Why Didn’t the Fullerton Recall Candidates Campaign on Shutting Down the F.P.D.?

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The prospect of Fullerton disbanding its Police Department has now made the L.A. Times, so it must be real.  Also, the City Council meets at 6:30 today when, among other things, discussion of the fate of the FPD is expected to occur.

Fullerton police logo with building broken

"If you unbuild it, they will come"

I don’t have strong feelings either way about whether Fullerton should shut down the FPD and move to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.  The Kelly Thomas killing did suggest some bad training and management at the FPD — but if one’s concern is about improving the quality of policing then one would have to compare FPD to its alternatives.  I am sort of surprised (and honestly so, not for parochial reasons) at the relative lack of talk about approaching the Brea PD for a bid.  (To be fair, in the article Bruce Whitaker does mention “exploring other options [including] … looking at possibly sharing police resources with neighboring cities.”  I presume that this means Brea.  It could mean, say, Anaheim, I suppose, but that would be awfully ironic given the county’s current policing environment and the A.P.D. in particular.)

Talking about contracting with Brea — which I don’t know makes sense for either party — is what I’d have expected if the proponents of a switch were serious.  Barring some late surprise twist, Brea PD is apparently slated for departure from Yorba Linda (which will create some new jobs for the painting over of “Serving Yorba Linda” on its police cars.)

Travis Kiger’s photograph (along with others including a very happy man behind him to his right) adorns the online story.  (In the interests of full disclosure: on the one hand, Kiger is the webmaster for Orange Juice Blog; on the other, I have opposed his election — and now re-election — to City Council.  Good luck reconciling those!)  Kiger states “The department has been severely criticized … and the police chief left in the middle of the disaster and people have been jumping ship,” Kiger said.  The “jumping ship” thing is interesting; one wonders why that might be — and if it has anything to do with the new Council majority contemplating closing down the joint.

But Kiger implicitly raises an important point: who has the best record of policing among FPD, OCSD, and (I’ll add) the Brea PD?  One would think that that by now that question would have been asked and answered.  One would also think that the proposals for community policing presented by former Interim and now Acting Chief Dan Hughes would enter into the discussion; instead, mention of “community policing” seems to be met with the sneering and suspicion that Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge once expressed for the wearing of glasses.  (No further analogy is intended there beyond the automatic and puzzling expression of contempt.)

Why isn’t there much evident interest in whether a change in who polices Fullerton would, you know, prevent tragedies like the Kelly Thomas killing?  That was, after all, the big reason that the incumbents were recalled.  (Yes, they did raise the issue of the “illegal water tax” — which was never judged illegal in court and a substantial portion of which apparently was not illegal at all — but come on, folks, the recall was mostly about the Kelly Thomas kidding.  You remember that, right?  It was just a few months ago.

There’s an easy explanation for that: swapping out the Fullerton P.D. is not about the Kelly Thomas killing.  You don’t believe me?  Go back to the LA Times article.  Bruce Whitaker, who upon his probable re-election in November will have more Fullerton City Council experience than all of its other members combined, expressed other concerns:

Fullerton Councilman Bruce Whitaker, a sharp critic of how the police handled the violent encounter with Thomas, said that although the department needs to be examined, the driving force behind potentially contracting out police services is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department.

“The intent here is to find out how much money could be saved and what level of service would be offered,” Whitaker said.”We’re spending a large amount per capita, and I suspect they can outline some savings.”

It’s a money thing.  Kiger is even more upfront about it: it’s a leverage thing:

“When a police union puts heavy demands on your city’s finances, you have to be willing to look elsewhere,” Kiger said. “If you’re not willing to look outside, you’re not really negotiating with your union.”

I’m not sure that I’d go that far; it sounds sort of like “if you’re not considering leaving her, you’re not really arguing with your wife.”  There are reasons for not challenging the basic foundations of a relationship at every plausible opportunity.  But, certainly, the behavior of the FPD regarding the Kelly Thomas killing does suggest that this may be a time when such momentous thoughts become possible — except, remember, this is not about the Kelly Thomas killing.  And, as in a marriage where divorce is always on the table, this sort of thing is not good for morale — and good morale is important to good policing.

If it’s not about Kelly Thomas, then what is all this about?  I’m afraid that this is part of the “War on Public Employees,” in which wealthy people try to convince less wealthy people who are losing their pensions that — rather than voting raise taxes on the increasingly wealthy to ensure a strong pension system — they should vote to wreck the pensions of public employees so that they suffer too.  If public pension reductions were tied to increased taxation of the wealthy to fund government, it might be part of a fair overall package — but that’s not the drum that is now being beaten.

