during any administrative proceedings relating to his or her conduct. Statements made under duress, coercion “or threats of punitive action” are inadmissible in both civil and criminal proceedings. And an officer can only be disciplined for refusing to answer questions at an administrative hearing if he is first informed that the statements cannot be used against him in any criminal case.
Imagine if you tried to require an attorney to be present at a meeting to determine if you violated company policy, or if you refused to make a statement unless your employer agreed to that statement. can ever be used against you in a criminal trial? You would be fired on the spot, and for good reason.
In addition to this, the Supreme Court decision in Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court (39 Cal.4th 1272) created a right of privacy for all personal records and essentially placed our public safety employees above the law. Copley guarantees that any complaints against officers that are handled by the police department will be investigated at that department’s sole discretion, as the public generally does not know how the department made a decision or why. Or even if they have looked into the matter. And in case you think that’s hyperbole, then-Acting Chief Dan Hughes admitted in 2012 that it happened in our own police department.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good officers, but it does mean that there aren’t meaningful external checks on the conduct of problematic officers, as long as that conduct isn’t so shocking. that it ends up becoming a national story.
And even then, the protections offered by POBAR make it difficult to shoot even the most shocking crime. Look at Kenton Hampton, who is still employed by the Fullerton Police Department (and received $302,795 in salary and benefits in 2019) despite his involvement in the beating death of Kelly Thomas and the beating/fake imprisonment of Veth Man. And even Jay Cicinelli [who smashed Kelly Thomas’ face repeatedly with his taser] lured a sympathetic Superior Court judge into his efforts to force the city of Fullerton to reinstate him as a member of the Fullerton Police Department. And it’s not unique to California, as we learned from the Floyd case.
In other words, in California, a police officer has a constitutional right to a job. A job that can kill someone if not done properly. This is unacceptable.
Since we can’t rely on transparency (state law prohibits it) and we can’t rely on departmental officials to come forward (Copley makes releasing internal personnel records an offense criminal justice), I concluded several years ago that an independent and effective civilian oversight commission was the best way to control our public employees.
Independent civilian oversight is not perfect and can be ineffective in cases where no subpoena power is granted and the chief is free to ignore the Commission’s recommendations. This is why the Fullerton coalition, in which I participated, decided to prepare a model ordinance proposal, which was presented to Fullerton City Council on February 19, 2013.
This proposed ordinance was specifically designed to provide the strictest possible oversight allowed by state law.
Section (d) granted the Review Commission “the power to subpoena and require the attendance of witnesses and the production of books and documents relevant to its investigations and to administer oaths”. Subparagraph (e) provided for the hiring of independent contractors to carry out investigations for the Audit Commission. Not only would this be less expensive than hiring permanent city employees, but it would also be more efficient, as non-municipal employees would have a greater degree of independence from politics and government pressure. the city.
In addition, paragraph (g) of the draft ordinance is designed to give the Board of Review “the same status as that currently held by officers of the police department to appeal a decision of the chief of police in imposition or non-imposition of disciplinary measures”. Currently, the only party entitled to appeal the decision of the chief of police is the officer himself, which makes the appeal process quite one-sided.
No system is perfect, but the civil ordinance would at least give the city council the tools it needs to investigate and discipline problematic officers if it chooses to use it, and would provide much-needed checks and balances on how whose police department is currently managed. This would give the City the tools it needs to permanently remove these officers before they cause significant taxpayer exposure, not to mention unnecessary injury or loss of life.
In addition, the Civil Oversight Ordinance would provide as much transparency as currently provided by state law. Even before recent changes to state law, many supervisory boards (such as San Diego County) were able to provide the public with annual summaries detailing the nature of claims made against officers in their department. and the result of the investigation.
Kelly Thomas was killed nine years ago. I would like nothing more than to put this chapter of our city’s history behind us. Until meaningful reform is put in place to ensure law enforcement officials are accountable to the people, what happened in Fullerton and Minneapolis will continue.
I urge you to contact the city council and ask them to put the February 19, 2013 Independent Civilian Oversight Ordinance back on the agenda for further discussion.