Police Oversight in Anaheim

Anaheim’s summer of discontent was international news. In July 2012, hundreds took to the streets to protest a string of deadly police shootings. At its height, as many as 500 demonstrators and 250 police were involved in a confrontation that lasted into the early hours of the morning. While most protesters were peaceful, events spun out of hand: fires were lit, windows were broken and an intersection was taken over. Anaheim Police claim that the crowd began to throw things at officers, which they maintain justified the use of tear gas and projectile bean bags. Incredibly, a police K-9 was ‘accidentally’ released from a squad car and attacked peaceful demonstrators, including nineteen-year-old Junior Lagunas and his one-year-old son.

an image Anaheim can’t afford

Mayor Tom Tait recognized the scope of the crisis and called on federal and state agencies to investigate the shootings. Commentators were overwhelmingly critical of Anaheim Police. Conservative and former OC Register columnist, Steven Greenhut, wrote:

Unfortunately, in my view, the city’s police department has embraced the wrong kind of policing methods—ones that are unkind and undermine people’s freedom. I don’t see police officials there using their brains to handle a situation born, in part, of overly aggressive policing tactics and insufficient police accountability and transparency.

The Mayor knew that there was more to the protests than the specific instances of police violence and has received national attention for his outreach efforts towards what the local Rotary Club referred to as Anaheim’s disenfranchised citizens. As part of this effort, Mayor Tait called for more police oversight in the form of a citizen review board. “Accountability, transparency, and independent oversight make any organization better,” he said.

The mere concept of an oversight board drew fierce resistance from Anaheim’s entrenched establishment. Kerry Condon, President of Anaheim’s police union, stated that the city was “nowhere near” needing the board. “There has not been a bad shooting here in Anaheim ever,” he maintained. Former mayor and currently the city’s most influential lobbyist, Curt Pringle, took a public swipe against his successor for proposing the board. In a robocall made to Anaheim households, Pringle accused Mayor Tait of “pursuing a terrible plan” spear headed by liberal activists. One of the most powerful career politicians in OC’s history, Pringle argued against the board because it would be political. “You don’t need activists or politically connected people on a police review board.” For its part, Anaheim Police have spent tens of thousands of dollars opposing the establishment of any oversight board.

Pringle to Anaheim: gangs and goblins support Mayor Tait, families and puppies support the police

Initially, an oversight board was blocked by a majority on the City Council. Councilwomen Kris Murray, Lucille Kring and Gail Eastman expressed early opposition, but eventually bowed to public pressure and, in early 2013,  joined the Mayor in a vote directing the city’s staff to draft a pilot plan for a police oversight board. A year later, former city manager Marcie Edwards presented the plan to the public and City Council. The proposed nine-member board will provide recommendations to city officials, issue annual reports and conduct community outreach. It is expected to work with the Office of Independent Review Group when it looks into officer-involved shootings and use-of-force matters. The plan was warmly received by all the Council Members, but two points drew criticism: the lack of subpoena power and a board appointed by the City Manager through a lottery system. While the former is prudent, the later will significantly curtail the influence of the proposed board and raises significant concerns with respect to transparency.

Subpoena power refers to the ability to compel an individual to produce documents or appear and answer questions before a government body. An oversight board able to issue subpoenas could force Anaheim Police to turn-over internal documents and compel its officers to appear before it and answer questions. Activists maintain that the lack of subpoena power is a fatal blow to the boards ability to investigate police misconduct. “What real civilian oversight requires is subpoena power, which this proposal has none,” said Anaheim City Council candidate Donna Acevedo, the able and determined mother of Joel Acevedo, who was killed after a car chase with police. “I say we keep working for something better to build trust.”  While generally grateful for the city’s effort, the level-headed Theresa Smith, mother of Caesar Cruz who was also killed by police, expressed similar concerns. The mothers’ valid questions go to the root of the purpose behind the board.