What we hear is howling for the demonization of public employees — not just the ones at the highest echelons who negotiate their pensions directly with the government or have their close friends do it, but all of them — and even mutterings about municipal bankruptcy that might abrogate existing pension obligations.  (It also might not accomplish that — and it would be very damaging for a city to swing at that pitch and miss.)

So, cut through the clutter and apparently Whitaker and Kiger and their supporters want to consider getting rid of the Fullerton Police Department so that the city will not be stuck with its “unfunded pension obligations.”  (Pension obligations, by the way, are usually unfunded.)  Fullerton libertarians would prefer to let Brea or the County itself handle what they see as the ticking time bomb of pension liability.  That’s what this is about.

You think that that’s not what this is about?  OK — ask Kiger and Whitaker (and Greg Sebourn, the third member of the majority who does not have to run for re-election in November) this: if there had been no Kelly Thomas killing, would they still have favored exploring eliminating the city-operated Police Department and contracting out instead?  (I’m pretty sure that the answer is yes, but it would be quite interesting if they denied it!)

(Who’s on the hook for future pension liabilities, by the way?  Primarily homeowners and landlords.  Renters can fairly easily leave.  Of course, if people leave, rents go down, and let’s just say that “the nature of Fullerton changes.”  My point there is solely that this concern is driven by property owners.)

So, fine — it’s another battle in the War on Public Employees and you know that I don’t like the Costa Mesa approach.  Beyond that, what’s my complaint?  It comes in two parts.

The first is the apparent lack of seriousness about making quality of policing — which was the POINT of the criticism about the Kelly Thomas hearing — the primary consideration in deciding what to do regarding the FPD.  To have taken advantage of public rage over excessive use of force and then channel it into proposals that property owners think give them some protection from some possible future danger — nothing like the current dangers affecting cities like Stockton and San Bernardino that have declared bankruptcy this year — is just morally wrong.  I’ll put this in bold type:

Given the results of the recall election, the quality of policing MUST be the overriding consideration when it comes to determining the fate of the Fullerton Police Department, EVEN at some possible disadvantages in terms of cost.

This is what the voters said that they cared about.  Hijacking that legitimate sentiment to lead a jihad against public employees is just flat-out wrong.

But there’s a second related concern, involving the basic issues of democratic representation — and that is this:

Did you see getting rid of the Fullerton Police Department being a big part of the campaigns of the current Council majority in the recall election?

I didn’t.  I don’t recall if any candidate actually even broached the proposal.  I asked the Council candidates a question about seeking municipal bankruptcy, but as I recall of those elected only Sebourn gave a straight answer — not one with which I agreed, but at least a forthright one.  (Even he didn’t campaign on it, though, and I don’t get the sense that my question made a huge splash with the electorate.)  But getting rid of the FPD?  Did voters expect that to be a result of a vote for Sebourn and Kiger?

I honestly don’t think that they did.

This is a very big decision for Fullerton — a bigger one, I suspect, than voters (and non-voters) thought was at issue this past June.  If the City Council candidates didn’t give the public reason to suspect that this was possibly in the cards after only two months — during which time nothing much has changed — then they should be very hesitant to go ahead with it now.  It seems like a “bait and switch” on the public.

Some people have suggested that the public should be allowed to vote on the proposal before it goes into effect.  Maybe that would work, but I understand why proponents would consider the delay to be undesirable.  I’ll tell you what might convince me that the public was behind it, though: Whitaker and Kiger can make replacing the F.P.D. a brightly spotlighted centerpiece of their campaign this fall.  If it’s prominently on their literature, and then win, then I’ll be more inclined believe that the public actually does want this to happen.  If they lose — well that will tell its own story.  But if they won’t release their plans now about what should happen with the FPD — or at least announce what their considerations will be in such a report — then I think that they’re both subverting the public and engaging in shabby politics.  I hope for better from their both.

About Greg Diamond

Prolix worker's rights and government accountability attorney. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Runs for office sometimes, so far to offer a challenge to someone nasty who would otherwise have run unopposed. Someday he might pick a fight intending to win it rather than just to dent someone. You'll know it when you see it. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. A family member works part-time as a campaign treasurer. He doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he hated. He does advise some local campaigns informally and generally without compensation. If that changes, he will declare the interest. He also runs a less frequently published blog called "The Brean," for his chosen hometown, where he is now fighting with its wealthiest and most avaricious citizen-donors. This just seems to be his way.