Image by Ricky Stauffer

Police Oversight–Will the City Council Stand with the People or the Police? Part 1 closed with the observation that there are several reasons the Fullerton City Council should not go forward with a two year contract with Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) on September 17, and should instead adopt the Police Oversight Proposal Committee’s (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 would even be hired to do.

The City Council should be prepared to ask the following questions about the proposed contract:

  • Will the OIR have direct access to all Fullerton Police Department (FPD) documents, or will they only audit what the Chief of Police chooses to give to them?
  • Will the OIR have the power to subpoena testimony and evidence from the FPD? If not their ability to investigate the department would be severely restricted.
  • Will the OIR have access to, and review, all civilian complaints, and will they be required to ensure that these complaints receive a satisfactory response from the FPD in a timely fashion?
  • Will the OIR have an “attorney-client” relationship with the City of Fullerton that will prevent open discussion of their findings?

One factor the Fullerton City Council should consider is that the OIR has not always been particularly effective in their task. OIR currently monitors Los Angeles County’s troubled jail system, but Sheriff Lee Baca has famously failed to implement reforms designed to address brutal conditions and abuses uncovered by investigators. Last year a Los Angeles Times article quoted three Los Angeles County Supervisors who thought OIR had become too cozy with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

According to the LA Times, investigators found that OIR neither “regularly analyzed data that tracks violent encounters between deputies and inmates or examined how the department handled inmate complaints.” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the office had become “literally and figuratively embedded” with the department. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he was concerned that its attorneys had been “co-opted or compromised.” “It’s gotten too cozy with the sheriff,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina. “They have had a tendency to acquiesce to too much.” ACLU legal director Peter Eliasberg said that OIR had been, in many ways, “counterproductive because they’ve given the sheriff a patina of respectability that he wasn’t entitled to.” The LA Board of Supervisors ultimately had to conduct their own investigation of the jails.

A city commission comprised of local Fullerton citizens could be held more tightly accountable to the city council, and would have more political power than a paid consultant to ensure that investigations proceeded properly and that recommendations for improvements were ultimately adopted. They would have no financial incentive to become overly cozy with the FPD.

Although OIR would be paid from the FPD’s Asset Seizure fund. Michael Gennaco was quoted in the OC Register last week as saying “I feel like I am working for the citizens of the city and not the Police Department.” Despite what he might “feel,” he would, in fact, be working for the police department. This is an obvious conflict of interest.

The Fullerton City Council has a clear choice to make. The Mayor and Councilmembers can either rely on our own citizenry, whose only objective would be transparency and accountability to Fullerton’s residents, or contract the job of oversight to an outside agency with a financial incentive to maintain friendly relations with a police department that would both pay for their services and be the subject of their oversight.

Unfortunately, two members of the city council have already stated their opposition to a key element necessary for an effective oversight model. Both Jan Flory and Jennifer Fitzgerald stated at a Neighbors United for Fullerton (NUFF) meeting in July that they each opposed granting subpoena power to a civilian police commission. Denying subpoena power would undermine the ability of any oversight body to gather the information necessary monitor the department.

Councilwoman Flory’s current position against subpoena power would seem to be at odds with her campaign promise to “Establish an Independent Citizens Police Oversight Committee with real powers to quickly investigate complaints against police officers.”

Flory Screenshot Police

Screen capture from Jan Flory’s 2012 campaign website.

Ms. Flory, who was supported by over $ 35,000 in campaign spending by the Fullerton Police Officers’ Association (FPOA) in the 2012 election cycle (See FPOA Semi-Annual campaign financial report for 2012), has yet to present an alternate mechanism for ensuring adequate investigation of the FPD when and if it should become necessary to do so.

Jennifer Fitzgerald only ever supported a weak sounding “Citizens Police Advisory Committee” anyway, so there should be no surprise that she cannot muster the fortitude to take on the police union.  Her 2012 campaign statement “I believe government should make it easy for citizens to gather information” evidently does not include the right for the rest of us to know what is going on inside our own police department.

Mayor Bruce Whitaker, by contrast, has stated that he would only support a proposal for a strong, credible, and independent commission with the tools to perform its job. Neither of the other two members of the City Council has voiced any definitive support or opposition to the formation of a police commission as defined by the POPC plan, although Councilman Greg Sebourn has been generally supportive of the idea, while Councilman Chaffee has expressed concerns about the costs involved. Councilman Chaffee has also repeatedly spoken of “community policing” as a preferred approach to establishing better practices within the department, though he has never defined exactly what he means by that term.

The Fullerton City Council should remember how much money has been paid to victims and the families of victims who suffered abuse and death at the hands of officers of the Fullerton Police Department, and recall that a major lawsuit is still on the horizon. Instead of throwing away $ 60,000 on an outside auditor, the Council should invest in the community by forming a Police Commission comprised of Fullerton residents, who will have our best civic and financial interests in mind.