Five years after Anaheim residents took to the streets to protest police-involved shootings that left two Latino men dead, a group of activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California are pushing the City Council for a more robust citizen oversight commission with subpoena and investigatory powers.
The city’s Public Safety Board was launched in 2014 in response to public outrage and major protests after the deaths of Joel Acevedo and Manuel Diaz during the same week in July 2012.
“The Public Safety Board, the first year, they never asked any questions,” said Donna Acevedo Nelson, the mother of Joel Acevedo, at a forum about the board on April 8 hosted by the Anaheim Community Coalition.
“A year and a half later, they finally did, and even they learned that they aren’t allowed to review anything,” said Acevedo-Nelson, who since her son’s death has become an active voice at city council meetings. She also co-chairs the Community Coalition with Theresa Smith, whose son was also killed by Anaheim police.
Now the City Council must decide whether to keep the two-year-old Public Safety Board as-is, expand the board and its powers or do away with it altogether. The board only was set up to exist for two years. It held it's last meeting in February and if the city doesn't renew it, it will go out of business. The city council hasn't set a date to discuss it.
Unlike city commissions, which report to the City Council, the 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.
Although billed as one of several major changes to improve public confidence and citizen input into the Anaheim Police Department, police accountability activists say much of the public is unaware of the board’s existence and often deride it as a do-nothing body lacking any real authority.
Calls for More Authority
At the forum, activists painted a picture of a city that has not moved on from the protests of the summer of 2012.
Jennifer Rojas, a policy advocate for the ACLU, cited statistics she said were based on FBI data claiming Anaheim is the ninth deadliest police force per capita among the 60 largest U.S. cities.
“From 2002 to 2016, APD (Anaheim Police Department) were involved in 37 deaths, of which 3 were homicides during arrest,” Rojas stated in a letter to the City Council.
“Between the first Public Safety Board meetings in October 2014 to the most recent in February 2017, seven people were killed by APD.”
The ACLU report has yet to be published and released to the public.
The ACLU also has recommended the Public Safety board report directly to the City Council; not include representation from the police union or police department; have broad scope to review complaints and incidents; have the ability to issue subpoenas; and be able to recommend disciplinary action for officers.
“[The mission] doesn’t need to be vague,” said David Haas “…who benefits when it’s unclear? The police.”
Haas, a member of the Latino advocacy group Los Amigos and a Long Beach-based attorney who served on a similar board for San Diego County in the 1990s, said activists should push for the board to have its own legal counsel.
“What kind of advice you are getting, it can be very conservative,” Haas said. “Things like, ‘oh no. you can’t try a subpoena. Nobody does a subpoena.’”
A report conducted for the City Council by consultant Joseph Brann found several of the board’s 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.
Board members complained in Brann’s report that they don’t have a set budget or part-time staff support.
“Right now, the public safety board is tucked away…it should be archived on (the city’s TV) Channel 3, in the same setting as City Council,” said panelist Renee Balenti.
One of the ACLU’s recommendations is for the board to have funding that is a fixed percentage of the police department’s total noncapital budget.
The police department spent $132,889,000 during the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. If the city council devoted one percent of that to the Public Safety Board, it would have a $1.3 million annual budget.
Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, for example, the oldest police review board in the country, has a budget of $570,417 for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
By comparison, Anaheim spent $1.55 million in a 2012 settlement to the widow and parents of Julian Alexander, a man shot and killed by Anaheim police.
Pushback from the Police Association
Although the City Council has not voted on any specific proposals for the board, already two council members and the Anaheim Police Officers’ Association have come out against giving the board increased authority.
Councilwomen Kris Murray and Lucille Kring have both rejected calls from Councilman Jose Moreno to elevate the Public Safety Board into an “independent, investigative police commission.”
“I don’t think anything we’ve heard today warrants that measure [of authority],” Murray said at a meeting in late February.
Police association President Edgar Hampton said at a city council meeting in March that the union agreed with the original concept of the Public Safety Board but objects to giving more power to a board run by civilians.
“You need to understand that a civilian point of view of what police work is being done is not necessarily the best point of view to have,” Hampton said. “‘I don’t like what that police officer did’…doesn't mean it’s out of policy or against the law.”
Hampton said of the 208,710 calls for service the department received in 2016, 136 involved use of force.
“In my opinion that's hardly some agency that’s on the verge of consent decree,” Hampton said.
He was critical of efforts in other cities to establish police review boards, calling meetings for the civilian-run Los Angeles Police Commission “a zoo.”
“It should be a professional organization with people who act professionally…and not people who decide to scream obscenities at the police,” Hampton said.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.