Crime & Justice

Controversial police shootings spark discussion on citizen police oversight committees

Over 50 people gathered at the Anaheim Police Department to protest an officer-involved shooting which occurred Saturday night.
Over 50 people gathered at the Anaheim Police Department to protest an officer-involved shooting which occurred Saturday night.
Ed Joyce/KPCC

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Residents plan to pack Anaheim City Hall Tuesday afternoon for a protest before the city’s council meeting. The community has continued to voice outrage over a police shooting that killed an unarmed man Saturday. Some are calling for citizen oversight of the police department.

“Right now the community in the Anna Drive area is just bewildered,” said Amin David, founder of Los Amigos of Orange County.

David is a member of the Anaheim police chief’s Community Advisory Board. They meet once a month with the chief to discuss community concerns. But Latino community leaders now say they want a citizen oversight committee with teeth, such as subpoena powers.

“My personal view is without that ability it would not be very effective,” he said.

Others want a citizen oversight committee to have the authority to review police force incidents, procedures and policies and make recommendations to the city. Latino activists and Anaheim city officials are supposed to meet next wee to discuss the shooting and requests for oversight.

High-profile police incidents often spark the discussion and establishment of a civilian oversight committee, said Kathryn Olsen, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

“At the heart of citizen oversight is the notion of building trust and respect between the police and the community,” she said.

Olsen, who also serves as a civilian oversight employee reviewing police complaints and making recommendations for the Seattle Police Department, said more communities are introducing ways for citizens to have a seat at the police oversight table. It’s up to each city and community to determine what role citizens will play said Olsen.

“What we see in different jurisdictions is bits and pieces of different models: investigative evaluative, or educational,” she said.

For example, Los Angeles has multilayer oversight with an appointed police commission that has the authority to review officer use of force and discipline. An inspector general is also dedicated to reviewing LAPD policy.

The city of Burbank has a seven-member police commission with the authority to initiate studies, conduct hearings or investigations at the request of city council, take complaints and make policy recommendations to the council.

Olsen warned civilian oversight committees could be expensive and time consuming. They require citizens who sit on those boards to have a strong understanding and training on police work, tactics and policy.

“We think the police chief is the ultimate CEO of the department, but at the same time it’s important to build a healthy relationship with the community and find a way to do oversight in a way that doesn’t threaten the role police and uses the values of the community,” Olsen said.

For a long time, Pasadena had two police review boards on officer discipline and use of force. Residents and police officers served on those boards but the groups were disbanded in 2010 when the city realized the it violated the state’s open meetings law by not revealing the names of the board members.

Pasadena activist Martin Gordon and others like him want to revive it, or a version of it. In March, two Pasadena police officers shot and killed Kendrec McDade, 19, who was unarmed after a false 911 call. But not long after, a handful of complaints against officers alleging various types of misconduct and force have been filed. Gordon wants residents to have a say on police use of force, policy and procedures.

“We need to look at the other side and say okay were (officers) within policy. If the department says yes, and if the community says, ‘Yeah that’s within policy, then we ask but is that how we want to treat people in Pasadena?”

The Pasadena police department answers to a few city officials such as the city manager and the city council’s Steve Madison is chair.

“When I’m asked about having a citizen police commission, my response is always you have one right now. And you are talking to one of the commissioners as it were,” he said.

Madison said Pasadena residents could come to the committee meetings with any concerns over the police department. He said his problem with having an appointed oversight committee, is that people who serve on them are not directly accountable to the voters the way elected officials are. At the same time, city council members also represent the lawful and financial interests of the city.

When policy does needs to be changed, Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez makes that decision.

“My job as the department head is to make a presentation to the Public Safety Committee at least biannually on personnel complaints and use of force so they get a snap shot of where we’re at with the respect to those issues,” Sanchez said.

Those biannual reports on use of force, discipline, and complaints had not been done before for the committee but it will be from now on says Sanchez.

Next month, the police chief will also present to Pasadena’s public safety committee a report on what types of citizen involvement or oversight is used by other city police departments in Southern California and how they work.