A staff proposal for a new Anaheim police review board appears to be moving toward selecting members as soon as this spring.
Although City Council members did not take any action at the Dec. 5 meeting, they generally supported the staff plan, which will come back before the council at the next meeting, Dec. 19.
The police review board would be a successor to a previous civilian review board known as the Public Safety Board, which formed in 2014 in response to protests and civil unrest that unfolded two years earlier after the fatal shootings of two Anaheim men by police.
The new board, as outlined in a staff proposal that still could change, would include seven members selected by lottery, excluding those with law enforcement experience.
It expands the powers of the Public Safety Board, which largely focused on hearing public input, to include responsibilities like reviewing and auditing police policies and providing feedback to the city manager; receiving “real-time notification” and briefings of officer-involved shootings and other major incidents; participating in the hiring and promotional process for officers and the ability to review complaints.
The staff proposal is unclear on what kind of records and information board members would have access to in their roles. But the board relies on an expert auditor hired by the city who does have unfettered access to internal records, although the board won’t be privy to all the information that the auditor receives.
Activists and families of people who have been killed by police have been pushing for years for the creation of a police review board, with many calling for a far more powerful board than the one proposed Tuesday night.
The emotion and urgency of their cause was underscored Tuesday night when Marie Cofinco, the aunt of 32-year-old Fermin Vincent Valenzuela, a homeless man who died last year after a violent struggle with Anaheim police, played several minutes of body camera footage during the public comment portion of the council meeting.
Cofinco sobbed as she played audio from the 11-minute video, which was released last week by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
“He did not commit a crime, he had no weapons – this is what they did to him,” Cofinco said, sobbing and at times screaming at the council. Several members of the audience were in tears. The council took a five minute recess after Cofinco spoke.
Valenzuela’s family has filed two lawsuits against the city since his death.
Activists have criticized the structure of the old Public Safety Board– which reported to the city manager, not the city council – as a key flaw that is repeated with the new police review board.
The city claims committees that report to the city manager are not considered legislative bodies subject to the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law that requires most meetings to be open to the public with advance notice of where and when the meetings will occur and what will be discussed.
That structure meant the Public Safety Board was able to meet behind closed doors and receive private briefings from the police department on a regular basis, without telling the public what those discussions were about.
That was designed in part to keep confidential certain information that the Public Safety Board was privy to that the general public, under state laws, is not.
City Attorney Kristin Pelletier said she believes the new police review board would have a greater ability to review sensitive information, like body camera footage, if the Brown Act doesn’t apply.
Pelletier also cited a state Attorney General opinion that states that in order to talk about personnel issues in closed sessions, the body would have to have authority over personnel issues – which the proposed police review board does not.
American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California policy advocate Jennifer Rojas, however, has argued the board can and should review personnel issues, such as police officer discipline, and said other cities have structured their police review boards to comply with the Brown Act.
Rojas also said by having the board report to the City Manager, the city limits the potential power of the police review board.
“With the Public Safety Board, we saw that the City Manager wielded ultimate discretion over what actions the board could and couldn’t take,” Rojas said. “Even if this City Manager supports oversight, the next one may not, so for its independence, the board power and authority of the board should be conferred by ordinance.”
A report released last month by the ACLU found Anaheim ranked among the worst cities nationwide for per capita deaths at the hands of police, although how high Anaheim ranks nationwide has been disputed by the city and police union.
Acting Police Chief Julian Harvey has said the report has several inaccuracies – including erroneously naming an officer, Daron Wyatt, as responsible for the death of a civilian, Brian Charles Smith, when Wyatt did not fire his gun at Smith.
Councilmember Kris Murray criticized the ACLU report as selectively reporting data as part of a “predetermined narrative” and to garner sensational headlines, and called on the ACLU to issue corrections of the report and a public apology to the city, police department, and individual officers mentioned by name in the report.
“The information in this report was seriously sliced and diced,” Murray said, saying that the report should have offered additional context with figures like the city’s total calls for service and crime rates.
Murray also called for the city to produce its own report in response to the ACLU report.
Rojas, a co-author of the ACLU report, said the organization acknowledged two errors in an explanatory letter to the city council and that the errors don’t change the report’s final conclusions.
“We stand by our report, and believe that concerns boil down to disagreement with our methodology,” Rojas said in an email. “Councilmember Murray may attack the report, but none of her accusations alter the fact that Anaheim Police Department has a persistently high rate of officer-involved deaths, which has not been reduced by efforts at reform since 2012, and which disproportionately affect communities of color and involve alarmingly high rates of both unarmed subjects and officers involved in multiple fatal incidents.”
Murray said the city should take legal action if the ACLU is “not responsive” to her demands.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.