On Sept. 17th a Fullerton City Council majority approved a staff recommendation to contract with Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) to provide oversight of the troubled Fullerton Police Department. This critically important item was placed nearly last on the meeting agenda, ensuring that most of the city’s residents would be in bed by the time it was considered by the Council. The remaining members of the public got their first look at what services the OIR was being asked to provide during a report presented by FPD Chief Dan Hughes. Chief Hughes was considered by the Council and the City Manager to be somehow neutral enough to make a recommendation about who would be designated to oversee his own department. This obvious conflict of interest only compounded the inappropriateness of hiring the OIR, whose director, Michael Gennaco had himself recommended some form of police oversight in his commissioned report to the City Council last year.
The Chief read from a series of projections, explaining to the Council that the OIR would investigate complaints made against FPD officers, but only those with the rank of sergeant or above, as well as investigate cases involving excessive force and review some of the department’s internal investigations. Anyone who had read the plan developed by the Police Oversight Proposal Committee would have easily recognized that, by comparison, the terms of the proposed contract with the OIR were severely lacking, both in access to information and accountability to the public.
Because not even the proposed terms of the audit, let alone the actual contract, had been included in the city council’s agenda, there was no opportunity for the public to evaluate what the OIR was being hired to do until Chief Hughes recounted them that night. Mayor Whitaker confirmed later that month that even the mayor and City Council were not provided in advance with the terms of the agreement they were being asked to approve that night. Under such circumstances no member of the Council should have been prepared to authorize any action at all. The issue of police oversight is of such importance that the public deserved a full debate of the various options.
Instead we were treated to a perfunctory adoption of the police department’s own recommendation in a 4 to 1 vote. Predictably, the trio of Jan Flory, Doug Chaffee, and Jennifer Fitzgerald voted to spend $ 120,000 over two years to hire Mr. Gennaco’s OIR rather than to direct the city staff to even investigate other models of police oversight. None of the three paid serious attention to objections by members of the public that the agreement with OIR would not provide the necessary level of oversight, and that the OIR had been criticized just last year by three L.A. County Supervisors for it’s inadequate job overseeing that county’s brutal Sheriff’s Department.
Sounding very little like those of a reformer elected in last year’s recall, Councilman Greg Sebourn’s comments on the item were inconclusive enough to make it anybody’s guess which way he intended to vote. When he did, it was with the majority, effectively abandoning his constituents who demanded local civilian oversight of the FPD instead of by a contracted auditor with a limited mandate.
Mr. Sebourn’s 2012 swing vote against soliciting a bid from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to provide police services in place of the FPD earned him cheers from police officers and their supporters who crowded the chambers that night. However unsavory it may have seemed at the time, that vote could be arguably justified by the public’s general support for keeping their local police force. But the rejoinder to retaining a department whose officers had so brutally and needlessly slaughtered a man in 2011 should have been to institute strong civilian oversight to make sure it didn’t happen again.
The decision to hire the OIR, and the lack of meaningful deliberation preceding it, represented a betrayal of the public trust in favor of assuaging the Fullerton Police Officers’ Association, Fullerton’s powerful police union, who regularly contribute tens of thousands of dollars in support of their preferred City Council candidates. Both Doug Chaffee and Greg Sebourn face reelection next year. In 2014 voters should pay attention to who is supported by the FPOA and consider at what cost to the public’s safety such an endorsement is earned.
Mayor Bruce Whitaker cast the lone dissenting vote, correctly arguing that hiring the OIR would not provide oversight that was adequately accountable to the public. Fullerton may eventually create the Police Commission it needs, but it will only happen with a City Council brave enough to face down the police union and responsible enough to trust their community’s ability to oversee it’s own police force.