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City Council Approves Historic Police Oversight Framework

Some details still pending, but vote is unanimous following 3½ hours of passionate public comments

Published on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 | 4:47 am
 

After almost five hours of sometimes contentious discussions— plus another 3½ hours of public comments that Mayor Terry Tornek described as an “extraordinary outpouring” of “heartfelt testimony’’— the Pasadena City Council on Monday night concluded a marathon session by unanimously approving the framework for a Community Police Oversight Commission that will be coupled with an independent police auditor. 

Several key details still need to be formalized by city staff in the next month or so, after which an ordinance amending the Municipal Code will return to the council for a final sign-off. 

But Monday’s 8-0 vote enabled the city’s governing body — in the words of Councilmember Andy Wilson — to “send the boat from the dock” on a police-oversight issue that has dominated dialogue since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May and gained significant momentum locally after the Aug. 15 shooting death of Anthony McClain by Pasadena police.

“Tonight was a demonstration of how the Pasadena City Council can come together on a very serious issue and provide real leadership, from the mayor to every individual councilmember,’’ an elated Councilmember John J. Kennedy told Pasadena Now in the immediate moments after the historic vote.

“We haven’t put a bow on it yet, but we came together in a circle to demonstrate to the community how important this issue is for the health of our community and building one Pasadena. This is a way forward.’’ 

Kennedy, who was a driving force behind the push for oversight, added that “Sometimes rule-making and legislation is not pretty. But when we come together and work together, we can create a nice symphony. We created a symphony where at one time it was a cacophony.’’ 

The now-approved oversight framework is a massaged version of a plan originally crafted by Kennedy and Tornek – both members of the council’s Public Safety Committee – and then revised ahead of Monday’s extended dialogue among all the council’s members.

Neither Kennedy nor Tornek claimed ownership of the plan but rather stressed it was a starting point for the dialogue that emerged Monday.

According to a report signed by Tornek and Kennedy, the Community Police Oversight Commission “would consist of 9-13 members appointed by the City Council after a public screening process to include vetting by community organizations and the adoption of targets for membership composition.’’

In addition, the model calls for an independent police auditor, or IPA, to be hired by the city attorney — rather than the city manager — “with the participation of the commission.” It also says the auditor will “have subpoena powers to facilitate gathering information during investigations.’’ 

However, there are limits to that subpoena power. According to the report, “Any information obtained or reviewed by the IPA, as well as any reports issued by the IPA, could not be used to impact any disciplinary or personnel decisions.’’  

City staff was instructed to come back with the necessary language to create the commission and independent auditor, a process that’s targeted to happen within 30 days.

“That’s the goal and hopefully we can get that done,’’ Kennedy said.

 The independent auditor, per the council’s vote, would be hired by the city attorney’s office but report to both the City Council and the police-oversight commission.

Following much debate, the number of commissioners finally agreed upon was 11. Each of the seven council members as well as the mayor will nominate one commissioner from his or her district, and there will be three at-large commissioners from among yet-to-be-determined community organizations. The council will have final approval of all the commissioners. 

Among the loose ends still to be finalized, city staff will gather suggestions on how to accomplish a more public vetting process for potential commissioners – a particular concern of Councilmember Margaret McAustin. She had expressed worries that an earlier proposal, relying heavily on council nominations, would politicize the process and undermine any commission’s trustworthiness.

In addition, the council plans to further study the specific mechanisms for appointing the at-large members, such as which community organizations they will be drawn from and how nominations might be processed.

Achieving membership targets that will be equitable across all manner of demographic categories also will get further study.

As for how any commission/auditor setup would function, according to the agenda report: “The purpose of the commission would be, through public meetings, to review and make recommendations to the chief of police, city manager and City Council regarding the ongoing operations of the Police Department; receive community feedback and complaints and refer them for further review; monitor and receive reports on hiring and training; monitor and publish statistics on uses of force, complaints, and outcomes; provide input on policy recommendations prior to adoption; receive reports from the Independent Police Auditor regarding critical incidents, policies, and other matters; and produce a publicly available annual report.’’ 

In addition, each member of the commission would be required to complete at least 30 hours of training and complete a ride-along with the Pasadena police no later than 90 days after taking a seat — though specifics regarding training is another element of the framework that still is likely to evolve before the final ordinance is passed. There were some disputes among councilmembers as to how much was needed, whether the police academy would play a role, and whether potential commissioners would need to complete training before even being considered.

 Meanwhile, according to the agenda report, the independent auditor — which could wind up being a consulting firm rather than an individual — will:

  • “Serve as a best-practices adviser to the commission.”
  •  “Review investigations of all uses of deadly force and in-custody deaths to determine if the investigations were complete, thorough, objective, and fair.’’
  • “Review investigations of personnel complaints of bias-based policing.”
  • And, “in conjunction with the commission, recommend changes and additions to Police Department policies, procedures, and officer training.’’

The commission is also expected to report back to the full council “with sufficient time prior to the 2022 general election,’’ on possible future changes to the city’s police-oversight policies — the date being significant in case any amendment to the City Charter would need to go before voters. 

Monday’s vote was actually the second time this month that the council voted on a police-oversight model. Earlier, a proposal by Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton that would have put an amendment of the City Charter on the November ballot, creating a commission and auditor with wide subpoena powers, was shot down by a 6-2 vote. 

Hampton had insisted that, for any oversight model to have teeth, it would have to operate separately from the city manager, who also oversees the police. That’s a key reason that Monday’s approved framework put the auditor in the city attorney’s office.

Hampton had also suggested that one way forward was to re-establish the city prosecutor’s office and place the auditor under the aegis of that office. 

Councilmember Steve Madison on Monday also suggested that the prosecutor’s office be reinstated — and that matter is expected to be agendized “no later than October,” according to Tornek. 

Madison also had expressed concerns that the now-approved oversight commission could diminish the authority of the Public Safety Committee, on which he serves. But he ultimately voted “yes” when he was assured the commission would ultimately answer to the council — and that the Safety Committee’s responsibilities will change only to eliminate “duplication of effort between the commission and the Public Safety Committee.” 

The council’s unanimous vote came after some 3 ½ hours of emailed public comments were read aloud by City Clerk Mark Jomsky and two aides — dozens and dozens of them, virtually all in support of some oversight plan … all of them a mix of anger and frustration and heartbreak, and many expressing mourning for the family of Anthony McClain.

A handful of the writers called the now-approved oversight plan not strong enough — an opinion echoed by a number of local activists earlier Monday. 

Tornek acknowledged the first-step, compromise nature of Monday’s move, saying, “It’s clear that some believe that this process does not go nearly far enough, that we need much more far-reaching police oversight.’’

But the mayor added, “What I would say is, this process was intended to reflect a sense of urgency which is even more urgent now’’ in light of the McClain shooting.

“This is not viewed as the end of the process but rather the end of the beginning of the process,” Tornek said — referring to the report that the now-approved commission is charged with producing ahead of the 2022 election, and the possibility of further, more wide-ranging reform. 

Said Kennedy, who also championed a failed 2016 effort for police oversight: “I know we can’t have a perfect model, but we can have a model that works for this community.’’ 

“This issue has taken on a whole new meaning for our community,’’ Kennedy added. “With what has happened in our country, something needs to be done.’’

Monday’s council move, Kennedy said, gives city residents “a sense that we are empathetic with their concerns, particularly … ethnic groups and (groups) that think that they are overpoliced. … We have the opportunity to give the community something it’s asked for.’’

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