Anaheim Begins Review of Its Citizen Police Oversight Board

On the heels of public protests last week over a physical struggle between a Los Angeles police officer and a group of Anaheim teens, Anaheim City Council members Tuesday split over the future role of the citizen board that provides oversight of the police and fire departments.

During a brief study session before their regular meeting, Councilman Jose Moreno called for expansion of the Public Safety Board into an “independent, investigative police commission” with the ability to issue subpoenas and investigate incidents.

His proposal drew strong objections from Councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring.

“Other than a couple of comments, I’ve had no public feedback from our residents expressing concerns…I think that also speaks volumes,” said Murray, who added she had not heard any members of the board express dissatisfaction with its current form.

“I don’t think anything we’ve heard today warrants that measure [of authority],” Murray added in response to Moreno’s proposal.

But several speakers and a city consultant’s report criticized the board as lacking the authority and resources to provide the independent, citizen oversight that many activists have called for.

The city’s Public Safety Board was launched in 2014 in response to an explosion of public outrage and protests in 2012 after a spate of police-involved shootings that left two Latino men dead.

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.

A consultant’s report presented to the council Tuesday found disagreement among the board’s members over its mission and between the board and City Manager Paul Emery.

After a two-year pilot run, council members will need to decide whether to have the board continue in its current capacity or change course. But that decision will be made at a future meeting and no date was set Tuesday by City Council members.

While council members were mixed over where to take the Public Safety Board, several public speakers called on them to expand the board and its powers.

“Once you have a purpose for the Public Safety Board, enshrine it in the city charter – don’t look at it as a tentative, experimental thing,” said David Haas, an attorney and member of the Anaheim-based Latino advocacy group Los Amigos. Haas served on the San Diego County Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board in the 1990s.

“Get rid of the mystery and suspicion [involved when] the police investigate themselves,” Haas said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California called for an independent civilian review board with broad scope to review and investigate complaints, and the ability to audit police policies and practices.

A representative of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD) also called for the formation of a full-fledged commission that reports to the City Council.

Currently, the city manager has sole discretion over whether the board’s recommendations will be implemented.

“We believe a single person should not hold such power when it comes to the safety and trust of the community,” said Alex Rosado, a representative of OCCORD.

Several residents also commented on the police department’s response to the incident last week between the Los Angeles police officer, 34-year-old Kevin Ferguson, and a group of teens.

Cell phone video taken by a bystander shows 13-year-old Christian Dorscht, struggling to escape the grip of Ferguson, who was holding onto the boy’s arm and hoodie. When one teen tries to pull Dorscht free, another teen shoves Ferguson over a hedge. During the ensuing struggle, Ferguson pulls a gun from his waistband and a shot is heard.

Ferguson was not arrested, although Dorscht and a 15-year-old boy who intervened were both arrested.

“It is disappointing to see the Anaheim Police Department arrest our youth and not treat Mr. Ferguson in the same manner,” said Brianna, a woman who lives near the neighborhood where the altercation occurred, who only gave her first name. “We are condoning his type of disrespectful behavior that is toxic to our youth.”

Kring argued that people dissatisfied with the board were among a small minority.

The Public Safety Board, aside from a cohort of activists who have followed all its meetings, has not drawn large crowds.

“I really do not want to see a complete overhaul. It’s worked, it’s had 12 meetings, people can go to meetings any time they want,” Kring said. “I know some people go and are not happy with the results, but on the whole it has proved to be very effective.

Kring did not cite any examples.

Murray said the vast majority of police interactions with the public do not involve any use of force, citing 2016 figures from the police department. Those figures indicated force was used in just one half of one percent of cases, she said.

“I don’t see a metric [to justify] escalating the powers of the board, given the amount of interaction we have today that result in use of force,” Murray said.

Moreno disagreed, noting that both the members of the board and residents who participate in the meetings have continually raised concerns about the board’s purpose.

“All one needs to do is read the minutes and you will see the entire community is not in accord with how the board is working,” said Moreno.

Councilman Steve Faessel said the council should consider changing the membership of the board so that all its members were representative of the city’s six council districts.

Mayor Tom Tait added that the board should be able to issue findings about critical incidents like police-involved shootings.

The council will continue their discussion of the Public Safety Board at a future meeting, Tait said, at which time the city would provide a formal opportunity for public input.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.