Matt Leslie

The agenda for the March 19 Fullerton City Council Study Session held at the Fullerton Public Library consisted of only the title “Review Office of Independent Review (OIR) Recommendations for Police Department Oversight and Citizen Advisory Functions.” No other details were provided  about who would be speaking from which organizations. City Manager Joe Felz explained to the council and assembled observers that the session was about reviewing different options for two specific recommendations in the OIR’s 2012 report. # 20, regarding a Chief’s Advisory Board, and # 59, independent oversight of the police department.

Mr. Felz introduced OIR Director Michael Gennaco, whose organization was hired following the Kelly Thomas death to prepare a set of recommendations for the FPD. He would be followed by Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes, and then by the Police Oversight Proposal Committee’s (POPC) Jane Rands and Sean Paden. It should be noted that upon arriving to a meeting where POPC had been invited to present its recommendation, no chairs at the speakers’ table or name cards had been prepared for either Ms. Rands or Mr. Paden. POPC, an informal group of Fullerton residents who met for eighteen months to develop a proposal for oversight, evidently didn’t merit a seat at the table with government agencies and contractors.

Ostensibly, the session was scheduled to allow the council to review different models of oversight, but from the beginning it was clear that a single option, hiring an outside auditor, was favored by both city officials and MIchael Gennaco, who is coincidentally an outside auditor.

OIR’s director Michael Gennaco began by recounting his experience as a ten-year federal prosecutor of police officers. He called it a sad job, and noted that in every case warning signs preceded officer misconduct, but were either under-addressed by superiors or not addressed at all, resulting in officers feeling emboldened to continue their unprofessional or criminal behavior. “What’s important is how the incident is addressed when it occurs,” he said. One could not help but think of former Fullerton Police Officer Rincon, about whom seven separate complaints were made to the FPD before the city was eventually sued by two women who alleged that he sexually molested them while on duty.

Mr. Gennaco explained the different types of police oversight, and acknowledged that internal police procedures were often “shrouded” by legal protections like California’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights (POBR), making civilian oversight difficult. He called Florida a “sunshine state,” by comparison, because reviews of officer behavior are more open there. Mr. Gennaco concluded his presentation by stating that he favored the auditor model of oversight, which involves an outside contractor periodically reviewing investigations of officer misconduct.

Chief Hughes spoke of the “need to build a trusting relationship with the community” regarding his own recommendation for a Chief’s Advisory Board. This proposal was sent to Mr. Gennaco during the preparation of the report. That it was given its own number in the list of recommendations, distinct from that of independent oversight, is significant. The FPD weren’t going to get off with just the Chief choosing a panel of experts to help him stay focused and connected to the community.

But the Chief also weighed in as a supporter of the auditor model of oversight, saying it would be “beneficial and effective.” His Powerpoint presentation was quite detailed, so much so that by the time he was finished, there remained exactly nine minutes for POPC to give its entire presentation.

Mayor Whitaker charitably allowed the meeting to lag beyond 5:00 p.m., when the council was due to move next door for its regular closed session–the one where they hear about lawsuits against the city, sometimes brought by victims of police misconduct. Even with the few extra minutes Ms. Rands and Mr. Paden had to talk fast, compressing into the short time a comprehensive proposal for a civilian police commission. They were helped by the inherent distinction between having a council-appointed commission of civilians given access to complaints and the power to subpoena materials and testimony, as POPC’s ordinance proposes, versus the auditor model, where the city manager chooses an outside contractor to audit what the police department gives them. Councilmember Fitzgerald asked why the council itself couldn’t perform an oversight function, and suggested that the remedy for not doing so would be a recall. Mr. Paden reminded her that as a councilmember she would not have access to personnel materials because she could ultimately be in the position to rule on an appeal of a firing of an officer–exactly the reason given by the three recalled councilmembers for their refusal to view the Kelly Thomas beating video or speak publicly about the case.

After acknowledging that the council hadn’t allocated enough time for the topic, the mayor offered to hear public comments on the issue next door in the council chambers prior to the closed session meeting. However, no timetable was suggested for the next step in the process.