What’s the point of the Anaheim Public Safety Board?
It’s a question that members of the public, and some of the board’s own members, have been asking for the past year.
The nine-member civilian advisory board was created in 2014 as a response to public outrage over police behavior in the years following a spate of officer-involved shootings in 2012.
But with a report on the board’s first year scheduled to land this month, many residents and activists say it hasn’t come close to what they had hoped it would be – a civilian watchdog over police behavior.
At the board’s most recent meeting on Dec. 15 – their first meeting for nearly six months – residents lambasted both the city and board members for having little to show for more than a year of meetings.
“This Public Safety Board is a joke,” said Theresa Smith, who received a $175,000 settlement from the city over the death of her son, 35-year-old Caeser Cruz, in a police-involved shooting in 2009. “If you really cared, you would do more and not [just] take what is given to you.”
Unlike a city commission that reports to the City Council, the public safety board has no policy-making authority or subpoena power, and only makes recommendations to the city manager. Its main function is to provide a space for public input.
More sensitive topics, like the details of specific complaints and shootings, are relegated to discussion in private briefings. The board is not subject to state open meeting laws that require commissions to disclose what is discussed behind closed doors.
“Some of us have wondered where we are going — it’s like driving with no headlights on an old dirt road,” said Mark Daniels, who like Smith is part of a core group of residents who have attended all the meetings.
Daniels is also among those who believe the commission should have a stronger oversight function and the ability to not only review incidents like police-involved shootings, but also issue subpoenas and conduct investigations.
Robert Nelson, one of the most outspoken board members, has said the board should have more authority to independently review complaints and conduct investigations when necessary.
But he also believes the city and members of the public need to get on the same page as to what a citizen commission can accomplish.
“I think people’s expectations of a Public Safety Board may be too high. At no time can [the board] request somebody be prosecuted, that’s not their authority,” Nelson said.
“Are people getting the proper protection? Are communities getting the attention they need?” Nelson added. “There’s a whole bunch of areas to look at, besides whether a shooting was legitimate or not.”
In the universe of public safety commissions, oversight can take many forms. Some commissions make their decisions entirely behind closed doors, while others feature open hearings as well as interview transcripts and other documents that are made available to the public.
In the city of Riverside, the oversight board reviews citizen complaints and investigation reports, and votes to either approve or reject the findings. The Berkeley Police Review Commission, which was created in 1979, was the first to give commissioners the ability to independently investigate complaints.
A 2016 review of the nation’s 50 largest police departments found civilian review boards in 19 cities are given subpoena powers, while only six have some ability to recommend disciplinary actions.
Joseph Brann, a consultant hired by Anaheim to evaluate the board’s effectiveness, said given that its main purpose has been to provide a forum for public input and discussion, the board has done its job.
“It’s evidenced that the public safety board was never intended to serve as a policy making or decision-making body,” Brann said.
But if the city is interested in a board that can provide more substantive oversight, the City Council will need to have a more robust discussion about what that will look like, Brann said.
Brann recommended the board develop a more clear mission statement; improve community awareness of its functions; and generate an annual report about its activities.
He also said the board should have access to legal resources, such as the city attorney’s office.
Another major limitation to Anaheim’s board is that it reports to City Manager Paul Emery, who has the sole authority to determine whether the board’s recommendations are worth acting on.
That tension was on display at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting, when Nelson made a motion to ask the city’s independent investigator to review an internal complaint into statements made by Police Chief Raul Quezada about how his department handled a Klu Klux Klan rally that erupted in violence earlier this year.
Emery said such a request would be within his authority.
“What if this body requests it?” Nelson asked.
“You can certainly make that request and I can take it into advisement,” Emery said.
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