The power to compel testimony would greatly enhance the oversight board’s power to investigate complaints of police misconduct. But would it make the board more effective? After-all, it is the District Attorney’s job (or should be) to look BACKWARD, conduct criminal investigations and punish officers. The board, on the other hand, is to look FORWARD with the goal of creating a better police force through community input. Even if the board has subpoena power, it would not replace the DA’s office. Practically, an oversight board cannot bring down criminal charges or reward monetary damages. As such, the board should not be a forum to litigate because without a remedy the parties’ incentive to litigate is dubious. After the criminal prosecution and civil lawsuit, the interests of the aggrieved would not be significantly furthered by a third layer of legal proceedings. The board will certainly be concerned with instances of alleged misconduct, but its focus will be on preventing misconduct in the future, not the punishment individual officers. In other words: the board should not police the police, it should oversea the police department, a subtle but important difference.

The board’s noble purpose, however, is critically undermined by another aspect of the pilot plan: the method for selecting its nine members. According to Ms. Edwards, board members will be appointed by the city manager using a lottery system that selects applicants from different areas of the city. Thus, the board will be randomly selected and will, in all likelihood, be laypersons in the field of criminal justice. A randomly selected board lacking in expertise undercuts its ability to lead the police department in a better direction. To the contrary, such a board will be led by the police department.

Currently, the Anaheim Police Department is the only entity with a seat at the table possessing expertise in criminal justice. Because of this, its pronouncements carry authority that cannot be matched by any other institutional voice. The oversight board should be the force that changes this dynamic. But a board without expertise and/or standing in the community would be handicapped by a learning curve. Anaheim Police will know this and will, reasonably enough, do much to educate the board. As such, Anaheim Police will preserve their monopoly on knowledge, and knowledge is power.

More alarming, there are questions as to whether the city manager will actually use a lottery system to select the board. Will random selection be verifiable? Even if the lottery system is used, could the pool of applicants be filtered with criteria set-out by the city manager ensuring the appointment of desired persons? The lottery system may not be very random at all, and this raises serious concerns over transparency and bureaucratic unaccountability.

Instead, the mayor and respective City Council members should appoint persons qualified in criminal justice; for example: retired judges, defense attorneys and retired police officers. Not only is this likely to increase the sum of knowledge on the board, but it will raise the board’s public profile. Such appointees would likely know the city and its politics. They would know what is being demanded and what is possible. Political appointees would be in a better position to court the press and otherwise leverage their influence. Nobody likes politicians, but it is hard to imagine how a group of random laypersons could navigate Anaheim’s tumultuous political waters. Again, the role of the board should not be confused with that of a jury.

Naturally, no method is perfect and this proposal raises concerns of its own. Activists may be wary of granting the power of appointment to the current council majority, a group that initially opposed oversight, and which has generally been seen as frustrating any change. But this state of affairs reflects the political reality. Ultimately, meaningful reform depends on who sits on the Council. The point deserves repeating: the oversight board will not, cannot, supplement the authority of the City Council.

My proposal is complimented by the switch to district elections for Council Members. District elections will preserve neighborhood diversity among board members present in the current plan. The Mayor’s appointee/s, on the other hand, will act as a check on the Council Members’ local orientation.

Expertise is in the eye of the beholder, but the appointer has a significant interest in appointing someone qualified. An unqualified shill will embarrass, and will be of no help to, the appointer. While this proposal cannot ensure expertise or effectiveness, it does increase the likelihood of both. In the end, an expert board without subpoena power will be more effective than a lay board with subpoena power. A random board will represent the community, but a board of qualified appointees will represent the community AND give that community a voice to compel reform.

it’s coming for you

About Daniel Sterling Lamb

Daniel is an attorney in Orange County, California. A conservative activist born in Anaheim, he is driven by his dedication to fiscal responsibility and transparency in local governments. "Government does not solve problems—it subsidizes them” Ronald Reagan, first said in 1967 and used many times as governor of California and while campaigning for president of the United States. He loves that quote! Follow Dan on twitter @DanSterlingLamb