DA’s Decision Reignites Police Oversight Issue in Anaheim

Although it is not on the agenda for this week's Anaheim City Council meeting, the strained relationship between the city's police department and many of its residents is again looming large.

The debate over whether to provide a layer of civilian oversight on police is ratcheting up after Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced last week that charges will not be filed against an officer who shot and killed Manuel Diaz, a city resident and documented gang member, as he was running from police.

About 20 people, mostly relatives of police shooting victims, gathered outside Orange County Superior Court on March 21 to protest Rackauckas' decision not to prosecute Nick Bennallack, the officer who fatally shot Diaz in the buttocks and back of the head. Diaz was unarmed.

The same day as that protest, the American Civil Liberties Union announced that the organization is now urging Anaheim leaders to assemble a civilian review board to oversee police conduct.

“A civilian review board, in which the community plays an active role in holding police accountable, will help assure Anaheim’s residents that complaints are investigated transparently and vigorously,” Bardis Vakili, an ACLU staff attorney, stated in a news release. “At the same time it will vindicate officers, when allegations are not sustained, in a system that the public feels it can trust.”

The DA's office concluded that Bennallack had reasonable fear to believe that Diaz was an imminent threat to the officer's life.

According to the DA's report, Bennallack and another officer pursuing Diaz believed they saw Diaz running with his hands near the front of his waistband and was possibly reaching for a gun when backed against a fence. Bennallack then shot Diaz.

Diaz pleaded guilty in 2011 to drug charges and in 2008 to having a firearm on school grounds with a street-gang enhancement, according to reporting by The Orange County Register. Attorneys for his family confirmed he was arrested for marijuana possession and also for weapons possession and was on probation for the handgun conviction, the Register reported.

Diaz's killing, one of a string of fatal police shootings in the city last year, sparked days of unrest and a downtown riot July 24 after protesters were barred access to a City Council meeting.

Manual Diaz's mother, Genevieve Huizar, attended the protest and said that the DA's report on the shooting contained “inconsistencies.” For example, Diaz was shot in the center of the back of his head, not off-center, she said.

“One way or another we're going to get justice,” Huizar said.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Police Association issued a statement declaring that the investigation confirmed police officers face a difficult job.

“This investigation reveals the true difficulty and danger that our police officers face every day in our gang and crime ridden neighborhoods and the fact that Manual 'Stomper' Diaz was a violent gang member,” Kerry Condon, president of the Anaheim Police Association, stated in the news release.

The police association has also voiced opposition to a civilian review board and orchestrated a robocall campaign aimed at drumming up opposition to the idea, which was first proposed by Mayor Tom Tait. Anaheim “is nowhere near” needing such an oversight body, which usually comes only when police departments are plagued by corruption, Condon has said.

Police officers and firefighters often play an influential role in city politics and in electing council members. The police association significantly escalated its spending in last year's council election, having spent more than $150,000 to promote council candidates favored by the council majority, including Jordan Brandman, who won a council seat, and Steve Chavez Lodge, who lost.

At the March 3 council meeting, Councilwomen Kris Murray, Lucille Kring and Gail Eastman signaled early opposition to a civilian review board, saying that the idea is facing rising public opposition.

Murray acknowledged that several public speakers have backed a police oversight body but said she had received 18 “emails and letters” opposing it. Kring said she had received “over 50 letters” against the proposal. Eastman said she had received at least as many as Kring and Murray regarding oversight of police by “nonprofessionals.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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