The agenda for the Fullerton City Council meeting of Dec. 18 includes an item to approve the commencement of negotiations to hire Acting Chief Dan Hughes as Chief of the Fullerton Police Department. Although the department has been without a permanent chief since the final discreditable departure of Michael Sellers nearly a year ago, and effectively for many months prior to that date, the consideration to hire Captain Hughes or anyone else is nonetheless premature. Captain Hughes has vocal support from some quarters, notably many of the department’s officers, but also detractors in the community. However, his tenure as Acting Chief and his previous decades of service to the department should not be the immediate issue.
Before hiring anyone to the post the city council should form a police commission to oversee the troubled FPD. While Dan Hughes is reported to have accomplished the implementation of most of the fifty-nine recommendations of the report presented by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review in July, the city has yet to address the fifty-ninth, developing independent oversight of the Fullerton Police Department. To quote the report directly, “The City should consider creating an independent model of oversight to ensure that its Police Department objectively and thoroughly investigates critical incidents and allegations of misconduct and renders objective disciplinary decisions.”
The city currently lacks any such independent body to carry out this vital recommendation, and has yet to respond to a plan submitted to the city manager months ago by a group of citizens to create it. The Police Oversight Proposal Committee (POPC) plan specified access to complaints against officers, the power to subpoena testimony and documents, and the authority to recommend disciplinary actions as essential components of an effective oversight board. The city council has yet to place even a discussion of the subject, let alone consideration of POPC’s specific proposal, on any meeting agenda.
The Gennaco Report is explicit in noting that oversight boards are of not much use unless they have access to internal police documents. The report also acknowledges that state law, and recent interpretations of it, can make effective oversight of police by civilians difficult. Across the country oversight boards have a mixed record of success, depending directly on how independent they are allowed to be and how much access they are given to information.
There are no police oversight boards in Orange County, but Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait has publicly stated his support for some kind of review board in the aftermath of police shootings in his city this past year. Unlike Anaheim, which is a charter city, Fullerton is a general law city, making the implementation of necessary aspects of effective police review more difficult to establish, and requiring, for example, the cooperation of Fullerton’s police chief in allowing a police commission access to complaints and records. It is for this reason that it is critically important that the council adopt a resolution establishing a police commission prior to hiring anyone to the position of Chief of Police.
Even if, as his supporters claim, Captain Hughes has set the department on an even keel in the wake of the worst scandal in its history, he would not be Chief of Police forever. Eventually the council will need to hire his successor, and there is no telling who that might be, or who might be on the council by then. A structural approach is necessary to, as much as possible, guarantee that the people of Fullerton will have full control of the department charged to police us. Our civil rights and Fullerton’s financial stability could be at risk otherwise.
Two civil suits against the City of Fullerton within the past year have already ended with payments of $ 1 million and $ 350,000 respectively, and more civil actions against the city owing to past actions of alleged police misconduct are on the horizon. A police commission with access to complaints against officers might have headed off the serial activities of former Officer Rincon, who has already cost the city the aforementioned $ 350,000. Another FPD officer, still on the force, is the subject of a civil suit regarding an arrest that took place well before his presence at the Kelly Thomas beating in July, 2011.
Certainly, the Fullerton Police Department has been allowed to go far too long without a chief. It is of the utmost importance to hire the best candidate possible for the job, but none should even be considered before a police commission is formed to best ensure oversight of the FPD on behalf of the public it is sworn to serve.