The debate in Anaheim about police conduct has become so contentious that at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting Police Chief John Welter publicly accused a former council candidate of spreading “bullshit lies” during the public comments portion of the meeting.
The accusation came just after the City Council unanimously directed City Manager Bob Wingenroth to develop a specific proposal for a police oversight body that would include civilians.
A clearly angry Welter confronted Duane Roberts, a frequent critic of the Police Department on OrangeJuice Blog, in the crowded council chambers lobby and told Roberts to speak with the chief before maligning him at council meetings.
“Do I get a chance to refute all the bullshit lies you say at council? No,” Welter said.
That the police chief would publicly berate a resident and insist that the chief be allowed to vet the criticism before it goes public raised concerns among some about a possible chilling effect on residents who witnessed the confrontation.
West Anaheim resident Art Castillo, who was present during the exchange, called Welter’s tirade “intimidation” toward residents who want to make public their grievances about the police department.
Welter is “not listening to the people who are the victims,” Castillo said.
During public comments, Roberts challenged Welter’s claim in an Al-Jazeera documentary that he didn’t know about a military-style police unit that had been dispatched to patrol the city after a downtown riot in the wake of a string of fatal police shootings. Rioters damaged 20 downtown businesses.
In video aired by Al Jazeera, cadres of officers in military fatigues are seen brandishing assault rifles while hitched to sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks. Critics had said the scene looked more like a military occupation of a foreign country than an American police patrol.
Roberts had said during public comments that he saw an officer on a motorcycle who looked like Welter. Roberts speculated that he struck a nerve with the chief by indicating that Welter may have been overseeing what he acknowledged to Al-Jazeera was a regrettable and excessive display of force.
“Now you see why people don’t file complaints about police officers,” Roberts said.
Welter quickly departed after a Voice of OC reporter began taking notes during the confrontation. He could not be reached for comment later in the evening.
Mayor Tom Tait said that it’s “tough to comment” on an incident he didn’t witness. Wingenroth said that he would “look into it.”
The council’s direction to Wingenroth to assemble a police oversight proposal — first proposed by Tait last month — is a response to weeks of unrest in the city last July that was sparked by a series of fatal police shootings.
“Accountability, transparency, independent oversight makes any organization better,” Tait said.
The council considered four police review models. They included an individual auditor or ombudsman with the power to conduct an investigation; an auditor who would have only the power to review internal affairs examinations; a civilian review board to review investigations; and an “investigative” model that would have an independent agency or board composed of civilian investigators.
Ultimately, the council directed Wingenroth to develop a proposal he thought was best and would include civilians in the process. Wingenroth said after the meeting that he hasn’t chosen a model yet but would consider council comments in his decision.
There are questions as to the effectiveness of civilian review boards.
While some cities across the state have civilian oversight bodies, public access to their findings and deliberations was significantly curtailed by the 2006 California Supreme Court decision in the Copley Press v. Superior Court case.
The court ruled against the San Diego Union-Tribune's request for access to transcripts and other documents relating to a San Diego Civil Service Commission hearing on the termination of a San Diego County sheriff's deputy. Open-government advocates said the decision effectively shut down civilian oversight in California.
Welter and Kerry Condon, president of the Anaheim Police Association, expressed opposition to a potential civilian oversight board.
Welter argued that the police department already has at least four layers of both internal and external oversight. He said he fears a civilian oversight board would inhibit officers from taking necessary action in dangerous situations.
There were eight homicides, 58 gun assaults and 48 non-gun assaults by gang members in 2012, according to Deputy Police Chief Raul Quezada.
Relatives of police shooting victims and other activists have contended that police officers shoot with impunity.
“It’s part of the job. We face people who are undesirable, and they want to kill us,” Welter said. “If the [district attorney] finds that an officer murdered someone, assassinated someone, like some of these people at the podium are alleging, I will be the first to ask them to prosecute.”
After a police shooting, the district attorney’s office conducts a criminal investigation, Welter said. Meanwhile, the police department conducts a review of the situation by its internal affairs department and Major Incident Review Team, which reviews training, policies and equipment, Welter said.
And while critics argue that the DA is too close to the police department to conduct an unbiased review, Welter argued that such concerns are not valid. He cited the DA’s prosecution of an Anaheim officer who had committed a sexual assault as evidence.
Welter described at least one of the police department’s oversight entities — the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review — as a civilian oversight body with experts in excessive force and civil rights law.
The city has for four years contracted, at Welter’s request, with the organization to analyze internal reviews of use-of-force incidents and make recommendations for improvement. The goal is to eliminate the conditions that lead to police shootings, Welter said.
Issuing more polite commands, like “please don’t move,” is among those recommendations so far, Welter said.
Also, Welter said that to involve the community with the Police Department he has been working with a 22-member chief’s advisory board of represntatives from activists groups like Los Amigos of Orange County and from faith-based organizations, nonprofits, among others.
Condon said that civilian review boards come to police departments that have been plagued with corruption and that Anaheim is “nowhere near” needing one. He noted that the DA, which he said is an independent oversight body, had cleared every police officer involved in a shooting.
“There has not been a bad shooting here in Anaheim ever,” Condon said.
Theresa Smith, mother of Caesar Cruz, who was shot and killed by police in 2009, reacted with joy after the council’s decision. She said that although the board might not be transparent because of the Copley decision, an unbiased review is important to restoring trust in the police department.
“They voted unanimously to look into it, and that’s great,” Smith said.