Less than a week after a viral video of an armed, off-duty Los Angeles police officer in a physical struggle with a group of teens sparked protests on the streets of Anaheim, the City Council Tuesday will discuss whether the civilian committee it assembled to improve transparency and police relations with the community has done its job.
The City Council will review a report evaluating the Public Safety Board, a nine-member civilian board tasked with analyzing major incidents and police and fire department policies, and providing a space for public input.
The report, which began last year, was prepared by consultant Joseph Brann. It found many board members felt their work was hampered by conflicts within the board and with City Manager Paul Emery, who has sole discretion over whether or not to implement any of their recommendations.
Nearly all felt the board is poorly understood by the public, and at least two people quoted in the report felt the board was largely created to “appease a small number of the people in the community who will continue to be critics of the [police department] and City.”
The Public Safety Board was created in 2014 in response to protests and public outrage that erupted in 2012 after a series of police-involved shootings.
A core group of activists, including the mothers of young men who have been killed in police-involved shootings, have lobbied for greater transparency and accountability regarding investigations into use of force and officer-involved shootings.
But after a two-year pilot run, activists and even some of the board’s own members have complained that, other than providing a space for public complaints, the body does not have enough power or policy-making authority to respond to problems or provide the kind of independent civilian oversight that residents have been calling for.
Although the discussion on Tuesday is a study session where no decisions can be made, the city council will ultimately need to decide whether they want to let the board continue, change or expand its mission, or provide it with additional financial or legal resources.
Duane Roberts, one of a core group of residents who have consistently attended the board’s quarterly meetings, said the Public Safety Board’s work has only begun, and hopes the City Council will expand its authorities.
Roberts filed a detailed complaint about statements made by Police Chief Raul Quezada about his department’s response to a Ku Klux Klan rally early last year, which recently prompted Emery to order an investigation into his complaint.
“Now that the Public Safety Board is actually doing its job – by having the OIR [Office of Independent Review] actually investigate my complaint — are we going to continue it, or shut it down?” said Roberts in a telephone interview.
The board has yet to discuss or review how the Anaheim Police Department handled its response to last week’s confrontation between the off-duty police officer and two teens, which sparked outrage when police arrested two teenagers but not the officer, who discharged his gun during the altercation.
Many Ways to Do Oversight
Nationwide, public safety and civilian oversight commissions can take many forms, with some making their decisions entirely behind closed doors, while others open up hearings and interview transcripts to the public.
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.
Some boards focus solely on conducting civilian investigations into complaints filed against police officers, such San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints or the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board in San Diego County.
While such a structure can boost public confidence and serve as a third-party check on government, they can also face a lot of resistance from police departments and unions, who argue that civilian-led investigations lack technical and professional expertise to conduct a fair and competent investigation, according to a report by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).
Other boards, such as a citizen board for the city of San Diego, review the quality of internal investigations. These boards tend to be the least expensive, since they rely on volunteers, although that could also reduce the quality of the board’s work, according to the NACOLE report.
The cities of San Jose and Los Angeles both rely on independent expert auditors, who monitor both citizen complaints and conduct audits into longer term issues, such as a police department’s discipline practices.
Brann, speaking to the Public Safety Board last week, said there’s no one model that he would point to as the best or most effective, and cities should look for the best fit based on their needs.
“The reason I don’t have a favorite one is, in some instances, models I thought that wouldn’t work well have been very effective” and vice versa, said Brann.
Frustrations in Anaheim
Unlike city commissions, which report to the City Council, Anaheim’s Public Safety Board has no policy-making authority and makes recommendations to the city manager. The board can’t conduct or order investigations into incidents and does not have subpoena power.
Many board members complained in Brann’s report about the fact that the board does not have a set budget or part-time staff support. They also were frustrated that both the city manager and the board’s staff member, Lylyana Bogdanovich, only meet with the chair and vice chair, causing other members to feel left out of the process.
There has also been confusion among members of the public about why the Public Safety Board is able to meet behind closed doors, where they often discuss specific complaints or receive private briefings from the police chief.
Because the board reports to the city manager and does not have any policy-making authority, it is not subject to state open meeting laws that require commissions to disclose what is discussed behind closed doors.
Several board members told Brann that the public is largely unaware and has yet to benefit from the Public Safety Board, while those who have loyally attended its meetings “have not seen much material change due to the nature of the Board…and the limitations placed on it.”
But the board’s goal was limited from the start, said Brann, and is largely aimed at creating a space for public input.
“There are those who want this to be a legislative body…however, that was not the mission of this body,” said Brann.
Whether that is enough will be the choice of the City Council on Tuesday.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.