On September 17 the Fullerton City Council will finally address oversight of the Fullerton Police Department. Although implementing oversight is long overdue, the decision item on the agenda is premature without substantial deliberation of the different options available.
Instead of a much needed public discussion of what kind of police oversight is needed, the Council is scheduled to consider a two year contract with Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) to periodically audit the Fullerton Police Department at a cost of $ 60,000 per year. Contracting with OIR was just one option presented to the Council months ago, but the city staff is recommending only that option at this time. Council will also have the option to ask staff to “investigate other oversight options and develop costs and implementation options,” but this is an open-ended directive, with no timetable for delivering a report and/or recommendation for further action.
The staff report states that “The costs related to creating an alternative form of oversight, including, but not limited to a Citizen’s Oversight Committee, are unknown at this time.” Rather than spend $ 60,000 now, the council should determine the costs of true citizen oversight and base their decision on all options, not rush into a contract with the OIR–a contract that will almost certainly not provide the level of oversight necessary.
The staff report is signed by both City Manager Joe Felz and Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes. Members of the City Council, and the public they serve, should immediately ask themselves how wise it is to choose the option preferred by Chief Hughes, whose department is the very subject of the proposed oversight.
Fullerton has already had over a year to “investigate other oversight options” since Michael Gennaco recommended Independent Oversight in his August 2012 report to the city council in response to the beating death of Kelly Thomas by FPD officers a year earlier. Mr. Gennaco suggested that an auditor, like himself, would be the best method of oversight to allay the public’s suspicion that police policing themselves will “consciously or subconsciously place a thumb on the scale in favor of the officer.”
While the city idled, a group of private citizens, the Police Oversight Proposal Committee (POPC), took on the task of not only studying different models of police oversight nationwide, but also hosting a public presentation by CSUF graduate students on options for police oversight in July 2012. Three subsequent public meetings produced a plan for a city council appointed civilian commission that would review citizen complaints, use of force, and deaths in custody. The commission would have the powers to subpoena records and witnesses, investigate possible misconduct, and recommend discipline.
The proposal was delivered to City Manager Joe Felz in September 2012. In February 2013, in response to a council member’s complaint that the proposal was “just a list,” POPC presented the full draft of a proposed city ordinance in a public meeting to a mostly disinterested council. Not surprisingly, Chief Hughes has not welcomed the idea of this ordinance–reason alone for a council elected to represent the people, and not the police, should seriously consider it.
The Fullerton City Council has taken no public action to even address the topic of oversight since March of this year, when a study session dedicated to the subject ended far too soon for any deliberation, or even complete presentation of the different options available to the city. POPC was last on the agenda with only nine minutes to contrast their plan with Mr. Gennaco’s auditor proposal and Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes’s plan for a Chief’s Advisory Committee. The meager discussion that followed was cut short by the need to reconvene for the closed session portion of that evening’s council meeting.
The September 17 agenda states that “numerous follow-up meetings were held to review oversight options.” Yet there has never been a single full discussion of the available options for oversight by the council and no follow up in the 6 months since the March study session, leading many to believe that a majority of the council has already made up its mind to choose the OIR option, and is not interested in even discussing other more robust and responsive models of oversight.
This is a halfway measure meant to appear as if some substantial action is being taken by the council. It will accomplish little more than appeasing the Fullerton Police Officers’ Association, the police union that has now become the most powerful political force in the city, by not adopting a more comprehensive civilian police commission that would provide stronger accountability to the public.
There are several reasons the City Council should not go forward with a two year contract with OIR at this time, and should instead adopt the POPC plan to establish a civilian police commission. The most obvious reason is that the actual OIR contract is not even included in the agenda report, leaving the public completely in the dark about what OIR is even being hired to do. Helpfully, the POPC draft is included in the staff report, and available under a separate heading on this website.