Guest Opinion | Hiring the Police Foundation Was the Right Thing to Do

Published : Monday, May 21, 2018 | 5:32 AM

Former Pasadena Chief of Police Bernard K. Melekian

The videos of Pasadena police officers beating Chris Ballew outraged most Pasadenans and Altadenans. After four months of protests, Pasadena’s new Police Chief agreed to a key demand from the community by hiring the National Police Foundation to conduct an external review of the Ballew beating.

The new Chief even went further and hired the Police Foundation to review other Police Department functions. But those hard-won reforms gained by the grass-roots protests are now being threatened by attacks on the Police Foundation. Past Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian criticizes hiring the Police Foundation because ex-Police Chief Bernard Melekian is on its Board of Directors. Hiring the Police Foundation was the right thing to do; Paparian’s attacks on it are misplaced.

The Police Foundation’s contract for Chief Brazile’s services

The District of Columbia based Police Foundation is a 48-year-old not-for-profit organization that describes its mission as “to advance policing through innovation and science.” Among the Police Foundation’s 60 programs is one which contracts with police departments to provide retired police professionals to conduct external reviews of critical incidents.

The Office of Independent Review (OIR) Group contracts for the same kind of work. The OIR Group reviewed the Pasadena PD shootings of LeRoy Barnes and Kendrec McDade. Past Pasadena Police Chief Phil Sanchez contracted with the Police Foundation to hire ex-Sacramento Police Chief Rick Brazile to review the 2016 J.R. Thomas death.

One of the first things Interim Chief John Perez did after Sanchez resigned this past March was to agree to the community demands for an external review of the Ballew beating. Perez hired Brazile to also externally review the Ballew incident. The new $74,999 Police Foundation contract for Brazile’s work not only provides for external review of the Chris Ballew beating incident but also of the PD’s use-of-force policy, the PD’s gun-selling waiver practices, and other PD functions as assigned by the police chief.

Paparian’s criticisms

In interviews and op-eds, Paparian has attacked both the Police Foundation and the City-Police Foundation contracts. Paparian attacks the Police Foundation because former Pasadena Police Chief Barney Melekian is associated with the Police Foundation. Paparian cites a number of issues with the Pasadena PD during the time that Melekian was its Chief. Among those problems was the 2009 shooting of LeRoy Barnes, but Paparian also cites serious issues with the detective bureau while Melekian was Chief and accuses Melekian as “ being the man who set the tone for PPD to become an occupying and oppressive force in some of Pasadena’s poorer communities.” Paparian objects that the Police Foundation is “headed” by Melekian; he complains that “Melekian’s return to tacit oversight of Pasadena’s police department” means that “there’s something fishy going on and it stinks.” (See Paparian’s May 3 article in the Pasadena Weekly at the link at the end of this article.)

Paparian also attacks the $74,999 amount of the Police Foundation contract, asserting that it is designed to avoid City Council approval. Melekian will not be providing “tacit oversight” of the Pasadena PD Paparian’s assertions that Melekian “heads” the Police Foundation and that the City’s contract with the Police Foundation involves Melekian having “tacit oversight” of the Pasadena PD has a grain of truth but is fundamentally false. Paparian does not attack the competency of Brazile to conduct external reviews. Rather, he attacks potential influence on Brazile by Melekian.

Melekian was Pasadena’s Police Chief from 1996-2009; now, his full-time job is Undersheriff for Santa Barbara County. For five years, Melekian has been one of eleven members of the Police Foundation Board of Directors and has been the Chair of its Board since 2017. The Police Foundation website lists as its staff a President and 31 other management or professional employees. One of its programs is the clearing-house for police agencies to hire consultants through which Pasadena has hired Chief Brazile as an external reviewer. Melekian has responded to Paparian’s criticisms by saying that the Police Foundation currently has over 60 projects and “the board of directors has no involvement in the selection of projects or in overseeing the operation of those investigations.” There appears to be no reason to doubt Melekian’s rejoinder, as most non-profits operate through their staff.

Not-for-profit boards of directors generally only provide oversight and decide on basic policy. Especially with a large not-for-profit like the Police Foundation, there is little likelihood that a Board member would be involved with a small contract like Pasadena’s. Paparian’s criticisms thus seriously exaggerate Melekian’s role.

