The killing of two young Latino men in 2012 by Anaheim Police Department officers, which sparked mass protests in front of City Hall that summer, were not isolated incidents but part of a troubling pattern that put the city near the top of a national list of deadly force used by police, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released Monday.
The back-to-back deaths of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo in July 2012 were part of a pattern of fatal shootings that makes the Anaheim Police Department the ninth deadliest police force among 60 of the largest U.S. cities, the report states.
From 2003 to 2016, 33 people died following use-of-force by an Anaheim police officer. Of those 33, 29 were shot, three died in incidents where officers used a TASER and other physical force, and one after an APD officer placed the person in a chokehold, according to the report.
Nearly 40 percent of people killed in arrest-related deaths were unarmed, the report says.
“88 percent of Anaheim PD officers have never been involved in an officer involved death – that’s the majority. But what we find very troubling is that of the 33 deaths, 58 percent of those deaths…involved a repeat offender,” said Jennifer Rojas, a co-author of the report and community engagement and policy advocate for the ACLU of Southern California.
In a statement Monday afternoon, Acting Police Chief Julian Harvey said the report has several inaccuracies.
“We welcome open and honest assessment of how we are doing. Unfortunately, this report falls short with misstatements designed for maximum impact rather than honestly portraying our city,” Harvey said. “Any loss of life in our city is unfortunate, and the use of lethal force is always a last resort.”
The report comes as the City Council is expected next month to review options for the Public Safety Board, a citizen advisory board convened after the civil unrest in 2012.
The board, largely meant as a forum for residents to air their grievances publicly, has no subpoena powers or the ability to investigate police-involved deaths. In recent months, police reform activists have called for the board to beefed up as a police review commission with oversight responsibilities.
Harvey said in his statement that the police department looks forward to “clarifying the record” when the City Council considers next steps for its Public Safety Board in December.
Edgar Hampton, president of the police union, the Anaheim Police Association, said the report doesn’t account for all the circumstances of each use of force incident.
“To just claim that every shooting is some act of malfeasance or misconduct by the officer, that’s not reasonable either. Some of the incidents were times when officers were shot at,” Hampton said.
According to the ACLU report, an average of 2.4 people die each year in incidents with Anaheim PD. Over the past three years – from 2014 to 2016 – the rate of officer-involved deaths per million residents “consistently exceeded that of many major police departments,” including departments in the cities of Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Riverside and Santa Ana, the report states.
African Americans made up 12 percent of deaths in Anaheim between 2003 and 2016, and Latinos 61 percent of those killed.
The report argues that the deaths have no relation to the city’s crime rate.
“Police departments in cities with similar crime rates kill far fewer people than Anaheim PD,” the report states.
The ACLU also takes aim at specific officers that it says are “repeat offenders.” Of the 50 officers involved in the 33 deaths, 19 (58 percent) were involved in more than one fatal incident, while three officers were involved in three deaths. Those three officers are Ben Starke, Nick Bennallack and Kevin Flanagan.
A federal jury recently found Bennallack guilty of excessive force and awarded a $200,000 settlement to the family of Manuel Diaz.
The report also identifies two instances in which the city hired officers involved in use-of-force incidents: Daron Wyatt, who shot and killed Brian Charles Smith in 2004 while an officer in Placentia, was hired in 2008 and now serves as the department’s public spokesman; and Lorenzo Uribe, who used deadly force twice while working for Long Beach Police Department before being hired in 2015.
The city of Anaheim says the report incorrectly blames Wyatt for the death of Smith, stating that he was “not the firing officer.”
Rojas said that, in attributing Smith’s death to Wyatt, the ACLU relied on a lawsuit against the Placentia Police Department in which Wyatt is named as one of two officers blamed for Smith’s death.
Harvey, the acting chief, also said that the claim that Anaheim PD is the ninth deadliest department is inaccurate because the report incorrectly attributes the death of Paul Anthony Anderson in 2015 to officer Starke. According to a report by the Orange County District Attorney’s office, Anderson was armed with a submachine gun when he was shot seven times by Anaheim police. An autopsy, according to the OCDA report, later attributed Anderson’s death to three shots from his own gun.
If you don’t consider Anderson’s death a result of officers’ actions, the city’s ranking drops from 9th to 27th, said Harvey.
But Rojas said the ACLU relied on data from the California Attorney General’s office, in which Anderson’s death was reported as “justified homicide” rather than a suicide.
“What I also wanted to convey was that the manner of death has nothing to do with APD’s decision to use deadly force and shoot Anderson,” Rojas said. “Not only did officers shoot Anderson seven times, if officers hadn’t stopped Anderson, he would not have died.”
The Peace Office Bill of Rights generally keeps disciplinary records and actions against police officers secret.
The city has taken steps since 2012 to improve its use of force policies and transparency, including the creation of the Public Safety Board in 2014. In 2015, the department required its officers wear body cameras.
It also increased staffing on its community policing team, provided training for officers on interacting with people with mental illness, and began posting department policies and data on officer-involved shootings online, according to the report.
“Few public safety agencies have initiated as much internal review and brought about as much positive change as the Anaheim Police Department has in recent years,” said Harvey. “Our major incident review process is now a model for California. We have brought our officers closer to the neighborhoods they serve and created new ways for the community to share their concerns with us.”
The report is, however, critical of the Public Safety Board as too weak to provide any real oversight, and argues the board should have the ability to independently investigate use of force incidents; a budget for professional staff support; and the ability to recommend discipline for officers.
Hampton objected to recommendations that the board be able to issue subpoenas and investigate use of force incidents, and that its membership should exclude law enforcement.
“The fact that you’re talking about giving subpoena power to people who don’t have investigative experience…that doesn’t make sense,” Hampton said.
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