Former Chief Melekian has a good record on external reviews

Even more misleading is Paparian’s implication that Melekian would have biases against an honest Ballew-beating external review. Paparian cites Melekian missteps on the Pasadena PD’s killing of LeRoy Barnes and other matters during his tenure as Pasadena’s police chief. I agree with some of those criticisms, but they are red herrings on the issue of the contract with the Police Foundation. The apparent logic of Paparian is that Melekian’s faults while he was Pasadena’s Chief show bias against external reviews. Paparian thus contends that Melekian being able to influence the Ballew beating external review would compromise it. Even assuming an unlikely occurrence – i.e., that Melekian would get involved in the Pasadena reviews –, Melekian’s record on independent review of the Barnes killing leads to exactly the opposite conclusion. On the contrary, Melekian’s record on independent review of the Barnes shooting suggests that his influence would ensure an honest review of the Ballew incident.

On Melekian’s watch as Chief in 2009, LeRoy Barnes was shot and killed by the Pasadena Police. The Office of Independent Review (OIR) Group was hired shortly after the shooting to conduct an independent review of the incident. The OIR Group issued its report within six months of its hiring. The OIR Group report found fault with some of the police conduct and recommended reforms. The OIR Group report indicated that Melekian and the PD were fully cooperative with the OIR Group during its review.

Melekian immediately publicly released the OIR Group Report with no redactions. All but one of the reforms recommended by the OIR Group were implemented by Chief Melekian or his successors.

After Melekian left Pasadena, in 2012 two of its officers shot and killed Kendrec McDade. The OIR Group was hired by an interim Chief to again conduct an external review, but the review then took place later while ex-Chief Sanchez headed the PD. Sanchez’s attitude toward independent review tended to be hostile in contrast to Melekian’s embracing it.

The OIR Group Report on the McDade shooting objected to obstruction of its work by the PD under Sanchez. Among the OIR Group report’s criticism was that Sanchez did not even notify it about the administrative review meeting in which the OIR Group was required to participate. In contrast to the six-month process under Melekian, under Sanchez the process took two and a half years because of lengthy Sanchez delays in responding to drafts of the OIR Group report. Sanchez then wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the OIR Group Report when it was finally released.

There is plenty to criticize about the Pasadena PD’s relationship to external review under Sanchez. In contrast, Melekian’s relationship to external review was fully supportive of it.

There is nothing fishy about contracting to the executive branch’s maximum limit

Paparian complains that the $74,999 amount of the Police Foundation contract raises suspicions because it is just below the $75,000 contracting figure that would require City Council approval. It is the maximum that could be contracted without going to City Council for approval, but so what? Paparian’s argument makes no sense that there is something wrong with the police administration’s $74,999 contract because it is $1 below the amount that would require City Council approval. What’s the point of the limit if you can’t go up to it? That’s like saying there is something fishy when I take $200 out of the ATM when the limit is $200. The reason for the $74,999 limit is so that the City Council has to approve more significant contracts above that amount. Paparian needs to indicate what’s wrong with externally reviewing the Ballew incident and other police functions if he thinks the City Council should veto Chief Perez’s contracting for external review. The City Council has the power to override any PD practice or policy. Hopefully there are not five Council members so reactionary that they would vote to override this positive reform.

Let’s withhold judgment on the Police Foundation until we see its work product

Paparian’s attacks threaten to divert attention from what is important. What is really important is that Chief Perez has been a breath of fresh air in re-embracing the external review that Melekian embraced nine years ago. Pasadena’s new police chief constructively channeled the community outrage over Pasadena’s Rodney King moment into positive reform. While we should criticize him if and when his PD stewardship falls short of the highest professional standards, undermining his positive steps forward is the wrong criticism at the wrong time.

Personally, I’d rather see the OIR Group chosen to externally review the Ballew beating because I’m familiar with its detailed, rock-solid, analyses of the Barnes and McDade shootings. But the fact that the OIR Group is very thorough does not mean it is the only qualified reviewer. We’ve checked with contacts within the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and gotten good feedback on the Police Foundation and Chief Brazile. I see nothing to suggest that Chief Brazile cannot or will not do the job properly. The rubber is about to hit the road on the J.R. Thomas and Chris Ballew incidents reviews. Chief Perez has indicated he expects the reviews of the Thomas and Ballew incidents to be completed next month. The Police Foundation contract calls for public reports. If Chief Brazile white-washes the officers’ conduct, I’ll be the first to call him out on it. But I’m not prepared to condemn the Police Foundation until and unless I see work-product that doesn’t do a thorough and honest review.

The following is the link to Paparian’s Pasadena Weekly article:

The following is the link to Melekian Pasadena Weekly rejoinder: inst-recent-attack-on-departments-integrity/

Dale Gronemeier is a Pasadena-area civil rights attorney. He successfully litigated, along with LA Times attorneys, against the Pasadena police union attempt to completely suppress the OIR Group’s McDade Report and obtained a release of more of the Report than the City of Pasadena proposed to release.

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